Tasting Room

If you happen upon the Comanche Cellars tasting room in Monterey late one evening—and by late, we mean a respectable 8pm—don’t be surprised to see people bouncing to “Bad Romance.”

“We do a lot of Fleetwood Mac—until the end of the night, when it’s Lady Gaga all the way,” says Shells Marsh.

She is pouring wine for several guests on a quiet afternoon and the music is more serene. Academic studies have suggested that the type and tone of songs on a playlist can affect consumer behavior. But is it so? Can spinning “Rhiannon” cause reluctant shoppers to call for a bottle of Chardonnay?

Well, when psychology researchers Adrian North, Lorraine Sheridan and Charles Areni assigned students to different rooms in which American pop, Chinese or Indian songs were piped—with a fourth group sitting in silence—then handed out menus, the results were as expected. Those who spent the day listening to Beach Boys favorites picked burgers and fries.

Call it a form of suggestive selling. The researchers went on to propose that sound might just influence behavior. In other words, an Edith Piaf soundtrack in the background and people reach for red red wine.

“Music makes people have a good time,” observes Danielle Allison of Caraccioli Cellars. “Music makes everything better.”

OK, let’s be realistic. UB40 is not likely to boost wine sales. Nor would “Spill the Wine” or "Cracklin’ Rosie” drive buyers toward prized bottles. Yet the stream of smooth jazz, folk, classic rock and country heard in Monterey County tasting rooms would lead one to believe there is a strategy at play.

“This is Alan’s music,” says Xuanlan Lonsinger at Silvestri Vineyards, pointing to a device filling the background with orchestral sounds.

Winery owner Alan Silvestri has composed more than 100 film scores, many of them perfect for pleasant ambience. So they have a ready source of music. Otherwise, tasting room playlists tend to be less practical than one might imagine.

“There’s not a lot of strategic thought,” Allison points out. 

 As it turns out, staff members tend to rely on streaming apps such as Pandora, Sonos and Spotify, as well as personal tastes—within reason, of course. No one wants to hear “Red Red Wine” while trying to have a good time.

“Each employee has a different genre,” says Cooper Smith at Puma Road. “Today I have ’80s rock. I’ve kept the same 15 musicians.”

The team at Kori Wines has a thing for Creedence Clearwater Revival, so the band takes a prominent role in their background sound.

“People love it,” reports Kori’s Celine Ghion—and others in the industry praise the tasting room’s playlist, as well. “Sometimes we’ll throw in some country. Because the vineyards are in Soledad, it’s appropriate.”

So there is some reasoning behind the musical selections. Tasting room veterans, however, doubt that a particular song will lead people to shell out for the most recent Pinot Noir release or join the wine club—and this despite decades of scholarly research.

Of course, those studies tend to hedge a bit.

In “Practical Application of Music in Service Settings” by J. Duncan Herrington and Louis M. Capella—social scientists never work alone—in the Journal of Services Marketing, the smart folk caution that attempts to manipulate specific behavior through ambient sound is not foolproof. “A safer and potentially more effective strategy would be to select background music that reflects the musical preference of targeted consumer segments.”

In other words, play what people like. And tasting rooms are on top of that. 

Allison at Caraccioli Cellars explains that, when younger wine tasters crowd around the bar, they may switch to current hits. For an older vibe, it’s “more chill and low key.”

“We’ve had people ask ‘What radio station are you listening to?’” she adds. “But it’s Pandora.”

Streaming services allow for a more ready flexibility than the days when staffers had to sort through stacks of compact discs.

“The music definitely helps,” Ghion says. “It gives people something to talk about.”

Even professor North of Curtin University in Australia—the same who grouped students into rooms for the menu experiment—writing with colleague David J. Hargreaves in the Oxford Handbook of Music Psychology, could find no single type of music to guarantee consumer response. 

Yet in his “The Effect of Background Music on the Taste of Wine”—not sure of the methodology of this one—in the British Journal of Psychology, North suggests that…best to let him tell it: “The symbolic function of auditory stimuli (in this case music) may influence perception in other modalities.”

In other words, an evening at Comanche Cellars basking in the sounds of Fleetwood Mac may cause unwitting guests to appreciate the old vine Zinfandel that much more. Perhaps.

But what about when Marsh or the others ramp things up?

“Lady Gaga is our end of the night,” she reminds us. 

Well, they do stock a Rosé of Sangiovese.

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