The Most Vital Tool in a Winery Tasting Room

Tasting Room Focus: DtC sales and wine club sign ups start with pristine glassware

by John Stallcup
Smudged and hazy wine glasses can undermine a winery’s efforts to boost DtC sales, making the glasswasher an invaluable tool in the tasting room.

San Rafael, Calif.—Tasting rooms drive 85% of wine club growth and are the cornerstone of a winery's direct-to-consumer (DtC) business. Regardless of which type you choose, the look and feel of your wine glass helps frame the wine tasting as an experience, not just a beverage.

Far too many tasting rooms forget that how the wine glass looks plays a significant role in how your wine is regarded. First impressions matter. Humans are visually dominant. About 60% of your brain processes some form of visual stimuli. Humans believe what they see.

For a wine-tasting room, crystal-clear, sparkling-clean wine glasses with zero odor are a must-have, front-line risk-reduction touch point. Effective, energy-efficient glass-cleaning equipment for tasting room glassware is mandatory, and there are a number of glasswashers that do the job.

But if you aren't careful, you can have water spots or fog from minerals in the water, as well as a chemical or soapy smell. Because aromas are processed in your amygdala, smelling a wine glass triggers either positive or negative memories and emotions. This can result in a wine-tasting experience that creates lasting negative associative memories with your brand.

Water temperature, a high flow rate and water pressure are key to cleaning wine glasses. Glasswashers today provide Energy Star savings with low water usage per cycle, while meeting the required flow rate and water pressure to clean wine glasses. A high-temperature rinse (180° F) has the blessing of the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) for cleanliness and eliminates the need for sanitizers with their distinctive smell.
Ever wonder what it costs to provide sparkling-clean, buffed glasses for wine tasting? Add the labor cost, utilities, soap, buffing cloths, worker compensation and broken glasses while buffing, and it's a significant amount of money. Hundreds of dollars for small wineries and thousands for large, high-volume tasting rooms.

A "first growth" Napa Valley winery where I worked installed two state-of-the-art glass-washing machines in its new tasting room. It was manned by two staff to buff and restock glasses on weekdays, with four staff on weekends. Because this winery honored its wine by not pouring into a used glass, each guest tasted from a minimum of four wine glasses. With 1,100 visitors on Saturdays, that's 4,400 wine glasses washed and buffed in one day.

Buffing glasses is a time-consuming, expensive and, at times, dangerous part of wine service. How many of us have had a wine glass break in our hands while buffing, cutting a finger, hand or wrist, sometimes severely enough to require a visit to the emergency room for stitches and a workers' comp claim?

To complicate matters and make it far more difficult to have wine glasses that are clear and odor-free, many areas of wine country are cursed with hard water. A reported 65% of wine tasting rooms are on well water, which varies in terms of mineral content, hardness and odors. Hard water is the amount of dissolved calcium and magnesium in the water. Hard-water scale clogs pipes, shortens the lifespan of your glasswasher and leaves hard-to-remove spots and film on your wine glasses.

A winery can opt for a water softener to avoid clogged pipes and keep the glass-washing equipment working. But going from hard calcium-filled water to soft sodium- or potassium-filled water can be just a first step. A softener removes calcium and magnesium ions but the total dissolved solids (TDS) will not be affected significantly because the softener adds a more or less equal amount of sodium or potassium in exchange.
The minerals in soft water can and do cause mineral spotting or fogging problems for your wine glasses, especially if you use a 180°F rinse. The wine glasses still end up with spots or fog that need to be buffed. In some cases, you even need to use steam to effectively buff the wine glasses.

What if there was a way to eliminate the need to buff wine glasses? Imagine pouring your wine into an odorless, bright, shiny, crystal-clear, unbuffed wine glass, and at the same time reducing the chances your employees will go to the ER with cuts from broken glass.

I recently worked at a Napa County winery that had hard water with so much silica it required a reverse-osmosis (RO) filter system and mixed bed deionization (DI removes all minerals). Otherwise, silica-laced hard water would destroy their filters and other equipment. After washing a rack of glasses in purified water using a standard lever down dishwasher, when you pulled a clean, dry wine glass from the rack it looked as if you had just taken it out of the box, brand new.

While working to open a tasting room in a Central Coast resort, I faced the problem of choosing between hot (120° F) softened 700 ppm TDS water or room temperature (70°F) 426 ppm TDS feed water for the glasswasher. The glasswasher using softened hot water left a fog on the wine glasses that required a couple of hours a day to buff using steam from hot water. Not a profitable use of a couple hours a day of labor.

After a great deal of testing, we decided to install a reverse-osmosis system to reduce the TDS of the water to as low as we possibly could (15 ppm TDS) to improve the glasswasher efficiency and effectiveness. When the resort engineers and I presented this solution to management, they asked the obvious questions: "What does it cost us to wash and buff a rack of glasses now, and what will it cost if we use an efficient RO filter system?"

I needed to understand how glasswasher efficiency and cost were measured. The resort had installed a Hobart LXeR glasswasher that consumes 0.6 gallons of water per cycle, with 180° F heat booster. I contacted Hobart and asked if they had research on what it costs to wash a rack of glasses.

A few weeks later, the research appeared in my inbox. The research was conducted in locations that wash 20 to 30 racks per hour, 10 hours a day, seven days per week.

Our own analysis included the cost of installing a well-designed RO filter system. An RO system will produce nearly purified water (15 ppm TDS) on the side of the membrane that serves as the feed water for the glasswasher. The brine side is equal to one-half of each gallon run through the RO filter process. There is an additional cost for the brine, or gray water, but it can be used to water plants. You reduce the amount of soap needed per wash because nearly purified water doesn't need as much soap to clean the glasses, lowering costs. The Hobart LXeR doesn't use sanitizer because the rinse is at 180°F.

When we included a slightly higher per kilowatt-electric cost and the gray water brine, the cost per rack holding 20 wine glasses went from $1.85 to $1.90. We did not bother with the reduction in soap cost. A fully loaded labor hour at $14 an hour is $20 an hour. Each hour you do not buff glasses is worth $20, not including the lack of cut fingers from broken glass. If you avoid a trip to the ER for stitches, you could pay for a brand-new glasswasher.

Every tasting room is different There are more than 4,391 wineries in California and more than 9,600 nationally. The variation in feed water is all over the map. Some areas have harder water than others. But it is well worth the effort to pour wine into crystal-clear, odorless glasses that don't need buffing.

Now, we have not been able to get all the lipstick off every glass. So yes, before using, you will need to look at each and every wine glass and wipe off the small amount of lipstick residue that is left on 1% of them after a 180°F purified water rinse. What do they make lipstick out of anyway?

John Stallcup has worked in the wine industry for more than 20 years, serving as the vice president of marketing for The Wine Group and consulting for a variety of wine companies. He is currently director of wine hospitality at the Allegretto Vineyard Resort in Paso Robles, Calif.

Dana Nafziger, the president of the commercial laundry, glass washing and housekeeping services provider Aqua Systems, contributed to this article.


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