by Elizabeth Hans McCrone
‘Blind tasting’ is more of a figurative than literal term. It usually refers to hiding the identity of wines during sensory examination, and then revealing information like varietal, blend, region and producer once the tasting is complete; hence, being initially “blind” to knowledge about the wines.
But Francis Ford Coppola had something more innovative in mind when he was considering the concept several years ago. During a team meeting while discussing the addition of blind tasting for guests at his Geyserville winery, Coppola proposed that the lead host should, in fact, be blind. Furthermore, he argued, the participants ought to be blindfolded during the tasting, temporarily removing their sense of sight, which could enhance the overall experience.
Enter Henry “Hoby” Wedler, a Sonoma County native, UC Davis graduate student in organic chemistry, wine aficionado – and legally blind, since birth.
Wedler and the Coppola management team got connected through an architect who had worked on the former Chateau Souverain (current site of Francis Ford Coppola Winery) and knew Hoby from a summer camp for blind kids. Introductions were made, the program launched and what Wedler is doing as the official host for Francis Ford Coppola Winery’s Tasting in the Dark is nothing short of remarkable.
“For most people, vision is what we call the first responder sense,” Wedler explains. “When you don’t have that, you have to retrain your mind to rely more on your other senses. When people are blindfolded, their ability to smell and notice what they smell, for instance, is heightened. It doesn’t become better, but heightened.”
Wedler has been leading winery guests through Tasting in the Dark experiences since the program began in April 2011. Participants are blindfold then led upstairs through the winery to a tasting lab where Wedler guides them through a series of sensory exercises and a pre-selected flight of Coppola wines. The results, he says, are astounding. “When they’re blindfolded and in that mindset, they surrender themselves to the wine and what they’re experiencing,” Wedler reports. “ They notice different qualities, like grapefruit, grass, spices like thyme…They get into the wine and leave loving wine in a way they’ll never forget. For a wine educator, that’s magic.”
The Marketing Power of a Unique Experience
The other bit of magic in this formula may well be what the uniqueness of the experience is doing for the Coppola brand.
In addition to conducting blind tastings for winery guests, Wedler has been repeating the experience as part of Safeway’s Beverage Stewards Program in seminars throughout the country. The participants are Safeway employees educated about wine and spirits and hired to help guide consumers with their product selections.
Wedler takes groups of between 5 and 30 people through a Tasting in the Dark, being careful not to reveal the identity of the wines until their blindfolds are removed. Once the employees realize they’ve just had a sampling of commercial wines produced by Francis Ford Coppola Winery, most are surprised – and very impressed.
“Everyone is blown away by the experience,” confirms Marlow Daniel, Coppola’s Director of Public Relations and Communications. “They can’t believe how transformative it can be. People had no idea these were Coppola wines. Most of them said ‘this is outstanding. It’s really changed my thinking.”
That mind shift appears to be paying dividends. Although Daniel is cautious about making any direct links at this point, she notes that early results are encouraging.
“We’re still gathering data on the program,” she says, “but initial research shows that we’ve seen an increase in unit sales growth in accounts that have participated in Hoby’s seminars.”
Elizabeth Slater is the founder of In Short Direct Marketing, a recognized authority on marketing wine, wineries and wine regions to consumers since 1994. For her part, Slater is unsurprised by the success of the Tasting in the Dark model.
“Creating interesting and unusual experiences for your customers will always lead to connection and sales,” Slater observes. “People remember and tell their friends about the event, your wines and winery for years to come. It also gives your brand a permanent piece of the customer’s mind, which in turn gives you peace of mind.”
Daniel agrees that uniqueness and personal connection are qualities that create lasting impressions and set Coppola apart from competitors.
In addition to writing for the Wine Industry Advisor, Elizabeth Hans McCrone works in hospitality at Francis Ford Coppola Winery, a position she has held since July 2009.