Editor’s Note: This originally ran in the May/June issue of Vintner Magazine
Since the early 2000s, a well-established family farm situated in Dayton, Oregon has provided the backdrop for Stoller Family Estates, which committed itself to the Oregon wine scene in the mid-1990s when it planted grapes and began making wine. It doubled down on its vision in 2005 when it hired a winemaker, and built a winery and tasting room in an area long regarded by many as an escape from the hustle and bustle of city life.
But in 2021, decades after founder Bill Stoller first became a partner in Chehalem Winery — Stoller’s predecessor and sister winery — in Newberg, Oregon, Stoller opened Stoller Wine Bar in Bend, Oregon, embracing the urban tasting room format that many wineries have utilized as a means of reaching an expanded audience in a more densely populated area.
A tourist-heavy location that drew foodies and craft beer aficionados which had room for more wine-oriented businesses was a logical spot for them to open an urban tasting room.
“We had been considering opening our first satellite tasting room to highlight our numerous brands for many years and were scouting ideal locations,” explained Tracy Timmins, Vice President of Consumer Sales. “Bend was at the top of our list because it has a lively hospitality scene with a huge beer focus — they were missing an excellent wine component.”
The Stoller Wine Bar in Bend is a collaboration across all five Stoller Wine Group brands, Timmins explained.
“We offer rotating featured wine flights, glass pours, and an extensive bottle list. We also have wine-friendly food options offered seven days a week,” she said. “Because the wine offerings and food menu are unique to Bend, and located in a different part of the state, we see the locations as complementary and not competitive.
“In addition to a sizable local foodie base, Bend sees more than 4 million unique out-of-town visitors per year, visiting year-round due to the many outdoor activities.”
Building combination tasting rooms and restaurants has been a major project for Willamette Valley Vineyards in Turner, Oregon, which boasts its own idyllic grounds away from the state’s larger cities. The establishment of these in multiple states have served to give its loyal fans a means to experience what the winery has to offer without having to take the time necessary for a vacation or extended stay.
Their newest addition is a tasting room and restaurant in Lake Oswego, Oregon, a suburb in the Portland-metro area. Willamette Valley Vineyards has more locations set to open this year — one in Vancouver, Washington, and another in Happy Valley, Oregon.
“The company’s new developments are an effort to take the Oregon wine story to where consumers live,” said Carissa Cook, Development Manager for Willamette Valley Vineyards. “Our biggest supporters are the more than 24,000 wine enthusiast stockholders in the company. We first look at where those owners live when we are deciding where to build new tasting rooms and restaurants.
“Willamette’s vision is to take the Oregon wine story to the communities where people, especially its wine enthusiast Owners, are living. This is a growth strategy for the company and a way to serve our Owners, as well as the residents within these areas and communities.”
Cook said there were some differences between the urban guest and the guest who frequents the winery’s main location in Turner.
“The urban customer wants a food and wine experience that fits into their everyday life — date nights, an after work glass of wine, or a stop on the way home to pick up a bottle of wine,” Cook said. “The vineyard visitor plans their visit in advance and typically commits to a day of wine tasting. They are looking to learn more about the winemaking process taking place at the vineyards. They often visit from out of town or for a special occasion. An experience at one of our urban tasting rooms does not replace the experience at our estate and vice versa.”
Willamette Valley caters to the urban guest by offering a wine club with a monthly subscription. “This subscription format allows convenience and flexibility for members to select wines using their subscription wine credit when they are visiting the location,” she said. “Meanwhile, wine club offerings at the estate are nuanced and encourage visitors to explore wine selections curated for them that are shipped or picked up throughout the year.”
Other wineries such as Telaya Wine Co. in Garden City, Idaho opt for the urban setting as their sole business model.
Telaya has the urban winery format but skips the taps and kegs that some urban wineries have built their brand around.
“We don’t have a vineyard. We purchase fruit from local vineyards and process in our urban environment,” owner Earl Sullivan said. “Our brand is a high-end brand, so we opt not to do keg wines and serve just in a bottle. It is a choice around the values of the brand.”
Dr. Richard Obiso, owner of Whitebarrel Winery in Christiansburg, Virginia, opened a satellite tasting room in the busy college town of Blacksburg in 2017, but it ultimately didn’t work out for various reasons.
Obiso said the location gained steam for awhile before the pandemic and competition forced it to close.
“The approach was unique in that we not only offered Whitebarrel-branded wine, but we offered wine, cider, and mead from around the Commonwealth of Virginia,” Obiso recalled. “We were able to purchase these offerings through the Virginia Winery Distribution Company so as to keep with the three-tiered system and still offer a selection of Virginia to our guests.”
The remote location was about 25 minutes from Whitebarrel’s winery/vineyard and it “cost us a tremendous capital investment,” Obiso said.
“We were able to break-even in the first year and turn a small profit in 2018,” he continued. “The reality of such an endeavor was that it was the right place at the right time — but nothing more. With the financial economics of local business coupled with COVID — one has to look beyond what is possible to what is real in order to survive.”
Obiso said the location, the offering, and the need all play a key in local beverage businesses.
“Even in Blacksburg, the local wine, beer, and restaurant pressure played into the success of our endeavor,” he said. “And while it was successful in the short-term, the pandemic and competition led to its premature end.”
It wasn’t a total loss, Obiso said.
“Our guests in Blacksburg were either locals that did not travel out to the winery and wanted to experience wines from Virginia or they were students of Virginia Tech who were interested in the experience,” he explained. “I will say that the Blacksburg location served as a marketing draw to visit the vineyard at a later date and that was somewhat of a well-spent marketing endeavor.”
Michael Honig, owner of Honig Winery in Rutherford, California, said he opened an urban tasting room about 20 years ago and “did OK,” but is not a tremendous fan of the concept — especially when applied to wineries located in major California AVAs.
“I never thought (they were) that great (because) I think when people come to the Napa Valley they want to see wineries and vineyards rather than going to a retail location that could be anywhere,” Honig said.