I took this weekend, and extended it to include Friday and Monday and we’re spending it up in Traverse City, MI exploring the wine trail in the northern region of the lower peninsula again. We’ve explored this region before and have gotten to know many of the wineries and vintners in this area.
Yesterday we dove in and visited four wineries:
- Blackstar Farms
- Bowers Harbor Vineyard
- Chateau Grand Traverse
- Chateau Chantal
My experience in the first two was exemplary, the last two were abysmal. Now as to the why behind my experiences it comes down to how the tasting rooms were organized and run. Blackstar Farms conducted a very congenial tasting room and I quite enjoyed my visit. The pace was self-led and it provided me sufficient time to write in my wine journal. The tastings here were free because we had retained the wine glasses we purchased the last time we visited. As for Bowers Harbor, this was a new experience for me, being happily surprised because the last time I was there I was so put out that I vowed I would never return to that winery again. The last time I was at Bowers, the tasting room manager didn’t listen to anything I said and just poured whatever they felt like pouring. Uh, no good. But this time? So much better! The new tasting room employee was wonderful. She was engaging and didn’t put pressure on us and listened to the wine order that I wanted and the wines I wanted to taste.
So, what about the last two?
Chateau Grand Traverse was very beautiful. It had a lot of curb appeal and a very impressive name. Big bold lettering, the stuff that marketing directors purr over. Once we got inside I noticed several things that were troubling from the get go. The wine tasting area was spooned up against their gift shop, which was top-to-bottom stacked with everything from snacks and dip-powders to books on wine. Very elaborate however rather distracting. Then as we approached the wine tasting bar a fellow greeted us (we won’t share names to protect the guilty) and immediately set the pace. The pace was best described as ‘breakneck clockwork’ as once we were settled and given a guide and a pencil we were under pressure to select six wines. The fellow behind the bar was one of a team and it became very clear that they had a script and a schtick to work from and they were playing it back to us. They might as well have been robots. The same jokes, the same affable smalltalk, over and over and over. There wasn’t even any attempt to mix it up even once, the script was that one-dimensional. The pace at Chateau Grand Traverse was a mad dash to the end. Just as you had swallowed the taste you had, Mr. Helpful was in your face making comments and analysis which trampled over the thoughts you were trying to form of the wine you just tasted. Wine is supposed to be savored and enjoyed, not chugged like cheap college beer. Our progression along the six free tastings was so rushed and harried that I gave up writing in my wine journal. What’s worse? They saw that I was writing yet cared not a jot that I may have preferred a slower approach. It was this that set me on edge, and so I decided that four tastes in that I was done. I was going to stop writing and stop thinking about Chateau Grand Traverse and after being told several times that “Number 14 is our BEST SELLING WINE!!!” I concluded that Chateau Grand Traverse was not, and never will again, get any of my money. Yes, their sweet Riesling was sweet, but it was also flat and dull. I could have mixed a simple syrup with grape juice and made something similar. So, whatever! After that I endured even more protestations from the staff that “Number 14 is our BEST SELLING WINE!!!” — Yeah! We got it! We aren’t buying it! And then our guide for the wine tasting just disappeared. He was replaced by another person, a woman who started us off on the same script and schtick all over again. If Chateau Grand Traverse was in the Twilight Zone, that would have done a lot to explain their dysfunction! Alas, I left Chateau Grand Traverse with the express desire to escape. Also I was filled with the urge to punish that winery for its rank obnoxiousness and rude behaviors, but instead of raising a stink I just left. I don’t want to go back. Yes, I was going to buy a bottle of their Chardonnay, but their staff made damn sure that wasn’t going to happen and thinking back upon it, it will never happen. In fact, if we do TC again, they will join the few other damned wineries we have abandoned. If we go, I won’t enter that establishment again. And yes, it was that bad.
As for Chateau Chantal, the wine tasting was okay, it didn’t suffer the same problems that Chateau Grand Traverse had, however their system for tasting wines wasn’t very conducive to a good tasting and this is because they categorize their wines by small black rhombus symbols, one symbol is for wines that you can taste for free and two are wines you have to pay to taste. You get three rhombus symbols, so three free tastes. You can’t taste-for-free their more expensive wines and those are all marketed as “Reserve” or “Select”. What can you taste? Basic wines that would have been good to drink out of boredom. The scores never broke 75 out of 100. So I tried three wines, all not very good, and at the end I didn’t taste anything that made me think that the “Reserve” or “Select” bottles were worth even looking at. If you are going to set a tasting fee, fine, but it’s far better, in a marketing sense to give your customers a sense of liberty by charging them some basic fee and letting them taste a handful of wines. If you want to make your customers really happy, set the fee to be the wine glass, then brand it and sell it that way, that way your customers are getting some small bit from you that they remember at home and they are more apt to try different wines. Paying discretely to taste “special” wines isn’t the way to go.
So, here’s a guide in a nutshell for what I think, from a customer’s point of view a wine tasting room should have:
- The Wine Bar should be a centralized island or clustered along one side of the presentation space.
- The staff should be friendly, scriptless, and be sensitive to the various approaches some people may wish to follow. The best way to assess how much interaction is important is to start with basic questions and ask the customers what wines they like the most. If the customer doesn’t know then you can ramp up your involvement and be more of a guide. If the customer does know, then proceed slower. If you notice the customer has paper, a book, or a journal, then slow the hell down. If a customer is writing about your wine, then that customer knows their palate and input from you should be limited to statistics of winemaking such as chapthalization, brix ratios, methods, and just one or two key points that are special to notice about what they are about to taste.
- Tastings should ideally be with a small fee, between one to five dollars and if that’s the design then some token should be sold, a coaster, a wine glass, a wine charm, something. The best fee would be charged and then waived if the customer purchases a bottle of wine. That fact should only be revealed to the customer if they actually buy a bottle. Do not lead with “If you want to taste there is a fee, if you buy, we waive the fee.” Make the waiving of the fee a surprise to your customers. That will ensure repeat business, which is what you should really be after. One purchase does not a true customer make, repeat visits and repeat customers are the key. In a way, you should want to turn a customer into a fan. That’s where your value is!
- Let your wine speak for itself. Do not let the tasting guide be a chatterbox. If the people coming to taste want a chatterbox, let them lead the guide forward, don’t start there!
I’m sure I’ll come up with more of these rules, so I may come back to this post and add to it, but these are some of the core things that wineries really should take seriously. It’s not enough to simply push bottles out the door, you have to engage with your customers and turn them into fanatics. The best way is with good wine, convivial and conservative wine tasting guidance and cultivate an air of happy engagement. If a customer feels welcome, feels like they are getting some basic respect and the wine is worth it, then they will no longer be simply customers, they will be fanatics.
Here’s a little example for you all, there is a winery in this region called Bel Lago. We walked in as new customers the first time we visited the region and now we are Bel Lago fanatics. We walk in and we pluck bottles off the shelf even before we arrive at the tasting bar because we know what we like and Bel Lago followed the basic rules and converted us from simple customers to fanatics. If you want to see how to run your wine tastings, visit Bel Lago. Feel the atmosphere and the environment there and learn from it. That is, if you want to sell wine and be successful. If not, then go to Chateau Grand Traverse and wind up their staff before their thinking parts run down.