Monday, August 30, 2010

Wine Country - A Case Study in Customer Service

Thursday, the Wife and I headed out to Sonoma county to build a long weekend around one of her friend's weddings.  I think this was our sixth trip to Wine Country in the last 10 years or so.  Every time we go we make sure to visit our favorite winery, which I've written about before, Vincent Arroyo.  Last time, in 2008, Vince himself took us under his wing, got down on his knees in the dirt and dug with his hands to show me the root stock, and generously gave me three bottles of wine from his own cellar.  This trip, we hit Arroyo early on Friday morning, and Dave in the tasting room provided similarly exceptional hospitality.  He poured roughly 14 different wines for us, and took us out to the vineyard to show us how the young vines that we'd observed two years ago were progressing, and even how a few of them didn't make it.  He also showed us how they measure brix (sugar content) in the grapes by smushing some fresh grape juice onto a refractometer and letting us look through it.  Very cool.

Arroyo's continued friendly atmosphere, quality wine, pristine hospitality and lack of snootery, including absence of tasting fees, actually have the effect of making me want to give them more business.  By that, I mean that if you treat me like a VIP for free, it makes me want to buy more of your wine, which I did. This isn't rocket science, but I mention it because it was in stark contrast to another experience we had the following day at Lambert Bridge Winery.

One of my wife's friends had booked 8 of us for a tasting at Lambert Bridge, including a catered lunch.  It worked out to $100 a head with tax and tip included, which included a tasting of their "reserve" flight ($25) and a mandatory purchase of a total of three bottles of wine. (Note:  I would positively not recommend booking something like this - buy a nice lunch at one of the many high end gourmet deli's around, like the general store right at the end of Lambert Bridge Road, do the normal tasting, picnic outside at the winery, and save your money to buy the wines!)

So, Lambert Bridge is beautiful - they tore out a few acres of chardonnay grapes several years ago and put in gardens and picnic tables.  Their 1975 winery is flat out stunning - made of redwood - and looks like it was just built.  Additionally, they make some excellent, although certainly not cheap, wine.  For my tastes, there is plenty of great wine to be had at much more reasonable prices all over Napa and Sonoma counties.

We were seated at a nice setup in a side room away from the throngs in the main tasting room.  As our host, Tony, poured 6 different wines for us, discussing each of them in depth and doing a good job answering our questions, we pondered the ordering sheet and price list on the back of the tasting notes.  Lambert Bridge, in the last several years, has slashed their production (from 50,000 cases to closer to 8,000, I believe), and now markets largely through their wine club.  They have two versions, one of which commits the buyer to 4 shipments per year of 6 bottles each, and the other of which is 6 shipments of 12 bottles each.  This is relevant because they only allow wine club members to purchase their "reserve" wines - their special selections, which comprised 4 of the 6 wines we were tasting that day.

I asked Tony, "Can we taste the regular releases as well?"  and he responded "These are the regular releases."

"I meant the non-reserves,"  I prodded him, and he coldly answered "These are the wines that you've chosen for today."

Now - this is the wrong answer.  Come on Tony - DYKWTFIA?  When we're sitting in the private room, paying a hundred bucks a head for a private tasting like this, and I ask to taste their more "common" wines as well, the answer is "no problem."  I'm not asking to taste your super elite, tiny production, massively expensive rarities, I just want to taste what's on the basic tasting flight.

Obviously, wineries (like all businesses) have to balance their costs and giveaways, but you can't get customers if you won't let them taste or buy the wine, or if you treat them coldly or like a revenue source.  Contrast this with Arroyo, where Dave happily poured us everything they had available and then threw in a free bottle of Pinot Noir for us to enjoy at dinner after I added 6 bottles to my order and my wife bought three more for her sister, or Hawley, where Drew in the tasting room eagerly poured every one of the 12 wines from their list I asked him to pour for me and my 6 friends, while Dana Hawley doted over us and talked about her art with us (and of course, waved the tasting fees for everyone because I was a wine club member of Hawley's).  My wife and I had noticed several years ago on our second trip to Napa that things had changed massively from our first trip - the entire region seemed to be morphing into a much more commercial enterprise, treating customers like revenue sources instead of guests, and ruining the experience in the meantime.  Hawley and Arroyo vineyards stood out to us as winemakers who avoided that pitfall, and we reward them with our repeat business.

Back to Lambert Bridge: as previously noted, Lambert Bridge's policy is that you have to be a wine club member to buy their special wines.  We assumed, erroneously, that this "rule" would be waived if we wanted to buy any of the wines that we were sampling today.  Nope - Tony refused to budge, even though we were talking about 1-3 bottle quantities - not threatening to buy him out of his inventory.  Atrocious answer, again.  If you're going to host a private tasting for people who are willing to pay $100 a head to be there (which is far more than anyone should pay for something like this, in my opinion), you need to sell them the product when they want to buy it!  Here we were,  fish on the line, trying to pay Lambert Bridge's premium prices for their premium products, and he wouldn't let us!  I didn't say a word, merely shrugging.

I asked Tony where the bathroom was, and he made a joke about how I wanted everything, trying to be funny, and asking "Where's the wine order?"   I laughed it off, raising my eyebrows in confusion, and then wished I'd told him what I'm about to write here:  "Let's see - I asked if we could taste the regular wines, and you said "No."  I asked if we could buy the wines we tasted, and you said "No."  Hey Tony - WTF do you expect me to buy?"

I'm a member of Hawley's wine club, and I have a "standing order" at Vincent Arroyo, which is equivalent to their version of a wine club.  I buy a decent amount of wine every year, and this goofball's pompous policies eliminated any possibility there was of me becoming a customer of Lambert Bridge.

There are certainly people who will like Lambert Bridge.  As I said, the tasting room is beautiful, as are the grounds.  However, their pompous service and lack of value will keep me from becoming a customer.  



The Bracelet said...

I've been to Napa once in 2005. I was stunned by how pompous some winery staff were. We had our best experiences, and ultimately purchased the most wine, from the 3 wineries that treated us like their most important customers of the day. Nicholson Ranch, Simi, and Nichelini.

I was also stunned by how close Sutter Home vines were to Opus One's. The gap in price compared to the gap in distance is hilarious.

EconomicDisconnect said...

I was there one time a while ago. We stayed at the Silverado resort, not sure if it is still there. Great area, very pretty.

Unknown said...

Y'all ought to come up to WA state. Woodinville has a few large wineries, like Chateau St. Michelle (a great place to see a concert), but they have a huge contingent of emerging wineries, including a very large cluster in an industrial park. The missus and I stubled upon it and could not believe how large and deep the business park was, loaded with small wineries. E.g., Of course there is the Yakima Valley area, but if you are in Seattle, Woodinville is quite close.

Anonymous said...

Do not douche nozzles like you just wrote of know the fact of compound customers?

Treat one like crap, and they will tell 1000.

Or on your case, Kid, 1,000,000.

Good on 'ya!



IF said...

When I came to the Bay Area 5 years ago a friend insisted in going to Napa. I knew it would be bad, but it was worse than imagined. Lets say very different from what I was used to in wine regions in Europe. It took me several years to recover and even think about going sampling again. Russian River, Anderson Valley, Livermore all offer sampling for a small fee or for free. When sampling my goal is to find and buy wine that I like, but is affordable to open once or twice without the need for an occasion. Don't care for names. When I can sample wine for free, I make a point of purchasing a bottle even if I didn't like anything. But in general I question the wisdom of driving into the countryside to get wine. There are very few places (tiny) with reasonably priced wines that can't be purchased at the local BevMo or K&L. My budget doesn't really allow for anything "private". And the public stuff is available everywhere at 20 percent discount compared to the winery. Why drive 300 miles in such a case? Maybe for the sampling, but certainly not to buy bottles! And finally, most wineries seem to be open 11am to 5pm. I often enough go hiking near a wine area and wouldn't mind sitting outside in the evening eating a sandwich in a nice setting, feeling the heat of the day disappear and drinking wine by the glass (and paying for it). But I can't find places like this anywhere in CA! Who are the people that think it is a good idea to run this business so early in the day?

Bayne_S said...

Dude there is something about Healdsburg and the antiques shopping that makes place more snooty.

I prefer Benziger for their tour and Valley of the Moon and BR Cohn for their wines in town of Sonoma vs. heading to north county

Joe said...

Hey Kid -

I posted a link to this post over at the Wine Library forums. They have an interesting crew over there. Be interesting to see the reactions.

Daniel said...

My wife and I used to be in the Ridge monthly/quarterly equivalent. Some good wines, some not so good. It was a way for them to try new things and have some semblance of a certain piece in their revenue stream. As a reward they would hold a picnic and tasting at the winery on top of Montebello Road in Cupertino. Really nice. Then, one year, Paul Draper the winemaker was pouring the Montebello Cabernet and I went back for a second pour and he refused. I was astounded. Bear in mind this club was like $600 a year. His response was that he couldn't afford to pour more than one tablespoon per person else we would drink him out of all his Montebello. Horseshit I think was the word I used in response. And that, ladies and gents, was the end of that. Have never bought another Ridge wine in the last ten years. D-cubed, Trefethen, St. Supry etc. Way to many great wineries to waste time on someone like Draper.

Kid Dynamite said...

daniel - that's EXACTLY what i'm talking about.... totally unacceptable.

Cabfrancophile said...

With respect to Ridge, I can somewhat understand them not pouring Montebello upon request since it's their highly allocated flagship wine. But clearly the response from Draper was not particularly diplomatic. Explaining politely that there are only limited quantities of a given wine allocated would have been much more appropriate. There are folks out there who just want to drink as much as possible at a tasting or expect instant gratification, so I can understand why Draper might draw a hard line on Montebello. For top customers, though, I'm not certain this makes all that much sense in the long run.

As far as the original post, it reminds me a bit of Melville Winery. Pretty tasting room, highly rated wines, and prices to back them up. I think the tasting was a rather spendy $10 or $15 for a limited number of wines. The tasting room pourer basically made no attempt to talk to my party. Instead, he poured and walked away to talk to some other folks until we were onto the next wine. I suspect he had already made up his mind we didn't look like their 'type' of customer. Well, I'm not one for the hard sale, but I genuinely appreciate it when someone can answer my questions. He lost a sale right there. Part of the business is service and engaging the customer because the wine alone usually needs some external justification given the price. So I'll not be back there, and I'll steer folks to more down to earth wineries who take the time to chat with every customer.

Wineries need to keep in mind it's not a special privilege to buy their wine. Instead, they are privileged to have loyal customers.

maynardGkeynes said...

Explains how they went from 50K cases to 8k. BTW, Lambert Bridge wines suck. That might have something to do with it too. It's located in a hot area. No hope. It's more of a brand now anyway. I'm not sure they own any vineyards. maybe that's a plus if they are buying from others area now.