Society & Sobriety: When a Great Idea Becomes Challenged

An article published on Friday, March 20, by Peg Melnick entitled, “Barrel tasting brouhaha: Aficionados vs. partyers,” was about how Sonoma County’s Barrel Tasting Weekend had some very unruly attendees.

With a $20 price tag, the event was made easily accessible to everyone. The complaints were pretty much about buses or limos filled with a group of younger partiers. They were showing up at tasting rooms either with a beer can in hand, or with the residue of beer in their glasses, expecting to have the winery pour their wine into that glass. I’ve personally seen that one, too, years ago, and found it to be very annoying… This is not what a wine tasting is all about… shifting from beer to wine, and back to beer.

It’s about great people enjoying a fabulous day, like the ones pictured to the right by Kent Porter of The Press Democrat [From left, cousins Mary Belieu, Anna Belieu, Bethany Peterson and Laura Peterson celebrate Mary’s birthday at Bella Vineyards and Wine Caves in the Dry Creek Valley].

This event is in the initial stages of segueing from wine tasting into the wine drinking portion of the program… A program which doesn’t exist, BTW, along the wine roads.

The dilemma for the group who puts on this two-weekends-in-succession event, is how to now manage what it’s becoming.

It’s a really simple answer… Make it more expensive.

The sorority | fraternity crowd (that escaped their campus for the weekend) is looking for cheap thrills. It’s that simple. There’s a quote in the story that backs up this statement:

“Zack Zimmerman, a 24-year old student at Sonoma State, said none of this behavior surprises him. “I’ve heard people (ages 21 to 24) say: ‘Let’s go to a wine tasting and get plastered.’ One problem is people treat wine like they do liquor at a bar.”

“Zimmerman said the biggest challenge for marketers is to find the group of younger wine lovers who can appreciate and respect wine and the passion that’s behind it.”

I’ve personally left quantity crowd events, turning to more quality ones; by that I mean, give me an event where there’s still room to move, and there’s time to speak directly with the vintners. If you follow the ones they like to attend, in order to be the ones pouring their own wine, you’ll find the best ones.

HINT: When someone says, after you’ve poured a “taste” for him (I say “him,” because I’ve never had a woman say this one to me), “Is that the best you can do?” I stop, pause like I’m listening for something, then say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear the bell?”

“The bell?” they ask. “Yeah, the one for when the wine tasting turns into a wine drinking party,” I say. I get raised eyebrows, but never an argument. They know they’ve been snagged.

Wine pouring people must remain in control of what and to whom they’re pouring. “No drunks allowed” is the message. As difficult as it is to point out to someone inebriated that that’s his or her condition, to not do so is as terrible as being in that state.

Raise the price, and it turns quantity into quality every time… And, it’s entirely possible by doing that the same amount of money will be made by the group. It’s an amazing thing. Here’s the math:

  • 5,000 tickets/people x $20 = $100,000
  • 2,500 tickets/people  x $40 = $100,000 (It’s still pretty inexpensive, but it might cause those who reported as “problems” for this year to either not attend next year, or maybe appreciate a more sober price tag?)

The organizers are concerned about losing the serious-about-wine demogrpahic, who are quoted as saying they’ll never return to Wine Road Barrel Tasting… It’s the more serious group that built this event, and still have money in their pockets to support it. If it’s entirely given over to a younger group, it will take years for them to become more responsible, because they’re in an experimenting stage and having a ball… But someone will get hurt, as someone always does when the spiral’s going downward.

If I were in a position to directly give advice (as an event organizer, myself) to Beth Costa, executive director of Wine Road:

Just raise your price a bit, and it will bring out the more serious crowd to which your wineries are wanting to market their wines. The revelers aren’t the ones to make the purchases. In their world, the price of the ticket was their expense for the day. They won’t join wine clubs or get on mailing lists. They’re looking for the next party.

Meanwhile, those who enjoy being being part of a marketing event will continue to make this a very special weekend, for which it was and still is intended.

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16 Responses to “Society & Sobriety: When a Great Idea Becomes Challenged”

  1. Arthur says:

    I hate to say it, Jo, but you ultimately have to price this behavior out of the event. You are absolutely right. Even if the event cost $60/person, you might still get a few with the attitude of “I paid a lot of money; I want to get drunk” (I’ve seen this) but they will be a tiny minority.
    Besides these people being obnoxious, they pose a profound liability to the group organizing the event. Increasing the ticket price and enacting other measures to minimize intoxication are key risk management measures.
    Wine festival organizers are slowly coming to understand this. When I was president of my fraternity chapter, I was acutely aware (because of past, national, precedents) that if someone was hurt as a result of alcohol consumption, I personally could be sued for everything I didn’t have.
    It would be very sad to see such a tragic and unfortunate event bring about a change of mindset in the wine industry.
    Unfortunately, I think many wine organizations are short-sighted when it comes to liability. I personally thought it was a combination of greed and never having been burned that motivated wineries to push through the law allowing for on-premise consumption of wine (glass or bottle).

  2. Jo says:

    When I was the (volunteer) executive director of Androscoggin Day Camp for Girl Scouts (of America), all the directors of other camps in Maine and I sat in a room, where the “paid” staff instructed the “volunteer” staff. We were told, “If anything goes wrong at your camp (drowning, fire, kidnapping, broken bones, theft, etc.) you’re going to be held personally responsible – if you haven’t covered all of your bases.”

    I did this job for three years, then decided it was a lot easier (and a lot more fun) to buy my own lake property, and raise my kids there. ;^)

    However, that three year gig taught me… Cover my own tracks in all things I do, or else it might come back to haunt me…

    It only takes one horrid accident to slow things down, but it also only takes increasing the price a bit to eliminate more of the risk.

    Wine tastings are a great way to educate consumers about wine. That’s why we do them, and will continue to. I know this event will find its groove. Perhaps thinking about that simple math was worth the time it took to write it as a suggestion, from one organizer to the another, looking out for those who don’t look out for themselves.

  3. Nancy Manchester says:

    This event has slowly become more controlled, from the days when it was a free-for-all, bring-your-own-glass type event (not so very long ago). Charging for the event has made the event more “in control”, and spreading it out over two weekends instead of one has helped, too. It is not only some “milennials” who might come to an event like this one to party. Some of us baby boomers do it, too. All of those who mistreat the event are responsible, no matter their ages.

  4. Jo says:


    I honestly don’t think the criticism is coming from your event planning. It’s coming from a younger group who didn’t plan to stay sober enough to enjoy the educational aspects of what your event fully has to offer.

    It’s not about you… It’s about them…

  5. Wineguy says:

    I’m an actual winery owner who participated in the recent 31st Annual Barrl Tasting Weekend put on through Wine Road. Each year, wineries pay out of our own pockets thousands of dollars to put on this event. Not unlike the years past, the entrance fee for a three day party is $30 bucks.. yep, that’s right 30 smackers and the kids get to shuffle their way up and down the Dry Creek and Russian River valley eating (we hope) and drinking with little to no idea what the purpose of the wkend is. Wineries do not receive one red cent in reimbursement costs for this event, in fact we must at our expense collect thousands of $ for folks signing up at our winery, process it through our credit card/bkkping and deposit the money into wine road’s account… again at our expense. I’m not happy. This year, I lost my ass due to the economy and the fact us wineries don’t get reimbursed for our huge outlay. A least I’ve finally figured out what I’ll do next year.

    Get where I’m going? In order to continue offering full service event with catered food, live music and enough staff to start a small army, we’ll be charging an additional fee to cover (say $10-20) our most basic event costs. period. Complimentary barrel tasting will still come with the 30 dollar tix, but they’ll have to pay to play, lounge out and listen to live local music, eat expensive catered food and engage with staff.

    IF ths event was charging say $65 and wineries got to see some of the estimated $650,000 this event brings in in gross sales, I think much “irritation” would be soothed over.

  6. Janeen says:

    Raising the prices may be one way to deal with unruly crownds, but if the impact is to make Millenials feel unwelcome at wineries, be careful what you wish for. These are the wine consumers of tomorrow and without them, the long term viability of the industry could be impacted as us baby boomers pass on. I would rather see more emphasis placed on staff training and education as a way to deal with unruly behavior. For training, everyone working these events should already know that it is illegal to pour wine for anyone that is drunk, no matter what their age, but in busy events staff may not be checking as closely as they could, or feel they are too busy to deal with angry people who can’t get wine. I know I have been at wineries where I witnessed people exhibiting loud drunken behavior getting wine. A good reminder from management before the event on the consequences of serving intoxicated guests and discussing ways to slow drinkers down might help reduce the problem. As for education, I did not go to barrel tasting weekend this year (work schedule conflicts, not because of the crowds), but in the past I don’t remember a lot of real education about wine being done other than tastings “this is our 04 cab” and there was almost never anything about the brand story mentioned. The crowds were too large for staff to provide a lot of information in most cases. I am wondering however, if there is not other creative ways could be introduced more that don’t rely on face to face contact. It could be something as simple as walking from station to station to get a pour and at each stop have some interactive activity that keeps people busy for a while. I am sure event planners can come up with a lot of creative ideas if they put their minds to it. I have found that Millenials do appreciate wine education if handled in a fun and interesting way.

  7. Jo says:


    You’ve brought out some very important points. Marketing is a huge expense in any business, and that’s what these events create… marketing opportunities. It also takes a huge amount of money to run an advocacy group. My PS I Love You group runs really close to the financial bone, because most of the money raised by my group goes right back into marketing for the members. It’s a Catch 22 for all.

    What you’re proposing for next year for your winery sounds like you’ve come up with a really creative (and beneficial) way that will deter those who are going to your winery with no regard for which wines they’re tasting, and why they chose to visit your specific winery.

    I think you’re onto something solid.

  8. tom merle says:

    I don’t think your logic holds, Jo. ZAP and the Chronicle competition tastings charge the rates you recommend and they have become drunkfests. Meanwhile the high pricing serves to exclude those who have to watch their budget, especially in these perilous times. I know most of the members of my wineclub, mostly young,couldn’t swing $50+. Observing the P.S. I Love You crowd, there really weren’t any under 30 folks in attendance. The great majority were middle aged. But you could hit your numbers because it was a smaller event.

    Many of the wineries who participate in the event and similar Russian River events prohibit buses and limos. The Temecula region has instituted this as a year around policy with great results.


  9. Jo says:


    Thank you for your very thoughtful response.

    Just for the record, I’m not trying to eliminate the Millennial, because I know that they’re a very important segment of the wine community… Just getting the drunk ones out of the equation…

    I even wrestled using this image of these lovely women, because they’re close to the ages of those acting badly… I worded my comments very carefully, and chose to use this image because they were such great role models, instead of using a baby boomer image. A more mature image would have really suggested, only boomers need purchase tickets for this event… That would have been a very bad message. Millennials are our future, boomers are our present. both generations play very important purchasing roles.

    As q pourer of wine, every time I’ve tried to shut down a drunk person, that person has become increasingly more obnoxiously dangerous. This is why people are squirmish about shutting someone off. It makes sense that someone who’s allowed him or herself to become intoxicated doesn’t have self control over very much. Rather than being emotionally mature, and taking responsibility for his or her behavior, it’s that same emotional immaturity that allows for abusing someone for pointing out the obvious.

    “Sir (or Madame), I think you’ve had enough.” This seems so simple, but is so complicated. This is the same person, BTW, who – if s/he wraps him/herself around a tree, will sue the event, rather than to finally take personal responsibility.

    I have to worry about this every time I pour wine… and I do worry about it, which is why I reacted to Peg Melnick’s story.

    Education… I never care how many people are behind the person for whom I’m pouring. For the price of that wine there’s also a story to tell to the person directly in front of me, regardless of the crowd behind that person. By taking the time to tell the story, I’m slowing that person down, evaluating blood alcohol levels, and enjoying the experience. There are those who educate, but that’s a natural calling, and you’ll know who they are as the lines pile up behind that one pouring. I also don’t believe that educating’s a lost art, so they’re out there. By 4:30 p.m., however, I’m betting that the stories are getting a bit more abbreviated.

    Bottom line, marketing events are for those curious to become better informed. It’s the responsibility for those pouring to inform, pour, and keep it safe…It’s the responsibility of those who are getting the wine to act their ages, not their shoe sizes. (Boy, how long’s it been since you heard that one!)

  10. Jo says:


    Good point about the exclusion of buses and limos. It’s the crowd mentality that’s so VERY hard to control, for the most part. I remember one group of revelers: I refused to pour for that person, so he went to the back of the group, took a friend’s glass, sent that person to get more wine in his glass – while he drank his friend’s wine, and I refused his envoy’s request, because I knew where it was going. When his friend got back, neither of them had wine in either glass. (Drunk people can’t even think straight. Did he really think I couldn’t see him? I was looking right at him, regardless of the crowd.)

    Then, there are limo companies that also don’t allow for bad behavior in their cars and buses, but not all do. It’s a shame to make it difficult, therefore, for those who refuse to cart around the drunks. They should have the availability of servicing these events…

    Going in many circles here, when it seems to all come back to those who refuse to take responsibility for their own actions.

    Your point about the attendees of D&D… We market this event by utilizing the wine club databases of our members. This proves what I wrote above: “Just raise your price a bit, and it will bring out the more serious crowd for which your wineries are wanting to market their wines. The revelers aren’t the ones to make the purchases. In their world, the price of the ticket was their expense for the day. They won’t join wine clubs or get on mailing lists. They’re looking for the next party.”

    We had a few of the younger group attending, but not as a majority. We also didn’t have any out of control situations. Making our event an “insiders” event, which every year gets new blood from someone one year younger than the year before, is fine with me. As long as I make my numbers, and reach a capacity of how many we can handle, this is working as a three-year consecutive sell out. The members of PS I Love You are happy, and the number of producers are growing, media is paying attention, and a PS Heritage Clone Vineyard is about to go in at UC Davis. Business is being taken care of, and I knock on wood with each new year’s event.

    It’s a real conundrum for those who can’t afford a higher ticket price, because they’re the ones who lose out due to those who can’t control themselves; but, someone’s got to be on the losing end. If it’s not a life lost to a drunken dead-end, that’s an easier pill for me to swallow; that’s just my own humble opinion.

  11. tom merle says:

    Well put as usual, Jo. Your commentary on D&D can be boiled down to one word capitalism. You set a price to maximize income, i.e., selling out at the highest fee that doesn’t undermine this objective. And you reward the loyalists. My point was that the under 30s, who make up the bulk of my 750 person wine club for example, just won’t/can’t pay the higher tab. They’ll just have to discover PS through other channels (I am having a tasting this Sunday, and John Monnick will be pouring his Petite Sirah).

  12. Jo says:

    And, Tom, as you put it out there in cyber space (I can’t find where it ended up, now… OWC?), what we did with D&D was one to follow for how it was done well. I have one rule, and yes – capitalism is part of that rule – Quality over Quantity. That was drilled into my head as a kid by my father.

    Also, I’d entertain giving your followers a reduced group rate, because you’re quality over quantity, and I can trust that action.

    There’s always more than one way around the barn. Just reach out next year, and remind me.

  13. Jo says:

    Tom, I was with John Monnich yesterday, as he’s one of the loyal PSILY board members. His Petites are what he likes to call – all things “B”… Big, bold, beautiful… Just have everyone bring a tooth brush, or some of those Wine Wipes!

  14. WG,

    Very interesting post. The story in the Press Democrat was originally taken from the authors blog post for the paper, which I read and was very upset by. The original (press democrat) post was sensationalizing and I would assume the article was too, but truly couldn’t say, since I have not read.

    What I will say is that even before the organizers raise prices, they should probably think about scheduling the event SOME OTHER TIME THAN DURING SPRING BREAK. This is a time that is notorious for college-age troublemaking, and setting an alcohol-themed event like a barrel tasting during this time is just begging for the spring break crowd.

    We can’t let a few groups of poorly behaved college students and unfortunate timing affect what we think of an entire generation.


  15. Jo says:


    You’re right that the misbehaving of a few shouldn’t penalize that entire generation.

    Your story on Open Wine Consortium, “Meet a Millennial” http://www.openwineconsortium.org/profiles/blogs/meet-a-millennial is very informative and very enjoyable. A must read, honestly, for anyone who’s in a marketing department.

    I almost wrote a counter blog: “Meet a mom who raised a Millennial,” because my generation is responsible for much of your generation’s thinking, and we therefore (those of us who truly guided the process) know you almost as well as you know yourselves.

    Your mention of spring break is dead on, Girl!

    Leah’s Wine Blog: http://millennier.wordpress.com

  16. […] So, last year I was right here, too, because I get the local news. I wrote, Society & Sobriety: When a Great Idea Becomes Challenged […]

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