Designing better portfolio tastings

Practical advice for all on how to improve these soon-to-return events

With more than 1,000 daily COVID-related deaths in the United States, there’s an inherent understanding that large gatherings, even when thoughtfully orchestrated, pose an unnecessary risk to the health of humans and businesses alike.1 However, the failure to recognize that traditional, in-person portfolio tastings will soon enough return carries its own risk of being unprepared in adapting these events to be smarter, safer, and more successful. Now is the perfect time to plan these changes.

Most people conceptualize a portfolio tasting as three things: 1) an event where customers gather to taste wines and/or spirits in the hopes of familiarizing themselves with a specific winery or distillery, vintage, etc. 2) an opportunity for an importer or distributor to promote and sell their products 3) a chance to see and be seen by colleagues, friends, and others. However, a portfolio tasting can be something else altogether: an opportunity to gather extremely useful data.  

Here are some hacks for improving what all stakeholders get out of a tasting. Note that there’s something here for everyone. In many cases, what can be done on a company-wide level, can be scaled down to actions individual reps can perform.

  • Smaller tastings, more often. When I was in college, I ran the film club (read: a way to commandeer some of my tuition in the form of junk food and movie rentals). What I learned rather quickly was that the best return on investment was one where the club held frequent but smaller screenings. Such an approach stretched the limited budget, but more importantly, it better satisfied the ever-vexing coincidence of wants problem—by changing the math. By holding weekly screenings (as opposed to monthly ones), there was a much greater likelihood that a student wouldn’t have a scheduling conflict. Further, more movies per mo/nth meant that a student was more likely to want to attend based on their cinematic preferences. Apply this to the portfolio tasting. Hosting quarterly, thematic tastings means there’s a greater chance you’re better serving your customers’ needs, both in terms of scheduling and wine/spirits needs.

  • Do you know how popular you are? Are your reps tracking who they invited versus who RSVP’ed? Are managers tracking who RSVP’ed vs who actually attended? If one doesn’t know how successful they are getting people to show up, then you have little idea who is successful in terms of selling the company and not just its products.

  • Make your tasting two-directional. You know from experience, that buyers who show up will taste a dozen to three dozen wines and maybe a handful of spirits, but after the event, they’ll likely purchase only two, three, or four products. Why? The customer is tasting what you’re pushing, and what you’re pushing isn’t likely to be well-aligned with their needs. It’s just the math and the math sucks because the customers weren’t targeted. The selection of products was one-directional. What if one were to design a method whereby tastings were more like Instagram ads? Does your RSVP method allow customers to request specific wines or spirits, styles, categories, or producers? It should. If not, the selection of products should be based, in part, with reference to the purchase history of those who RSVP’ed.

  • If you don’t want to gather the data from customers, get it from your reps. By pouring what they want, you’ll be guaranteeing there’s genuine motivation and enthusiasm behind what they’ll be pushing the day of the tasting.

  • Aggregate the selection data! It’s an opportunity to track interest and later measure it against actual sales. It’s also a chance to tease out broader patterns and trends among your customers’ or reps’ preferences. Is there a product that most customers chose to sample? Is there one that no one dared ask for? Don’t ignore this data.

  • Tip off your customers. Tasting books are often unwieldy and impractical. Every sales rep should be alerting their customers to their favorite wines and new discoveries before the tasting via email. Providing your customers with a top ten list or reference on what they simply can’t miss helps narrow the field and ensure that they’re going to taste those special wines even in your absence.

  • Mind the spit bucket. Portfolio tastings are usually examples of poor design judgment; holding multiple tastings over time should yield insights for improvement, as it’s an iterative process. All too often, these possible lessons are ignored. Case in point: the spit bucket. It regularly occupies the corner of a table where wine is being poured thus blocking the flow of foot traffic. Additionally, given the implications of the pandemic, spit buckets should widely be abolished. Consider providing attendees with individual spit cups that they can empty into sinks or strategically placed buckets.

  • Look at the fill levels. The tasting is over. Everyone wants to go home. No one wants to clean up. Stop and assign someone the necessary task of walking around the room or rooms and taking note of which bottles are completely empty and which were barely touched. Note that this is not the same thing as simply counting what was opened for sampling purposes. This is a rare opportunity to see and measure what people enjoy versus what they said they wanted to taste.

  • Who is looking at the ROI? Even before the pandemic, the question of whether a portfolio tasting provided enough return on investment was often left unanswered at best and unexamined at worst. Have you or your team run the numbers? Have you taken into account the opportunity cost of tying up your entire sales team and others for an entire day? Have you compared the relative ROI of different tastings to measure their efficacy?

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Except maybe in Texas and Mississippi where mask mandates have recently been lifted.