Thousands of people visit the Domaine Carneros Winery each year, snapping pictures in front of the 18th-century style chateau and sipping wine on the terrace overlooking a sweep of green vineyards.
Now, the winery hopes to extend the experience with new, sample-sized bottle kits that aim to send the tasting room experience home — you read the tasting notes, you sip, you rekindle those sensory memories. All without ponying up for a full bottle of untried wine — or stripping down for an airport security check.
"You can stay in Iowa or New York or Miami, wherever you are, and you can have this experience come to you," says Eileen Crane, CEO and founding winemaker of Domaine Carneros.
The idea seems simple enough. You try sample sizes of drapes, mouthwash and wallpaper. Why not wine?
But test-driving wine isn't as simple as opening a big bottle and pouring it into a bunch of little ones, says Tim Bucher, CEO and founder of TastingRoom Inc., which launched last year and is making the 50-milliliter samples for Domaine Carneros.
For one thing, wine is sensitive to oxygen. So if a little bit is exposed to a lot of oxygen, which is what would happen if you merely poured wine through a funnel, that will change the character of the wine. Beyond that, each winery has its own method of bottling, such as "sparging," in which bottles are filled with an inert gas before filling to ensure the right conditions.
Bucher's process involves a patent-pending technology called Total Anaerobic Sample Transfer Environment — TASTE — that aims to replicate what the winery does on a miniature scale. Transfers are conducted in a sealed, zero-oxygen chamber, similar to a semiconductor "clean room," and the goal is to come up with something that duplicates the tasting room experience.
"For us it was never about taking wine from a barrel and just putting it into a smaller vessel. That would not capture the real product that wineries are selling," Bucher says.
While it's hard to say for certain this hasn't been done, sample-size wine bottles appear to be new, says Robert Smiley, director of wine industry programs in the Graduate School of Management at the University of California, Davis. It's too early to say whether the kits will be successful, but they sound like a good idea, he says. "I'm all for innovation."
For Bucher, the power of try-and-buy wine grew out of his experiences at his own winery. Going over the books, he realized, "Wow, my tasting rooms are gold. I asked myself how could I scale my tasting rooms intergalactically."
Another player in the small-is-big trend is San Francisco-based Crushpad, the do-it-yourself winery where individuals can select fruit and supervise the making of small batches of wine to get the vintner experience without the farming headaches (and sizable capital investment).
Crushpad's "Tiny Bottles," also 50 milliliter, use an oxygen-free transfer system and are being used in conjunction with Brixr, a Web-based tasting service.
At Domaine Carneros, the kits will be available in the Napa Valley tasting room — price about $25 — and also will be offered to wine club members as a convenient, low-cost way to try wines. Domaine Carneros is primarily known for its sparkling wines, so the six-bottle kits are being used to showcase its lesser-known still wines.
"We think it's a wonderful way for people to reconnect with the winery," says Crane.