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5 Easy ways to improve the tasting room experience

2009 November 9

At the BV tasting room

My good friends, James and Kimberly (@UrWineGuy), along with Kim’s mom, their daughter and my wife, Sheri, visited this past weekend and we spent Saturday tasting in the Sonoma Valley and Sunday tasting in the Napa Valley. Now that I’m working in the industry, I look at tasting rooms a little differently and with a more critical eye. Our tasting experience this weekend was a mixture of good and bad and revealed many things that I think all wineries should consider when opening your doors to the public. Here are just a few that I feel very strongly about:

1. Don’t let your friends or relatives, who are not good with people or lacking in personality or manners, help out in your tasting room. If you do nothing else, follow this one suggestion. I realize that you may be a very small winery and volunteers are all you can afford, but even the best wine in the world won’t sell in your tasting room if people have a bad experience with your staff. This isn’t just a matter of proper training, but of having the right people representing you. In one tasting room, our questions were answered by this older man in a very flippant manner and later, he rudely pawned off our group to another person to finish pouring for us as he went off to deal with another group that came in. Members of our party, who actually bought some of their wines in the past and knew the winemaker, were so insulted, they immediately walked out without buying anything. I doubt they will ever buy anything from that winery again, but even worse, they will tell their friends about the horrible experience they had. Your tasting room is where customers develop their image of your winery and who you are. Make sure the image your customers leave with is a good one.

2. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Just because someone comes into your tasting room dressed like a bum doesn’t mean he can’t afford your wine or won’t be buying anything. And that overdressed couple who just hopped out of the limo is no guaranteed sale either. My friends and I dress very unassumingly but James and Kim have great influence with many people and a few people may actually read this blog. Treat everyone with equal respect. You never know with whom they might be friends.

3. Please, don’t tell me what aromas and tastes I should be experiencing as I am tasting your wine. I realize you are trying to be helpful and you’re selling wine, but I would like to come to my own conclusions without any outside influence. If I need some more insight, I can read the tasting notes that are written. You do have those written somewhere, don’t you? Please DO tell me something interesting about the making of the wine, a story about the winemaker or history of the winery. These are things I will remember long after I forget how the wine tasted

4. Make sure you have lots of dump buckets in the tasting room. This really should go without saying, but I was surprised at how many tasting rooms only have one dump bucket at the tasting bar. Paper cups in lieu of lots of dump buckets would even be welcomed. I really don’t want to walk down to the other end of the bar with my mouth full to spit. And be sure your dump buckets look like a dump bucket. That floral ceramic bottle cooler isn’t always the first thing I think of pouring wine into.

St. Supery does it right5. Make your guests feel welcome and comfortable. I realize that not all wineries can afford a huge tasting room nor the people to handle unusually large crowds that seem to appear all at once, but a simple verbal acknowledgment when we walk in the door that you know we’re here and will get to us eventually is all I need. Otherwise, I’ll just assume you’re purposely ignoring us. If you can’t accommodate everyone inside and take us to an outside area, make sure it’s comfortable. If it’s nearly 40˚ outside and you expect us to sit outside, provide some heat for your guests. Offer non-alcoholic drinks for kids and designated drivers. Not everyone coming into your tasting room is there to drink wine. Bottled water is most appreciated and so rarely offered.

There are many other suggestions I could offer, but these really stood out this past weekend. Remember, your customer’s experience at your tasting room is what they’ll remember no matter how exceptional or mediocre your wine may be. Train your staff, make a few changes in your tasting room procedures and strive to make it a great experience for your guests.

Thanks to Barbara Drady, and the tasting rooms at Silver Oak, Trione, Bennett Lane, Hall, St. Supery, Beaulieu, Rubicon and Alpha-Omega for their hospitality and doing most everything right.

Copyright © 2009, Eric Hwang and Bricks of Wine. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Eric Hwang and Bricks of Wine with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

7 Responses leave one →
  1. November 9, 2009

    Very insightful tips, Eric. The points about dump buckets and non-alcoholic beverages are particularly thoughtful.

  2. November 9, 2009

    Nice job, Eric…

    I noticed you thanked Trione and I agree they do a great job. My wife and I stopped by on the last leg of our bicycle trip and they were the nicest folks even as we tip-toed across the floor in our socks (took off shoes w/ clips) and looked (were) a little sweaty… however, their two dogs were a little rowdy that day, which was a little crazy…

    Great tips!

  3. Jaya permalink
    November 9, 2009

    That was a great article, Eric! While I agree that “…having the right people representing you” is key, I think you hastily dismissed training as unimportant.

    I teach customer service and sales in spas. Very parallel to the wine tasting room, as they are both experiential sales environments. Yet many people new to lifestyle retailing, get it wrong. Some people that think being snobby, stiff, and cold is “professional.” Other people think that it’s all about the product (or in spas, just what happens in the treatment room) and don’t put any effort into the overall hospitality.

    I say it’s a training problem because few business owners take the time to teach staff about customer psychology. Short on time, budgets, whatever, employers will show people how to work the cash register and bare essentials, but RARE is the employer that truly coaches, mentors, and role-plays.

    Experiential sales is like blowing up a balloon. It takes many breaths to blow it up, bright and full. It takes just ONE pop to wreck it.

  4. Eric Hwang permalink*
    November 10, 2009

    Hi Jaya,
    Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. You’re right, training is very important. I wasn’t really dismissing training as unimportant and believe that too few people working in the tasting rooms have received adequate training to work with the public. What I was really referring to was the particular case I used as the example. In his case, all the training in the world wouldn’t have helped. Some people have the temperament to work in customer service, some don’t. I think recognizing who simply shouldn’t have public contact is as important as proper training.

  5. November 10, 2009

    Hi Eric,

    Thanks for the insightful article. Jody and I occasionally have brought our two children along to wineries, and have experienced the whole spectrum in that regard — from cold shoulder to warm welcome.

    Tablas Creek in Paso Robles is one tasting room that stands out as family-friendly, while still providing an excellent experience to all its visitors. (This likely is due to GM Jason Haas’s position as dad of two small children!) When we were there a few years ago, they had bins full of ice-cold bottled water, and a very non-obtrusive kids’ coloring table with crayons and coloring sheets. We visited on a personal industry-arranged tasting, and ended up joining their wine club because the entire experience was so positive.

    I know the idea of kids at wineries can be controversial. We have taught our two that family visits to public places — restaurants, libraries, wineries, wherever! — require a very high standard of behavior. Any uncomfortable feelings we’ve had at wineries we’ve visited with the children have been a direct result of the automatic attitudes of winery staff who see a couple with children approaching. The fix to which, I guess, is an extension of your “don’t judge a book by its cover” suggestion.

  6. November 20, 2009

    Great article Eric. I especially appreciate your advice about telling the story behind the wine. I have been thinking about this topic a lot lately. Here are some of my thoughts.
    Tasting rooms don’t have to be big splashy affairs. I have had some amazing tasting experiences in true garage wineries like Lantz Cellars and Perennial Vintners and some horrible experiences in some classy joints that will go unnamed.
    Training is important but it doesn’t have to be intensive. People working the tasting room should at least know the basics of the wines being poured. Recently was at a tasting room where the staff couldn’t tell potential customers if they were pouring any sweet wines that day. The pourer had never tasted half the wines being poured!
    Personnel please sniff, sip and spit before your start pouring, at the very least sniff. No reason to pour obviously cork tainted wine.
    When we were in California in August, we had an appointment at St Supery. My friends were shocked and delighted when our name was on the reader board welcoming us. The warm welcome extended through out our visit and was instrumental behind my friends loading the car with FIVE cases of wine from there. Most wineries don’t have a reader board, but a warm and genuine smile, attention to questions and telling the story go a long ways in establishing a profitable relationship with customers.

  7. April 15, 2010

    Thanks for the “review”. I am working on an agenda for a tasting room staff meeting, and it was most helpful.
    I just want to hit on a few reasons why we don’t have a dump bucket out (unless asked for) I have had numerous “tips” thrown in there, a few Sideways reenactments, and gum left behind. (people can’t be trusted)
    I have encountered the “I hope you die look” when taking my children to wineries (to combat this my daughter now walks up to the bar and will say something like “what is the residual sugar in your Riesling”? However, you would not believe how many people let their kids climb all over everything and skip, run or jump in the tasting room.

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