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August 07, 2009

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Evan,
Thank you for visiting Fulkerson Winery and for your kind review. I am sorry I was not present to give you a more involved tour. Please let me know when we can get together, maybe during harvest? Regards,
John

The organic theme is definitely not a major concern at Four Chimneys. My then-fiancee and I stopped by there a couple years ago and decided not to return. At least then, the wine was served warm (even the whites) and in disposable plastic cups. There was something more than a little absurd about serving eco-friendly wine in cups that would shortly make their way to a landfill.

Evan,

The food and wine pairing works well. At least as an option. When I am in Ca from to time to time a tasting at Robert Sinskey winery is always a treat. For $10 each and every taster is presented with a small tray of food items each prepared to match the five or so wines being tasted. All of the logistics of the service have been thought out well and visitors have an informative and tasty experience.

Bob

You've alluded to some very key concepts about business and marketing that make sense in the context of tasting room wine sales.

Consumers want to spend more in establishments that stick to their themes (i.e. few obvious contradictions) and present their products with informed, enthusiastic employees.

The perks like food pairings probably aren't always necessary, but they do demonstrate a self-professed belief in the products.

Medicore wine can sell well out of a superior tasting room experience.

John - They told me you were on the road when I visited, but no worries: I plan to be back! I'll give you plenty of warning as well.

Ryan - I have no idea how I missed the obvious point that you make with the cups! They're still serving the wine this way. That means one of two things: Either there's an eco-friendly reason and they're not telling the consumers, or they're doing exactly what you suspect, which is directly contradicting the message. And either way, you make a very astute observation.

Stumbled onto your blog, and as a regular Finger Lakes wine drinker I think you nailed it. So many of these wineries really care about their product and care about making you understand and enjoy what they have to offer. We'll go back to Fulkerson, Atwater, Hunt Country, Bloomer Creek and Lakewood not only because they have great wine but also because they make tasting an enjoyable experience.

There's nothing worse than a wine snob feeling they're stooping down to pour, as we've experienced at more than one high-end Seneca and Keuka winery. If you eat with your eyes, you taste with your soul...and that should be fed too!

Evan: Great post as expected, but let me ask you this...

Do you think that for people like us (me?) who are REALLY into the wine, do you think having food can be a negative?

Example: On our trip up recently, we stopped in at Standing Stone and they had several preztel dip-type things open and at least one of them featured a lot of curry powder -- enough in fact that it really rendered the room useless for any sort of real evaluation.

I've seen emailed with Marti there several times about this. They sell very well and help them sell wine. So who am I to say anything? But, I think she's going to try to isolate them a bit more in the tasting room.

Of course, I know that I'm probably the exception rather than the rule.

At Heart & Hands, the food pairing was done very well I thought. Nothing was overly aromatic to the point of clashing with the wine (although the garlic-infused cheeses did coat my mouth for quite a while).

It's a tough decision for wineries I'm sure. Wine is meant to be enjoyed with food of course, so I can go either way on this, really. As long as you're careful about it.

Here on Long Island, there are a few places that put out bread and cheese, but for the most part, you don't get get much else.

Lenn - I haven't experienced the Standing Stone issue as you did, but given your experience, I'd cite that as an extreme case. Most foods are not going to overwhelm the aromatics in a room. If they do, that's a problem. The example you mention at H&H is a very good one; Ravines often does food events and they also feature Hedonist Artisan Chocolates and CaryMo Chocolates. Even if you're not on the chocolate-with-reds train, you can't deny that most people are -- and having chocolate affects them. Particularly high-end chocolate.

Bottom line for me is this question: What about MY tasting room is going to stand out when customers recall their day? How will I differentiate my tasting room from the dozens of others out there?

To answer your question, I would HOPE that the answer is your wines. If you have top-flight wines, you don't need anything else.

In the regular non-event tasting room, does Ravines have food around? I don't think they do.

One winery owner down here shuns foods and other things "mere distractions" employed by wineries who wnat to distract you from the lesser quality of their wines. Perhaps a bit over-stated, but interesting nonetheless. I think he was mostly talking about the constant live music and other stuff that many LI wineries are using to get people into the tasting room.

Ive been terribly supprised by the very low percentage of wine savy people who come into our tasting room. Its maybe 5%, tops. And as far as change in the tasting room, small buisness's in general are like a case study in inertia. They are almost always fly by night opperations running on a shoe string budget, usually staffed off the books by people living paycheck to paycheck, who if they have been there any amount of time probably dont give a dam about it and just want to do what the bare minimum till they can go home to their "real" lives (well i guess that very last part has nothing to do with small buisnesses specifically, as most people arnt terribly enthused by their jobs).

I harbor a deep mistrust for any winery owner that disparages other wineries to the press, no matter what they serve at their tasting room.

Evan,

Thank you for the thought provoking article. This morning we posted a winery/customer service question on our Facebook fanpage that was directly inspired by this piece. Not surprisingly, people commented that staff seems to be the most important component of an outstanding tasting room experience.

You asked...
Bottom line for me is this question: What about MY tasting room is going to stand out when customers recall their day? How will I differentiate my tasting room from the dozens of others out there?

You can see the Finger Lakes Wine Country Facebook fanpage results here http://www.facebook.com/fingerlakeswinecountry

Thomas: You've been in this business...you know that people say things.

And to be fair, those comments were made in the context of why this particular winery does NOT do those things. They want the focus to be on their wine.

I asked. He answered. He didn't initiate.

Nothing else to comment on here? As a former owner, I'd think you'd have some good insight.

Lenn,

As a former owner I lived by the rule that I wanted my customers to take away an experience at my tasting room unique to my business, and I certainly wanted anyone in the press to take away the same thing--not that the press expressed much interest in my little domain back then.

In my view, disparaging remarks against the competition, whenever they are made, are as lethal to the winery's message or theme as a poor tasting room experience--maybe more so.

Having said that, I admit that as a writer, I love disparaging opinions; the scenario brings up the possibility of a good tale to tell. But as a journalist, I try to resist loving such opinions; the scenario also is merely an opinion and not necessarily factual.

i am a fan of several others -- these are not on my list really, as a finger lakes native. Do sneak into Shalestone if you can. They often will interrogate you to see if you are local, or know people they know, which I do, but I suspect they'd let you try their wine -- it's the idiots in big buses they are really trying to avoid> also, Miles is an interesting newish place. And do you eat while doing Seneca Lake? Try Stone Cat, Danos, . . . they give you nice insight into the wines outside the wineries.

Thomas,

You always need to consider the source and what motives might be behind ANY comment (good or bad).

Did you serve food in your tasting room back in the day?

How did you strive to make your tasting room and tasting room experience unique?

Lenn,

I regularly served unsalted popcorn--good palate cleanser. Only on special events did I serve food.

Food can change the experience, for the good or for the bad...plus, I hadn't enough money to serve food and sell wine at such low prices.

What made it unique? My stellar personality. Come to think of it, maybe that's why the press was uninterested!

Seriously, I'll never understand winery owners who knock other wineries in public. It's stupid.

I would be interested in a further examination of unique tasting room experiences. Whether it is special tasting room food pairings, tours, barrel tastings, and seminars I would enjoy a further discussion of how wineries differentiate themselves.

I remember visiting Iron Horse in California after I read the Joy Sterling books and enjoyed my first outside wine tasting. It was a modest tasting bar, a slab of wood laid on top of two wine barrels. But to this day, it remains my most memorable tasting experience.

As we continue to successfully market Finger Lakes Wine Country it is important that wineries continue to provide the best tasting room experiences as possible. That doesn't always include clowns and balloons, sometimes the simplest things can be the most memorable.

McGregor's does a fantastic job of differentiating their tasting experience. When I bring friends and relations around Keuka Lake, everyone always comments on the great tasting room at McGregor's, where they serve a snack plate and seat guests at wooden tables. If you happen to be a clan club member, they really roll out the red carpet.
Wineries that provide extra tastes often stick out as well. Marching guests through a pre-determined flight helps to move people through quickly (and may be a good strategy for buses of inebriates) but also ensures that the experience leaves people's minds just as fast. A pourer who brings out a wine not on the list, who goes beyond the specified number of tastes, or who pours an additional taste because the guest might like that wine, will create a favorable and lasting impression of the winery.

It's always fascinating to hear what people like and dislike in a tasting room experience.

Ryan, my wife and I had the exact opposite reaction on our first visit to McGregor, asking ourselves "Why are we sitting at a table with food?"

It didn't help that they were SLAMMED when we were there and the person pouring only made his way to us every 10-15 minutes...so the tasting took forever and we didn't have much chance to ask questions to learn more about the wines.

This is a great discussion. I think we're going to create a post about tasting room likes/dislikes soon so we can devote an entire string of comments to it.

There's no doubt in my mind that one of the most difficult aspects of operating a winery is to maintain an effective tasting room. This is where the entertainment and service part of the business meets the production part of it, and this is also where the customers--old and new--are cultivated by probably a majority of the nation's wineries.

It's where the most important part of the wine business takes place--when the winery gets to see if it is doing what it needs to do to attract the customers that it targeted in its business plan (those that start with a business plant, that is).

I cover this in my latest book.

Lenn,

I promise that you are the outlier in the tasting group at McGregor. I have been there many times, and each time I hear people raving about the service and the snack plate. They consider it, at a minimum, a thoughtful gesture. Most just love it.

But your comment illustrates the challenge in shaping a service mission: No two customers want the exact same thing. The goal should be to ascertain what a plurality or, hopefully, a majority would prefer -- and deliver it in spades.

Lenn,

I can take or leave the snack plate at McGregor's, but I do like the tables. Going there almost seems like a break from tasting. The guests I've brought have indicated that it felt very relaxed to them, as if they were being invited to stay a while and enjoy the wines. There's no doubt that the service ramps up when they know someone is a clan club member--the procedure changes from "pick five wines" to "let us know what you feel like tasting today, and by the way, we have the 2008 Riesling in the back if you want to compare it to the '07." Still, I remember generally having good service there even before I joined.
I know what you mean about waiting forever for tasting in a jam-packed winery. Crowded wineries can make for miserable experiences. I remember one tasting at Dr. Frank's when they were understaffed and the pourer seemed to be neglecting us in favor of people at the other end of the bar. I recently had the same pourer again, on a more moderately busy day, and he was great. Some servers handle crowds better than others, but almost all are at their best when the wineries aren't jam-packed.

Lenn,

For me, the tasting experience at McGregor's was fantastic, but much of that impression was no doubt due to the charm and wit of our pourer, the lovely Mrs. McGregor! It also helped that she had plenty of time to talk about all the wines. The only downside was that there were too many wines to try in one go...

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