Michigan Wine Tasting Room Visitors’ Behaviors & Visit History

Wine tasting room sales could be more successful if wineries understood their customers and gave more thought to the winery location.

Don Holecek and Dan McCole, Michigan State University

Editor’s note: This information was first prepared and published as part of the Northern Grapes Project.

An understanding of one’s customers is an important step in developing, pricing, positioning and promoting any successful product or service. It is also critical in selecting the location where the product or service will be offered if the intent is to have a “brick and mortar” store. Since the majority of smaller wineries rely on tasting room sales, it behooves them to understand their frequent customers. As nearly all wineries that sell cold-hardy wines are relatively small, marketing experts on the Northern Grapes Project team designed a study to gain insights about tasting room visitors. Given that the acreage of cold-hardy grapes and volume of wine produced is small, we assumed the initial success of producers of these wines would rely heavily on how well they served the customers in their tasting rooms.

Wine tasting room visitors. Photo by Joy Landis

Study Design

We decided that a good way to study tasting room visitors’ behaviors was to survey them. Given cost and logistical considerations, the survey was limited to Michigan. Connecting with prospective interview subjects at tasting rooms was deemed more cost-effective than other options. Due to budget constraints, we could not travel statewide to conduct interviews in person. So, we recruited a good geographic distribution of wineries to make the initial contact with subjects who we interviewed by mail or online.

About 70 percent of the wineries that operated tasting rooms in Michigan were contacted in February 2012 to query them about what they would like to know about their current and potential customers, and to recruit research partners. About half of those contacted indicated willingness to serve as our research partners by engaging subjects in their tasting rooms. We selected 15 of these wineries as since they provided adequate geographic coverage and we deemed that number of wineries to be manageable within our resource constraints.

Through the late winter and spring of 2012, we developed questionnaires and made orientation visits to each of our 15 tasting room research partners. Over the 2012 summer and early fall, 1,552 questionnaires were gathered by U.S. mail and email. Overall response rate was about 40 percent. This large set of completed questionnaires is an especially extensive data set to explore a multitude of questions about Michigan tasting room visitors. This report is the first in a planned series to be published in the Northern Grapes News that will review the survey results of the topics deemed to be of priority interest to tasting room operators.

Visitors’ Tasting Room History

Only 8.5 percent of respondents reported this was their first visit to a winery. Another 30.8 percent had made more than 21 visits during their lifetime. Thus, these tasting room visitors have accumulated a relatively modest range of tasting room experiences. Another measure of the level of visitors’ tasting room experience is indicated by the year they made their first visit to a tasting room. Over 85 percent of respondents indicated they had visited a tasting room prior to 2010 and40 percent made their first visit prior to 2000. It appears the majority of tasting room visitors captured in this study has long been familiar with the tasting room product but are not heavy consumers of it. Further support for this conclusion surfaces from respondents’ reported mean (5.7 trips) and median (3.0 trips) wine tasting trips over the past five years.

Given this wide range of visitors’ experience with tasting rooms, creating a tasting room presentation that fits “all comers” is problematic. The best option would be to create alternative presentations (one for first time visitors, another for tasting room “experts,” etc.) that can be delivered once the visitors’ level of experience is determined.

The average tasting room customer isn’t a frequent visitor and won’t be the winery’s most profitable consumer. The more profitable patrons will be found among approximately one-third whom are the most experienced and most frequent visitors. Among the most serious of these are those who visited a tasting room outside the United States, which accounted for almost 25 percent of respondents in this study. Italy, France and Germany were the most frequented non-U.S. tasting room venues. We believe tasting room staff could be trained to use a couple of screening questions to identify prime (i.e., most profitable) visitors to receive extra special attention.

Visitors’ Tasting Behaviors

Tasting room fees were an issue that surfaced in talks with Michigan winery owners and managers prior to developing study questionnaires. About 30 percent of the respondents reported they do typically avoid tasting rooms that charge a fee, so there is some basis for the industry’s concern about charging a fee. A number of respondents suggested they would find tasting fees more acceptable if it were rebated to those who make a purchase.

When looking at the reasons customers chose to visit tasting rooms, respondents assigned the highest rankings to “wine-related” activities available at a winery such as wine tasting, learning about and purchasing wine, as one would expect.

And, “wine tasting” was by far the most dominant activity pursued at wineries. However, these wine-related activities were less often reported to be the primary purpose of visits to wineries. In fact, experience-related activities, such as socializing, relaxing and engaging in a unique experience, were cited more than twice as often (60 percent vs. 30 percent) as were wine-related activities as the primary purpose of the visit (see table).

Clearly, simply offering visitors quality wines is only part (and arguably a smaller part) of meeting tasting room visitors’ expectations. This finding leads to the conclusion that the most successful tasting room operations will include offering “quality wines” (wide ranging tastes result in similar wide ranging perceptions of what constitutes quality) and a wide range of experience enhancements (friendly staff, fast and professional service, attractive facility, etc.).

Table 1. Reported Primary Purposes of Visit to the Winery

Visit Purpose

% of Respondents

Purchase wine


Meet the winemaker


Learn about wine


Subtotal of wine-related activities


Socialize with friends


Have a relaxing day


Have a unique experience


Subtotal of experience-related activities


Misc. Other




In conclusion, in another subproject in New York under the Northern Grapes Project umbrella, Miguel Gomez and Erin Kelly of Cornell University reported there is a positive relationship between the level of visitors’ satisfaction with their tasting room experience and the quantity of wine purchased on their visits. The results from our Michigan study imply visitor satisfaction is linked to attributes beyond those that are wine-related and suggests that screening visitors to assess their level of tasting room experience would help to better target presentations by the tasting room staff. A tailored presentation would hold customers’ attention, enhance their overall experience and encourage them to purchase more wine.

Photo credit: Joy Landis, MSU