By Elizabeth Hans McCrone
“The single, best marketing decision that you can make is opening a tasting room.”
So opines Jason Haas, Partner and General Manager of Tablas Creek Vineyard, a California estate winery in west Paso Robles that produces high-end, Rhone blends and varietals on a 120-acre parcel in the Santa Lucia Mountains.
Haas ought to know about effective wine marketing. He’s the son of founding Tablas Creek Partner and importer Robert Haas, who’s been a U.S. wine industry leader for more than 50 years. Jason rejoined his father’s business in California in 2002, after earning a Master’s degree from Cornell and spending four years heading up a tech company in Washington DC.
Today the junior Haas is busy overseeing operations at Tablas Creek, working with its winemaking team and directing the winery’s overall marketing program.
“The biggest issue is education,” Haas says. “The more we can do to explain why we chose this place and are making this type of wine, the more successful we are. You do that with people who come to your tasting room. You create a memory for them to go with the wine they purchase.”
Haas doesn’t buy the idea that tasting rooms are expensive or risky ventures, even if they require a capital investment to build and consistent capital outlays to maintain.
“The cost benefit is heavily-weighted for tasting rooms,” he emphasizes. “If we get 25 people during our quiet time, their average purchase is $75. So, they’re buying $2,000 worth of wine. The cost for a couple of TR staff for a day is about $15 an hour, times 8 hours. That’s about $250 (in overhead). A tasting room will always pay for itself to be open.”
Assuming Haas is correct and that tasting rooms are not only cost-effective, but also critical in terms of successful branding, what does it take to ensure that a winery is optimizing its sometimes-hefty tasting room investments?
“Training,” answers Elizabeth Slater, owner of In Short Direct Marketing, a recognized authority on winery and wine region marketing, specializing in direct to consumer commerce.
“Training needs to be an integral part of tasting room (best practices),” Slater attests. “Regular training, even if it’s just a half-hour a week. We need to teach people how to sell.”
Slater is famous for her oft-repeated statement that “it’s not all about the wine.”
“So much of the time we keep thinking that giving customers the facts about the wine when they come to visit us is the most important thing.” Slater maintains. “It’s actually the least important.”
Slater cited a recent university study that found that just seven percent of people who visit a winery go to be educated about wine. “Ninety three percent go mostly to have a good time,” she points out.
Slater teaches wineries she consults with that tasting room staff need to engage visitors more often on an emotional, not a wine-intellectual level, and connect with guests by finding out what brought them into the winery in the first place.
“We are an industry of passion, not of reason, and our passion is for wine,” she says. “Too often we want to show off how much we know by giving out information instead of focusing on the customer.”
Slater believes that sales are the result of successful interactions with guests by staff who engage their customers through creating “visuals” during conversation.
“When you introduce a wine and tell a guest ‘when you pair this at your next dinner party or while serving this to friends’ they get a visual and they realize oh, I can do this,’’ Slater says.
She also thinks the critical topic of wine clubs needs to broached much sooner during the majority of tasting room conversations.
“Most people ask me about club when I’m checking out,” Slater reports. “By then I’m already halfway to somewhere else. The question needs to start right at the beginning. Are you a member of our club? If yes, introduce yourself, mention special events. If no, then it opens up the discussion.”
A person well acquainted with the importance of managing guest experiences in the tasting room is Colby Smith, Executive Director and Co-founder of the Concierge Alliance of Napa Valley and Sonoma (CANVAS). The mission of CANVAS is to “enable our hospitality “ambassadors” to provide optimal experiences for our visitors to Wine Country.”
Smith would agree with Slater that those tasting room impressions are critical to the financial success of not only individual wineries, but to the larger wine country region as a whole.
“All of these (visitors) leverage the flow of millions of dollars into our communities,” Smith asserts. “People come to the valleys not only for wine and great food, but also for outstanding customer service.”
Smith is a fervent believer in creating what she calls an authentic experience for the legions of visitors who flock to the Sonoma and Napa valleys during the high tourism season and beyond.
“People want a genuine connection to place and to (other) people,” Smith explains. “When their experience has been exquisite, they want to take a little bit of that home with them. That’s when they’ll buy the wine.”
Smith believes that anything extra that wineries can do – such as offering a wine and food pairing experience or pulling a bottle out from behind the bar that’s not on the menu – goes a long way with most visitors and keeps them coming back for more.
Given her work with concierge services in both Napa and Sonoma, Smith is also a big fan of networking. She believes tasting room personnel should be well connected and that recommending other wineries to visitors is good for business all around.
“If your guest says I’d really like to try some good Pinot and you tell them, I know a good Pinot house and someone who can take really good care of you, can you imagine how it would make that person feel? Now, that’s becoming a professional,” Smith attests.