With Education and Hospitality at its Core, East End Wine Tasting Evolves

Photo courtesy of Lieb Cellars

When I first started tasting Long Island wine in around 2001 or 2002 the tasting room experience was largely the same no matter which winery you visited. It was simple: you’d walk into the tasting room, stand at the bar and taste wines, usually one-by-one. There was a spit bucket there, but I quickly realized that I was one of the rare people who actually used it. 

A lot of things varied from winery to winery, of course. Things like how nice the glassware was, how many wines you got to taste, how much the person pouring actually knew about wine and how much it cost to do a tasting. Some of the tastings were even free in those days. 

Fast-forward to today and while that experience—or at least a similar one—is still available at most wineries, a new focus on hospitality and the “wine tasting experience” has completely changed the way that visitors taste wine on Long Island.

Table service, meaning you and your group sit down at a table, are handed a menu and are taken care of by a server, has become far more common. But the shift didn’t happen overnight. 

Wölffer Estate started doing it in 2008 as “one thing that set [them] apart from the rest of the tasting rooms on the East End,” according to the winery’s marketing director Alison Tuthill. I first remember it at the now-closed Peconic Bay Winery around 2009, but the concept’s spread throughout the industry has felt like more of an evolution than a revolution as wineries have gotten busier. Especially at wineries where customers are interested in learning about the wines they are tasting.

“Our goal is to provide a friendly, personal and educational experience,” says Ami Opisso, general manager at Lieb Cellars. “The busier we got, the more difficult it became to meet that goal with at-the-bar ordering and open seating. The bar was crowded and loud, and we lost the ability to personally connect with our guests and share our passion and knowledge for our wines.”

By moving to a table service model, Lieb Cellars—as well as other local wineries—are able to provide a much higher level of service and offer guests a little breathing room and one-on-one attention versus standing shoulder-to-shoulder at a bar. 

This isn’t an easy transition to make, however. It can be difficult to find and retain the right staff to pull it off. To do it and do it well, wineries must put a lot of time and energy into their teams. 

Photo courtesy of Wölffer Estate

“Our main focus has always been on education and training our team,” says Nicole Hennessey, Tasting Room and Wine Club Manager at Macari Vineyards.  “Every wine educator works with tasting room managers and the Macari family and has the opportunity to work with our winemaker, Kelly Koch, in the cellar to learn about winemaking.”

It’s similar at Lieb, where Opisso says, “Our servers are all formally educated in wine and, we do regular in-house training with our winemaker, Russell Hearn.”

This value-added experience comes at a price, of course. Tastings at places like Lieb, Macari and Wölffer cost between $12 and $30 depending on which options you choose. Wineries know, however, that if they are going to charge more, they need to offer more to their customers. 

There are people who don’t like how wine tasting has changed locally. I’ve heard people complain about needing a reservation for a table or about having to “pay so much just to taste wine.” I’ve even seen some accuse these wineries of operating as single-winery wine bars instead of as winery tasting rooms. 

“Table service is common in tasting rooms within wine regions around the globe,” says Hennessey. “We feel it’s often the best way to talk about the North Fork, tell our story, and connect with guests. Being able to taste a selection of wines is the benefit of visiting a tasting room over a wine bar where often guests have to commit to a bottle or glass.”

Tuthill hasn’t heard many complaints of any sort, telling me in an email, “We don’t experience that, as our guests are receiving such great education on our wines throughout their visit that it sets us completely apart from what one would experience at a wine bar.”

Personally, I love table service when it’s done well—as it is at places like Macari, Lieb, Wölffer and others. Whether I’m with my family or friends (or both), I like to be able to sit down, taste at my own pace, ask questions about the wines and experience them in a way more akin to how I drink wine at home. All without people reaching over my shoulder to put their glass on the bar or to get their next wine. 

I wonder if table service—good table service, that is—will be the default in coming years. It might be. Or maybe something else is on the horizon. This isn’t an industry that tends to stagnate. As competition increases, so does innovation. 

“Regionally, it seems most of us are now using the table service model, and I think that’s a good thing,” says Opisso. “We take our wine seriously and need to do the same with service. Looking ahead, perhaps we’ll see some more members-only or by-appointment-only tasting rooms? But that’s not something Lieb is at all considering right now. We’re happy with our current model.”

For more from wine writer Lenn Thompson, check out our archives here.