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February 22, 2010

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There's an old saying: you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.

As much as I luvs me some Pellegrini, I had a somewhat similar experience about two years ago. The woman working the tasting bar tried to direct what I would taste. I thanked her, but explained that I would prefer to taste in a different order for a reason (which I now forget, but I explained.) She looked annoyed and brushed me off after that. I was pretty annoyed; I'm sure I could've talked circles around her, but what was the point?

Gotta say I met that same guy in the same Macari tasting room, and I am a club member now.

As Elvis Costello once said, 'good manners and bad breathe will get you nowhere". Obviously, if I didn't like the wines at Macari, I wouldn't have joined the club regardless of how wonderfully I was treated by the staff.

But since one of the perks to these wine clubs many times is free tastings when you come into the tasting room, it is a big plus if you get the sense that you feel welcomed when you come there.

Then again, if I am not getting a warm reception, I just spit in the spit bucket and they figure I'm from the industry, and I get the red carpet treatment!! SG

Great post Lenn. I have had the same experiences in Michigan tasting rooms. You can go back to the same place and the pourer makes all the difference. No wonder many people are intimidated by wine.

This is an important post - fair and, I would hope, helpful to Pellegrini. I don't generally condemn a place of business based on one negative impression, but certainly there is part of the population that will never get past the first go-round. Lenn's post is an opening salvo for a close look at tasting room experiences in 2010. This blog will be focusing strongly on the highs and the lows, and to be candid, there is too much mediocre service out there.

To survive and thrive, businesses have to differentiate their service. The tasting room is the most important place to do this.

Lenn,
As you know I've been visiting LI wineries for almost a decade now and at each stop I take notes on the visit and give them scores (rated 1 - 5) in two different categories, which I define as follows:

Wine Score – Represents wine quality, from top to bottom, based on selections being poured. If there is a distinct difference between red and white quality, I will sometimes score them separately.
Winery Score – Represents the overall tasting room environment (including atmosphere, host’s knowledge, interactivity, etc)

I clearly delineate the winery score because I think it is such a powerful part of a winery visit. You can easily visit a winery with decent wines (but a great winery experience) and come away with a great impression. Conversely, good wine can often get lost within a poor visit. In fact, for first time visitors to a winery, I contend that the visit itself can often be more important than the wine in establishing “repeat” customers.

There are wineries that have good and bad days, but the best ones find a way to enhance the visit every single time regardless of how many people are in your party or how busy the tasting room is. On the North Fork some of my favorite tasting room experiences always come from Waters Crest, Shinn, Roanoke (especially during the Christopher Watkins era), Sherwood House, and Lieb. (At some point I have to go back through my scores and actually calculate the high, low, and average scores for each winery visit I’ve had to see if my documented scores match my recollection!)

PS: As for Pellegrini and Macari in your post, my visits have been all over the chart from awful to great. I think both places need to emphasize consistency in their tasting room approach.

Unfortunately,staff at the tasting rooms does influence not only purchasing but whether a customer returns. I have had similar experiences in the Hudson Valley Tasting Rooms.

Having a previous life in sales, I think all tasting room employees need to take a sales 101 course as well as learn about customer service.

OK I'll focus on the positives here and say that I have come to LI wine country (North Fork) about 10 times in the last 7 years and I have NEVER had a bad experience at Paumanok, Bedell/Corey Creek, Peconic Bay, Roanoke, Lenz, Macari, Castello Di Borghese, Old Field's and Osprey Dominion. Most of these venues I have been to multiple times.

In the Hudson Valley, Hudson/Chatham Winery always shows us a nice time and has a nice tasting room.

Generally, I like all their wines, but I can honestly say that there have been times when I didn't particularly love a wine at a tasting room but feel compelled to buy a bottle because I had a nice time.

I was in the Pellegrini Tasting Room last week, Feb 18, 2010 and the employee (a man) was attentive and informative. As an owner of a winery I would hope to be informed of such behavior so that I can address it. A public blog on it seems a bit harsh w/o giving the owner a chance to address the employee.

As a retailer who specializes in local wine, I could not agree with the article more. We have many customers that have strong personal relationships with winery personnel. These relationships are born and fostered in the tasting rooms. I have encountered many a customer who will not settle for a “similar” wine from a different winery, they will leave my store and drive somewhere else for the wine their friend at “so and so winery” poured for them on a visit. Passionate tasting staff wit proper training is one of the best investments a winery can make!

I've never been to this particular winery, but I have had similar experiences over the years in other regions - and it always strikes me as odd. Not because servers can't have bad days or because the wine is bad, but because a lack of attention to the customers and/or a lack of knowledge about the wines shows a lack of passion, and in the end isn't that all these wineries have to offer us?

Yes, their wines may be great - and yes, we all want to support local businesses - but in the end passion is all they have that puts them over the competition. Much as in the restaurant world, the thing that keeps you going back to your favorite restaurant isn't just the taste, but the entire experience. A "great" meal isn't just about flavor - it's about service, presentation, and all the senses. It's about a chef who really cares, and a wait staff that does too. You can see it on the plate and in how you're treated, and it's what elevates a good meal to a great one.

The same holds true in wine. If the winemaker really cares, and the owner really cares, then the serving staff will really care - and that will carry through into the tastings and into the bottles themselves.

And as good as a winery is, there are so many of them around now why would you go back to one that doesn't seem to care? More importantly, why would you buy a bottle there?

Passion gives the wine that extra something - every step of the way. Good tasting rooms know that and use it.

Randy: I didn't mention it in the post, but I absolutely did send a note to the folks at Pellegrini about this and told them that I'd including it in a post. No response thus far.

I ALSO sent a note to the owners of Macari telling them of the outstanding experience we had there. It's important to let the people in charge know when the good and the bad happen.

Thanks Lenn for your tasting room article. Gibson is a great asset to our fabulous wine educator team at both our Mattituck & Cutchogue Tasting Rooms. I am glad your visit to Macari was a good experience. We appreciate hearing praise and also constructive criticism and therefore would love to invite Dave Foley to revisit soon.

Long Island, Sonoma, Okanagan Valley . . . just when you think an area has got the hospitality thing nailed something like this rears its head. Unfortunate, yes, unusual, no. The process of keeping staff and facility at its best is an on-going battle.
Winery owners: employ mystery shoppers or some other kind of evaluation. You can't afford to have your point people at your most profitable POS behaving badly.
Customers: Give the offending wineries one more chance. Everybody has an off day. Like Lenn, make sure you draw attention to the winners and losers through a note to the management.

Alexandra,
Thanks for you note. It's great to know that the LI wine community is listening and is receptive to all types of feedback - both positive and negative.
I do visit Macari almost every time I'm down from CT (1 -2 times per year). My last 2 visits there have been VERY positive, and they have included both the original facility and the new facility (this past Fall).
I few of my poor experiences came in the old location a couple years ago on crowded weekends when there was limited space at the counter. There was a lot of fast, minimal pouring without conversation of what was being poured. The only time I received information is when I explicitly asked questions - - it all lead to a very rushed and unfulfilling experience.
I generally try to keep my visits to Macari to weekdays now in order to avoid some of the weekend bus/van crowds that can assemble. When a tasting room is filled with 30+ people it can often be hard to discern the tasters from the pass-through drinkers... but the tasters are usually still weaved in those crowds and they (I) still want some conversation and knowledge sharing with the staff.
I must point out that I have had a good experience in the past at Macari during a crowded weekend afternoon and did receive great service and conversation from one of the staff who did a great job juggling us and several other large groups. His enthusiasm to recognize each group and tailor his approach to each was well appreciated.
I don't have any names to tie to these experiences, but in general I think the enthusiasm & willingness the staff to engage tasters is the key to a good, memorable experience - - regardless of a tasters experience (amateur vs pro) or crowd size (small vs large).

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