Taking the Tasting Room Out of Wine Country—SMART!

Tiburon It’s not unknown for tasting rooms to pop up in places where no vineyard or winery resides. But it can be risky business, and rare. Pure tasting rooms unconnected to a winery location or vineyard location have shown up in San Francisco, New York and other cities that are not winemaking towns. But they don’t always make it. Yesterday, I read that the little town of Tiburon in Marin County has a new tasting room: Couloir Wines. Is it a good idea? I think so.

This is not the first time a tasting room has resided in the very tony town of Tiburon. Windsor Vineyards had a tasting room just off of Main Street on “Ark Row” for many years, and in fact this is exactly wherethe new Couloir tasting room will reside. What, I think, makes Tiburon an excellent choice for an unconnected tasting room is its combination of high wealth residents who like their little downtown a lot and the tourists that, perhaps don’t flock to the village, but certainly arrive. In fact, there is little ferry terminal that brings a ferry from San Francisco to this town sitting on a peninsula jutting into the Bay.

In my youth I worked at a little bakery/restaurant in Tiburon where I washed dishes and occasionally tiburonMainconstructed sandwiches that were delivered to patrons sitting on a back deck overlooking the bay. Saturday and Sunday were packed! The week days brought a steady stream of locals who ate, chatted then visited and shopped at the boutiques that line the little, attractive, well-appointed main street.

I don’t know the overhead that Couloir wines must meet, so it’s difficult to say what kind of nut they need to crack to make a really good go of it at their new “off premise” tasting room. But I do see the potential and I also see this kind of well placed tasting room as an excellent way for the wine industry to extend its reach, attract new customers and even fill up its Wine Country-based tasting rooms.

In this respect, Couloir is doing the entire wine industry a big favor. Think of Couloir’s Tiburon tasting room as an extension of the Wine Country to the North; a wine country visitor center to the south.

CouloirImportantly, visitors to Couloir’s tasting room will get the real deal when they belly up the bar. Couloir is a Pinot specialist that produces magnificent botlings primarily from the Anderson Valley and the Petaluma Gap in the Sonoma/Marin region. They are priced at about $40.00 per bottle. Additionally, Couloir has a second label, of sorts, in the form of Straight Line Wines, which produces Pinot Noir, Syrah, Tempranillo and Sauvignon Blanc in the $20.00 range. It’s a great grantcollection of wines for this new location and the price points are perfectly situated to give visitors the feeling that they aren’t paying too much, but also are not being subjected to bargain basement wines. What’ they’ll find are really outstanding bottlings of fine quality that represent terroirs from across the state.

Couloir/Straight Line Winemaker and owner Jon Grant worked his way up to winery ownership by learning the trade first in the cellars of Corison, Mondavi, Plumpjack and Turley Cellars, a fairly eclectic combination of wineries. Grant is also clearly something of a risk taker. With offices located in Saint Helena in Napa Valley, he could have just done what seemingly countless other custom crush wineries have done—open a tasting room in downtown Napa. He didn’t. He went south to the tony environs of Tiburon.

And it’s a good thing he did, not just for his own sake, but for the wine industry in general.


12 Responses

  1. Paul - September 18, 2013

    Interesting, but doesn’t a tasting room away from the winery sort of become a wine shop (with great educational value, etc.) but with limited amount of wines available? Don’t you think that customers re-act to this sort of tasting room with less enthusiasm than they do when they look across the glass at a typical tasting room and see barrels and tanks? I think that part of the “romance” of a tasting room is the fact that people are tasting and buying wines at the place where the wine is made, and that is totally lost here, or not? Not saying this is a bad idea, but I do wonder about this.

  2. Tom Wark - September 18, 2013


    No question the experience isn’t the same at an “off premise” tasting room. The “romance”, if you will, isn’t there. However, This shouldn’t mean the concept will fail. In fact, given that it is likely the only tasting room in that neck of the woods and given that the staff does a great job of being profession, educational and even part of the local community, I see no reason why it shouldn’t do well.

  3. tom merle - September 18, 2013

    The Press Club in a high traffic alley leading from Mission St. to Market St. alonside the Four Seasons hotel in SF tried out the coop concept with such wineries as Pahlmeyer, Fritz and Mount Eden, but eventually had to throw in the towel and become another wine bar. Patrons just wanted a glass of wine after a hard day at the office. Viansa had a tasting room off of Union Square which morphed into a wine bar as well. which is not to say it won’t work in Tiburon. Bluxome Street Winery in SOMA may make a go of it.

    • Douglas Allan - September 20, 2013

      There were many reasons why Press Club didn’t work out as planned, only one of which was the one you mentioned. However, Press Club was a forward thinking, innovative project that may have worked perfectly under different circumstances. I bet the founders would do a lot different now. But, at least they tried, paving the way for other successful projects. Notably, Chateau Montelena (one of the original Press Club wineries) has a very successful tasting room in the lobby of the St. Francis, which only happened out of lessons learned from Press Club. Innovation is an iterative process and the wine industry should be thankful that we are seeing more and more innovators iterating like Press Club and Couloir so we collectively can learn from them and move the industry forward. I wish Couloir success!

  4. Terroirist: A Daily Wine Blog » Daily Wine News: The Real Scoop - September 20, 2013

    […] its reach, attract new customers, and even fill up its Wine Country-based tasting rooms.” Tom Wark praises Couloir Wines‘ decision to open a tasting room in Tiburon, a small town in Marin […]

  5. johng - September 20, 2013

    Paul has a point, but that’s also true of a heck of a lot of tasting rooms in Healdsburg, Geyserville, downtown Napa, and Sonoma Valley, many of which look to be doing rather well.

    But I do think that particular location is problematic. Unlike the TR’s mentioned, it’s not anywhere near the vineyards of Marin, which are growing rapidly, so there’s almost nothing wine country about it. Also, that street is close to but oddly quite removed from the main tourist drag, and during the week it doesn’t see a whole lot of foot traffic other than by locals walking downtown from Belvedere. I think it may be difficult to generate significant sales there, unless the wines somehow become cultish and the TR turns into a destination.

  6. Tom Wark - September 20, 2013

    John, how are you??

    You know, Windsor Vineyards operated out of the same space in Tiburon for what must have been over 30 years. And the tasting room really is just around the corner where a number of shops reside. I think the potential is very good. But we’ll see.

  7. doug wilder - September 20, 2013

    I remember the Windsor tasting room there (it was the early ’80s). We used to sail over from Alameda for the day and have dinner at Tiburon Tommy’s and would stop in out of curiosity since the Windsor wines were nothing to get excited about. One thing I can say is Couloir and Straight Line will attract a different type of visitor. Jon Grant makes a Chileno Valley Pinot Noir that makes the Marin County connection legit. I will stop by next time I head to The City. Coincidentally, Straight Line samples arrived today!

  8. Brian Miller - September 21, 2013

    I operate a collective tasting room in Amador County. It’s true 98% (or more) of the people that come to our wine country want the full winery and vineyard experience and pass my in-town shop by. However, many do stop in and I find they’re of two different varieties. Some are more interested in the wine than the romance (they’ve been there done that) and know I have wines they can’t find elsewhere. Others don’t know about our wine country and learn about it from me.

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