What wineries can teach us about service

Me smelling the 'bouquet' at ConsentinoMy wife, Sally, and I recently returned from our annual trip to Napa Valley to taste wine, tour wineries, and relax a little. The service and hospitality you experience at most wineries is amazing and some of the techniques they use can be readily applied to other situations. Here are a few examples:

There's a fine line between banter and shtick.

I often enjoy some friendly banter with people who are providing me with customer service. Many of the people I met in Napa Valley were great at engaging us in conversation. They'd ask questions like, "Where else have you visited?" or "Have you been to Napa Valley before?" or "Where are you from?". Their questions inevitably led to a more engaging experience and more chances for them to sell us their great wine.

On the other hand, I'm generally annoyed by shtick. 'Shtick' is when the winery host delivers a standard presentation, often well-rehearsed, that's long on personality but short on any real connection. They may provide all sorts of interesting and amazing facts about the winery, but they couldn't care less about answering my specific questions.

Banter is great -- it focuses on the customer or mutual interests. Shtick is almost never good.

It's OK to educate, just don't make stuff up

Sally and I love being educated about wines. We like to ask all sorts of questions about how the wine is made, how the wine maker achieved a certain style or flavor, and even what food they'd recommend pairing with the wine. Visiting a winery can be a great learning experience.

We don't like it when people try to brag by making stuff up. At one winery, our host bragged about the unusual fermentation process for their Chardonnay (which turned out to be the way most California wineries do it), the 'fact' that almost nobody did a Pinot Blanc (we had just tasted one at the last winery), and the 'exclusive' ratings they had just received from a prominent wine critic (who had recently rated many similar wines the same or higher).

It's a good idea to educate your customer and even highlight your competitive advantages. You run the risk of looking a bit shallow and uninformed when you make stuff up!

Bending (but not breaking) the rules can be good

Many wineries have a set tasting list. Sally and I have learned that an enthusiastic customer who asks lots of questions is often given the opportunity to taste wines that are not on the list. Many times, these 'additional' wines lead to purchases.

Some wineries are very stringent about sticking to their tasting menus. It's an understandable practice for wineries that don't want to be treated like a bar. It doesn't make much sense for someone who wants to try before they buy.

Bending the rules in the right situations can often lead to good things like more sales and happier customers.

Where did we go?

If you are interested in learning more about the wineries we visited (and the wines we tried), you may visit our personal wine blog at www.vinotabulous.com.


Wineries demonstrate the Three Ways to Wow

My wife, Sally, and I recently toured Napa Valley to visit the California wineries featured in a famous 1976 tasting in Paris. California wines won both the red and white categories, despite the fact that all the judges were French. The theme made for a fun trip, but we also discovered these wineries knew the Three Ways to Wow: build relationships, solve problems, and go the extra mile.
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Wine Tasting in Napa Valley - It's All About the Experience

My wife, Sally, and I recently made our annual trip to Napa Valley to do some wine tasting and stock up on wine. It dawned on me that we go back every year for the wine but also the experiences. There really is a lot to learn about service from these wineries! So, here's a quick summary of where we go, why we go, and what we can learn from it all.


There are not a lot of major chain hotels in the Napa Valley area, so the way to go is a nice inn or B&B. We enjoy staying at the Napa River Inn in Napa. They've created a wonderful experience for their guests. A highlight is breakfast at the "Sweetie Pies" bakery, which is included in the room rate. They have two large community tables where you can often catch a hot tip from one of the locals that frequent the shop.

We tend to stick with the smaller wineries unless we reserve a tour since you get a more intimate experience (and often better wine). The taste of wine is so subjective, so I'll refrain from commenting on quality (they were all good in their own right) but here are a few highlights of the experience.

Sterling. You get there via a gondola ride up the hillside to the winery and tasting room. The views of Napa Valley are awesome from this suspended cable car! Sally and I took a tour this time and had a wonderfully insightful and informative guide, Robert. Lessons learned: a great environment needs to be matched by great people!

Dutch Henry. This is about as informal as it gets. We did our tasting in a small office because they were bottling wine in their normal tasting venue, their barrel room. The lady doing our tasting was a lot of fun and drank wine along with us. Now that's being committed to your product! Lessons learned: breaking the ice and being less formal often creates great service situations and can overcome a lot of other deficiencies.

Cuivaison. It's a well-known secret that most wineries will pour wines not on their tasting list if you show an appropriate level of interest. The guy serving us did a great job of asking questions and learning our preferences, and he poured several "off the list" wines for us to try. (It worked quite well - we bought several!) Lessons learned: Listen to your customers before proposing a product or service! You'll sell more and they'll be even happier!

Frog's Leap. This winery is appointment-only, but they have a very cool tour. Mindy, our guide, took us through their gardens and wine making operation and told some interesting stories along the way. For example, the founders lived on an old frog farm and "liberated" the grapes for their first wine from Stag's Leap, thus the name of the winery. Lessons learned: Involving your customers in your story can help build passion and a deeper sense of brand-awareness.

PlumpJack. No time for tasting here, just a quick stop to buy a bottle of one of our favorite Cabernet Sauvignons. They were doing tastings for $10, but we just asked for a splash of the wine we bought, which we were offered on the house. A woman standing next to us noticed our bottle of wine had a screw cap and that launched also sorts of questions that probably deepened her experience too. Lessons learned: It pays to make your customers feel like a VIP, even if they only bring a small amount of business. And, it never hurts to have something unusual about your product or service that is a conversation starter.

Peju Province Winery. Most wineries have you saunter up to the tasting counter like you are in a bar, but Peju does it a bit differently. A greeter welcomes you in a lobby/gift shop area and asks you to wait a few minutes for the next tasting. They gathered about eight of us and led us to our own wine counter where a very knowledgeable and friendly gentleman led us through our tasting. We all received more attention, had a chance to ask more questions, and likely bought more wine than if we had to elbow our way in to get a tasting. Lessons learned: It costs more to have extra staff, but giving your customers the attention they deserve should pay off handsomely through higher average order values.

Hess Collection. This winery is another big producer, but they're off the beaten path, so they don't get extremely crowded. The lady who helped us was very friendly and knew a lot about their wine. She shared her knowledge, such as having us sample a few different wines side by side so we could taste the difference. That helped make it a very unique experience. Lessons learned: Make sure your people are able to educate customers on your products or services. This enhances your customers' understanding of what they're buying and can deepen their connection to your brand.