Capitalism spoils trip to wine country

I’m no expert in oenology. But I do know this: I enjoy tasting a good glass of wine. So when I headed out to California wine country earlier this summer, I stopped by my favorite vineyards for a taste and a chat with the wine makers and experts (oenologists, as the fancy people call them).

And you know what they did to me for the privilege of tasting, and sometimes purchasing, their wine? They charged me! Five bucks! Five lousy bucks.

Capitalism has taken hold of California wine country, thanks to the mandatory $5 tasting fee. The green of cold hard cash now matches the brown of fertile soft soil. The almighty dollar is there to stay, unlike the pests and bugs that wine makers have been beaten back over the years.

Surely, many wineries have long charged a fee to sample their wines in tasting rooms. But not all. In previous trips to Sonoma, Napa, and other regions I’ve been able to pick and choose which wineries I tried based on whether there’s a “cover charge.”  Taste had something to do with it, but so did frugality (re: free-loading). Now, no more. Everywhere I went on my most recent trip (Buena Vista, Ravenswood, Gundlach Bundschu), there it was that f$5 fee.

Presumably, the charge covers the cost of wine, wine servicing, and helps deter excessive and potentially dangerous drinking (for that matter, so does forcing someone under the influence to spell “Gewürztraminer”). On paper, I can understand the argument, if not embrace it. But as a true-blooded believer in free-market democratic capitalism unencumbered by government regulation and taxation, I have serious gripes over the grapes:

1)   Less choice. The wineries I tried limited the number of wines I could sample. Five bucks now gets you, say, five different wines to taste. In the good old socialist days, you could drink the entire tasting menu (but please, start with whites then work through the reds).

2)   Worse taste. It seems the wines that do make the $5 menu are inferior to the really good stuff the wineries make, but won’t share with you. You just have to hear about them through the grapevine.

3)   Less filling. That’s the worst of all — far less wine per glass. Instead of the good old days’ generous, happy pour, I swear they’re now dispensing the wine with eyedroppers.

Bottom line: Visitors pay a fee that benefits the winery, but get no discernible benefit in return. Cash hungry wineries have made the experience more institutional: move everyone in and out — past the gift shop, of course. Passion has nothing to do with it anymore (I’m reminded of a news item I saw recently in Business Week: on, the going rate for the U.S. Constitution is $2.99. The Constitution!).

So I say to California wine country — cork up this bottle of capitalism. Bring back the vintage days of drink all you want, taste all you need.

Wine tasting bars come complete with a dumping jar to pour unwanted and foul tasting wine. That’s where they should dump their $5 user fee.

Howard Mortman is a former producer for “Hardball with Chris Matthews”