The end of free wine as we know it: How COVID changed Victorian cellar doors

Daniel Hopkins, managing director of Tellurian Wines, says people feel safer in their own tasting space and are unafraid ...
Daniel Hopkins, managing director of Tellurian Wines, says people feel safer in their own tasting space and are unafraid to ask questions. Photo: Richard Cornish

"The days of the free wine tasting are over," says King Valley winemaker Christian Dal Zotto. 

"When COVID hit, cellar doors across the state were shut down. When we were allowed to reopen, strict regulations forced us to do seated tastings only." 

These pandemic restrictions flew in the face of the Australian wine industry's long-standing tradition of the cellar door bar, allowing customers arrive unannounced and sample as much or as little wine as they like – often for free.

King Valley winemakers and brothers Christian (left) and Michael Dal Zotto.
King Valley winemakers and brothers Christian (left) and Michael Dal Zotto. Photo: Supplied

Now Dal Zotto Wines and many other Victorian cellar doors are continuing to keep their walk-in bars closed and ushering wine lovers to paid and curated tasting experiences. 

"We learned from COVID that pre-booked, paid and seated tastings are better for the customer and better for our staff," says Dal Zotto. 

"It is a much slower, more convivial and more immersive experience. Before COVID, customers would rock up, stand shoulder to shoulder, and drink their way, for free, through our 20 or so wines. I'm an industry professional and even I can't remember that many wines!" 

Wine tasting at Crittenden Estate, Mornington Peninsula.
Wine tasting at Crittenden Estate, Mornington Peninsula. Photo: Supplied

Angie Bradbury is the chair of peak industry body Wine Victoria. She says 80 per cent of cellar doors have continued to only offer seated and paid tastings since coronavirus restrictions have eased.

"I encourage all wineries to consider the format," she says, adding that many cellar doors are reporting it is more economically viable and staff are enjoying the slower pace of the tastings.

Another winery to keep pre-booked and seated tastings is Heathcote's Tellurian Wines. Here the Hopkins family make wines intended to be enjoyed with food, not just quaffed or designed to impress wine judges. 

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This explains why their new cellar door experience is like visiting a restaurant. Guests are greeted at the door by a qualified sommelier and shown to a million-dollar tasting room with views to Mount Camel Range. 

"Some customers prefer white wines, some prefer red, and some both, so we offer them a choice," says Tellurian Wines managing director Daniel Hopkins. 

The tasting is composed of four 40 millilitre pours and costs $10, refundable on purchase of bottled wine. Charcuterie and cheese are offered for an additional price. 

Dal Zotto Wines offers guests the opportunity to deep dive on prosecco, which it pioneered in Australia.
Dal Zotto Wines offers guests the opportunity to deep dive on prosecco, which it pioneered in Australia. Photo: Supplied

"Our guests can stay for as long as they like, buy a glass of wine and enjoy it with their food," says Hopkins. 

"The quality of information we can provide, and personal attention, has increased remarkably. People feel safer in their own table 'space' and are unafraid to ask questions like 'what is tannin?'." 

As a measure of success, membership of Tellurian's wine club has increased by 400 per cent.

Winemaker Lisa Sartori guides a tasting at Dirty Three Wines in South Gipplsand.
Winemaker Lisa Sartori guides a tasting at Dirty Three Wines in South Gipplsand. Photo: Supplied

On the other side of the state, in the seaside town of Inverloch on the Bass Coast, Dirty Three Wines cellar door used to be a place where locals arrived in board shorts and thongs and stayed for hours. 

"It was pretty loose," says winemaker Marcus Satchell, known for his excellent cool climate chardonnay, sparkling and pinot noir. Since COVID, customers are now offered strict, time-controlled seated tasting sessions. 

"We are getting to speak to more people and selling more wine than we ever have," he says. 

"The relationship has changed. It's basic psychology. People don't appreciate things that are free compared to something or an experience they are paying for. 

"If I can say this, one of the awesome things that has happened since COVID is people's new capacity to accept change." 

Five great seated Victorian wine tastings

Crittenden Estate, Mornington Peninsula

These industry leaders started tutored flights in 2014, building a tasting room by a sparkling blue lake. The Crittenden family will hand-pick eight of their 26 wines to suit the customer's tastes for $10. crittendenwines.com.au

Soumah of Yarra Valley, Yarra Valley 

Soumah stands for "south of Maroondah Highway" and the young, fun team at this internationally recognised winery have retained their traditional standing cellar door tasting. However, this has also been complemented with a popular seated tasting of eight limited release and premium wines for $20. soumah.com.au

Dal Zotto Wines, King Valley

After a little shot of fizz on arrival, visitors are guided through their choice of red or white, and provided the opportunity to deep dive on prosecco, augmented in Australia by the Dal Zotto family in 1999. $10 to $28 for five or six pours. dalzotto.com.au

Dirty Three Wines, South Gippsland

Marcus Satchell makes impressive wines in this nascent wine region with an emphasis on classic French varieties. Sample a mixture of his wines, including the 'Dirty Chardy' for $15 or a flight of pinot noir and single vineyard releases for $20. dirtythreewines.com.au 

Tellurian Wines, Heathcote

A stunning cellar door with a secluded country outlook. Try four red wines, four white or a mix for $10. Also consider a flight of aged marsanne or shiraz for $15 and $20 respectively. tellurianwines.com.au