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Standing Out From the Crowd: April in Carneros’ Sea of Wines

April 22, 2010

The great thing about April in Carneros for many participating wineries is the enormous amount of foot traffic they receive in under 48 hours. The bad thing about the event is that many fine wines get lost in the sea of tasting. So while the mass of bodies may have brought many new customers to wineries’ doors, I have to wonder how many more customers they could have gained had some of them stepped up their marketing efforts a wee bit more to convert more tasters into long-term clients?

A bit of background: I don’t normally post on wine topics, but since I was there, since I visited more than a dozen wineries in two afternoons (a little less than half the number participating), and since I very much wanted to be won over by  many fine wines, I was a bit surprised at some wineries’ missed marketing opportunities.

First, let’s talk about what the wineries did well:

  • Direction signage – “Enter” “Exit” “Do NOT park here!” “Buy Tickets Here!” These signs were all managed pretty well. After all, if folks can’t find you, can’t find parking, can’t find necessary information, they are unlikely to buy your wine. Well done — particularly by those wineries that are rarely open to the public.
  • Availability of wines – No skimpy pours! No “We’re only pouring these two….” This was a good sign, as I feel I’m treated like a second-class citizen at wineries when they only offer one or two wines to taste from a list of a dozen or more wines for sale. (How do they know I’ll take a gamble and buy half a case of something I’ve never tasted?) Most wineries offered virtually everything they produce to event-goers for tasting. And as for the size of the pours, they were generous. Although I wasn’t in the mood to spit my way through a lovely weekend of tasting, I wasn’t slamming back full pours either.
  • Food –  Most offered food generously and in a great variety
  • Hospitality – All staff was friendly, informed and helpful
  • Purchasing – Managed quickly and efficiently

It all sounds so relaxing: good food, good wine, gracious servers and staff. But how do you distinguish one experience from the next when you’re racing across lower Napa and Sonoma to squeeze in as many wineries as possible? I was surprised to find a number of missed opportunities (usually the same mistake made at multiple wineries) that could have increased sales across the board. This is not to say I didn’t have good experiences on many of my winery visits. I did. What was lacking was occasionally common sense. And in other cases, the missing element was overlooking the obvious.

Here’s what was missing in action and/or needed fine tuning:

  • Lack of displayed Mission Statement / USP / The Message
  • Inadequate Counter or Table Space for pouring tastes
  • Inadequate rinsing stations and/or service
  • Poor music selections

Now many may argue that music / entertainment is irrelevant to the event or tasting experience, but I beg to differ and will explain below. Here are the details, however, on each of the above points:

The Message / Mission Statement / USP – This key element was addressed in Tom Wark’s Fermentation post, Small Winery Marketing Rule #1: Know Thyself. In short, Tom advocates that every winery should be able to describe what makes it unique in 30 seconds – or 100 words. Why this is so important becomes clear as a bell when you’re visiting as many wineries as you can in one afternoon: What makes one stand out from another? Sure, many of the wines sampled were lovely; a few were even outstanding. How do you choose what to buy when there are so many good options?

 Here’s the routine at each winery: Find parking. Find your event glass. Adjust the crack in your car windows as if it’ll actually keep your car cooler (or so we tell ourselves). Head to the tasting room. Jockey for space and a pour. Look for product documentation. Usually you could find a laminated card, a “menu,” or xerox’d sheets listing what was being poured that day. But this is where a large percentage of tasting rooms miss important client contact opportunities.

At this moment in time they have a captive audience. Tasters are actually looking for reasons to buy. They are sniffing and swirling and tasting away. Some may just want to know, “How much?” Others may be looking for info on whether or not the Chardonnay used malolactic fermentation. Others are wondering what percentage of oak was used in the winemaking process? And some may be wondering, “What does the winery’s name, ‘Bzlipders,’ mean? Why didn’t they use a name easier to pronounce or understand?”

Those who lost out on the most opportunities were those who only listed the wine’s name and price, not providing any background whatsoever, nor any information on the winery itself. Those who made the most of the opportunity to host such a large number of visitors in one weekend were those who made the effort to provide as much information about the winery and the wines in an accessible manner. Accessibility is key to success.

April in Carneros is a tactile, on-site, in-person event. Those of us visiting each winery are using our eyes, ears, nose and taste senses to evaluate the experience, taking in as much information as possible that is easy to do so. Therefore, to assume that your guest can get your winery’s history or your mission statement online is highly impractical when I’m standing at your door!

Of the dozen plus wineries we visited, only Adastra Wines posted “70 Words” – their mission statement – clearly on display. And it WAS quite useful in understanding (and more importantly, remembering!) what made their wines special, different, or unique from Bouchaine or Etude or Ceja (all right next door practically). Only Adastra had their history, maps of their vineyards and clone plantings posted for all to see along with an explanation of their Certified Organic winegrowing techniques.

Lack of conveying the “Know Thyself” to your prospective customer base is a BIG oversight. For the most part wineries simply push one bottle after the next in the tasting rooms with little effort made to say, “This is what we do that is unique to us.” It’s a shame they miss the effort to make that impact, because when you’re tasting upwards of 30-40 wines in an afternoon, they tend to blend together. …Even if you’re spitting. …Even if you’re taking notes. Wineries need to take every opportunity to shout out their USP simply because we’re human, and it’s hard to remember what you tasted where and what made it special. Help us remember by giving us the unique information!

Inadequate Tasting / Pouring Space – Oh, my! This is a BIG pet peeve of mine. Sure, maybe a winery has outgrown its tasting space for the volume of foot traffic. Sure, maybe the county building commission veto’d a second tasting counter in their design plans, but I don’t believe it! Not when the tasting room is enormous with an itty-bitty little tasting bar in one corner.

I would like to bypass the problem of winery visitors hogging the tasting counter, but I can’t. I can’t understand why wineries won’t address this issue. Of course, they cannot ask their guests to step aside to make room for new guests standing behind them. That would be equally rude. But this problem can be easily solved, and I don’t know why more wineries don’t take action. As the longer visitors have to wait to be served, the fewer sales can be made. It’s that simple. I would expect this fact alone to incentivize wineries to do everything in their power to ensure all visitors receive their sample pours as quickly as possible. And yet time and time again I find myself waiting for long periods to reach free space at a counter or gain a server’s attention. (But that is a separate post on hospitality!) When you have an event weekend with an expected, dramatic visitor count increase, there’s no reason this issue can’t be managed better temporarily.

Many wineries did a fine job of addressing the additional body flow by setting up extra tasting stations. Some opted to serve white wines at one table and reds at another. What I cannot understand were the many wineries that did not set up additional tasting stations for the increased traffic flow. I watched as often many visitors would be waiting several folks’ deep to get their pour, all the while the flow at the cash register is slowed exponentially, too….

Inadequate Rinsing Stations – You’ll note as my list progresses, the importance level of each complaint is reduced. Do we need rinsing stations? Well, yes. Most of the time you are tasting from the winery’s own glasses, fresh from the dishwasher, at each winery you visit. An event is different: You are given your own glass to transport to each venue. By just a few wineries it can get pretty grungy.

If you are a red-only or white-only drinker, rinsing the glass has less importance. But for those of us going back and forth between them, using a relatively clean glass makes a big difference.

Many wineries have water pitchers or carafes on their tasting counters; some even maintain water coolers nearby. And some offer the more practical white wine glass rinse. But what was truly annoying upon visiting some wineries was asking a tasting room staffer (who was doing nothing) if they had water to rinse the glasses? The reply: “It’s over there.” I simply found it discourteous that they didn’t offer to rinse the glasses for us when they were clearly doing nothing standing at the bar. It immediately turned me off on the winery that the staff wasn’t being more hospitable. Had the staffer been busy helping someone else I would have had no qualms with their actions.

Mediocre Music – And now to address the fifth sense in wine tasting! How important is the entertainment to a wine tasting event? Depends…. It is obviously generates highly subjective reactions. Some of the musicians were superb. Most sounded like sick cats to me (singing under pitch). And the biggest error of all seemed to be that nearly every winery we visited had hired a copycat version of what was playing at the previous winery! How’s that for distinguishing one place from the next winery?

I know. That’s really picky and rude. But really, why were they all playing the same style of music?

There have been a number of studies about what music goes best with which wine. And I’ve heard more than once that tasting room managers attempt to match customer preferences in music to what is played in their tasting rooms. But April in Carneros provides a unique setting for mostly live music.

Personally I think that folk music is a very poor choice to accompany a celebratory event. From the lyric content to the slow tempos and twangy acoustic guitars, folk musicians always sounded like they felt poor, burdened, lonely and somewhat depressed. And even if that’s my inference, it’s companion music to ‘my-boyfriend-shot-my-husband’ country music and the laments of R&B.

I like to think of wine as a celebration. I just don’t think folk music is a good accompaniment. Celebratory music is uptempo like light rock (at Anaba Wines, yea!) or jazz (from Dixie to swing and big band or combos). And not a single winery I visited hired a jazz combo.

Lastly, to complete my harping on the musical choices, almost all of the wineries’ musicians were far too over-amped for the ‘concert’ area they were playing to. Wine enjoyment comes from sharing with friends and family along with the environment. We remember great conversations we had while tasting a new wine and enjoying a new vista across from a covered porch. My enjoyment of each wine was greatly diminished when I couldn’t hear what the person next to me was saying due to the overpowering music volume—particularly when I was trying to hear what the other person was observing about the wine’s flavor or aroma! Guess I won’t be buying that vintage!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 23, 2010 12:51 am

    I LOVE this fascinating marketer’s perspective on a wine event which I also attended! I noticed a few of these elements too, but many of them I confess I overlooked (although I’m sure I was affected by them!) because I’m less skilled at seeing with your Marketer’s Eye. I will add that I really enjoyed the ways some of the participating wineries used their space in new ways to accommodate the crowds and create a nice experience for guests. I also noticed, as you did, wineries that did not use their space well. At some wineries, servers were hospitable and engaging and interested in conversing with the guests while trying not to slow down the flow – while at other wineries, servers were less skilled at this. And I’m with ya on the music!

    Thanks for this interesting evaluation!

  2. Cindy Friedman permalink
    April 23, 2010 10:04 pm

    Thanks for sharing Marcia very good feedback – Hospitality Los Carneros is the organization that puts this event on…they have a Facebook fan page and you might want to post a link to your blog.

    I hope we can meet for a glass of wine soon!


  3. Regina permalink
    April 26, 2010 6:13 pm

    Very interesting and well written blog. Having also jetted my way aroung April in Carneros for one and a half days, it was clear to me that the “being treated like second class” was pretty accurate, but not at all wineries. It seems important to me that all of the wineries wine gets tasted at these events, especially for the wineries that are not open to the public otherwise.

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