In the best of taste – wine tasting rooms in Napa and Sonoma valleys reviewed for customer relations

In the best of taste – wine tasting rooms in Napa and Sonoma valleys reviewed for customer relations – Brief Article

Jennifer Rofe

For many wineries, a healthy percentage of business is done in the tasting room, and tasting rooms, especially when augmented with retail sales in addition to wine, can turn a tasty profit.

According to the Napa Valley Conference & Visitors Bureau, Napa alone hosted 4.7 million tourists in 2001. No doubt a large percentage visited tasting rooms. Chances are, hundreds of thousands bought bottles of wine, T-shirts with a winery logo and maybe even some olive oils and dipping sauces.

Or did they?

Perhaps the experience was disappointing enough to warrant a personal boycott, which was later made public by spreading the word among family and friends: “The tasting bar workers were rude, they paid us little attention and didn’t explain anything about the wines being served. We felt unwelcome and uncomfortable.” Hard to believe such a situation, but then again, when a Wines & Vines reporter visited tasting rooms incognito in 1997 to find out firsthand how visitors were treated, the experience proved less than stellar for the “detective.”

To see if the situation has improved in the last five years, Wines & Vines revisited Napa and Sonoma tasting rooms this past June, right before the summer peak.

My friend Edward and I, both in our mid-20s, headed for the winding roads of Napa and Sonoma on a Wednesday morning (famously the slowest day of the week for the wine country, so tasting room traffic would be light and service, we hoped, extra special). We popped in on six wineries–chosen by word of mouth, reputation and sheer curiosity–and are happy to report that the overall experience was very gratifying and quite different than the 1997 detective’s.

Before I launch into the results of our undercover tasting trip, here’s a quick bit of advice for tasting rooms that we can offer from our experience:

* Provide crackers and water for nourishment and cleansing the palate. By the time we had reached one way-out-there winery, I was starved, and we’d eaten all of our snacks. Imagine my relief when I spied on the bar a basket of crackers. Not only did I feel better after having eaten a few, but that basket kept me at the bar longer than I would have stayed, considering the overall experience wasn’t remarkable. Another tasting room gave bottles of water to the visitors, which I thought very impressive, while another kept glass pitchers of water on the counter for rinsing glasses and drinking. (Hint: if you do provide water in a glass pitcher, make sure that not only is the pitcher actually clean, but that it looks clean.)

* Educate your customers about your winery by providing information at the bar. For instance, flyers that briefly detail the winery’s history and wine offerings, copies of write-ups in magazines, even abridged media kits. Only one winery I visited offered such information-a magazine article- and not only did it allow the tasting bar worker to attend to other customers while I perused the material, but it gave me insight into the winery’s background and provided a natural conversation starting point.

* Perhaps most importantly, pay attention to all of your visitors-even to the ones that you assume won’t buy a bottle of wine. This especially applies to visitors in their early-to mid-20s. Perhaps your studies show that you won’t make money on such visitors, but consider this: not only have they stopped by your tasting room for a reason, they provide word of mouth advertising and are the next generation of consumers. For instance, following our tasting room experience, Edward and I told family and friends what wineries they must visit.

And now, our adventure, in sequential order.

Topolos at Russian River Vineyards

“Tasting rooms are the frontline of not only your business, but the wine business in general. That’s where people get their first impressions. We want the visitor to have a good experience and to buy wine. We treat individuals courteously and with interest, we have our wines well priced and we offer a large selection for people to choose from. We think it works.”

Susan Pineo, tasting room manager

Pineo is right-it does work. This small, rustic tasting room with low ceilings, chairs and tables made from corks, and a bargain barrel with wines available for $6 is very casual and friendly. And it’s not your typical wine country experience either.

You won’t find much retail here, mainly some shirts, maps and books for sale, but you will receive loads of attention. We arrived at the tasting room soon after it opened, and upon entering, we were welcomed with hellos, how are yous and friendly conversation. In fact, four workers graciously conversed with and educated us, even suggesting other wineries we should visit. At one point, the general manager, who was passing through, talked with us for a good 15 minutes about the winery, vineyards and the merits of white Merlot. The man working the tasting bar was kind and informative, and he tasted wines with us, providing for good conversation. The Topolos tasting room experience was very pleasant and I highly recommend it.

The Topolos tasting room opened in 1978 and receives about 1,500 to 2,000 visitors per month. According to Pineo, the winery does a large quantity of sales through the tasting room. The tasting is free and several wines are available for sampling. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. The winery also houses a restaurant. For more information, phone (707) 887-1575.

Roshambo Winery

“What we are trying to do is a more relaxed, modern approach to tasting rooms. We’re hoping to have art openings, bring in people who otherwise wouldn’t drink wine and have them enjoy the experience.”

–Naomi Brilliant, president

Just pulling into the driveway, I could sense that this tasting room would be different. Not only was it atypical of wine country, but in its unconventionality, Roshambo exceeded all expectations. Naomi and Todd Brilliant have created an atmosphere that is individualistic, fun and accessible to a younger generation of consumers.

A small waterfall at the entrance leads the way to large doors that open onto an airy, modern space with high, wood-paneled ceilings and wall-sized windows that fill the room with light and overlook stunning views of the vineyards. The tasting room also functions as a small art gallery, with displays that change every two months. There’s not much retail–some European glassware and T-shirts that play on the Roshambo game (rock, paper, scissors). On our visit, the service was very good, despite the presence of the Sonoma County Health Inspector, which can make for a stressful situation (no worries, the tasting room is spotless). The woman working the tasting bar was courteous and informative, and she offered us a clipping from Sunset magazine that featured a brief write-up about the winery.

The aesthetic encounter, not just the good wine, makes the Roshambo experience unique and captivating–from the modern architecture, to the beautiful views, to the eccentric art.

The tasting room, which opened this past March and sees 800 to 1,000 visitors per week, is open Wednesday through Monday, 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tasting is free. For more information, phone (707) 431-2051.

Ferrari Carano Vineyards and Winery

“We mostly, first of all, educate people about Ferrari Carano and what makes us unique. I think it’s very important to educate your consumers and make sure that they have a wonderful, great experience and that they leave here liking us and Ferrari Carano wines.”

–Louise Fredson, tasting room manager

Walking to the tasting room along a path surrounded by manicured lawns of deep green, colorful garden beds beset with bronze statues and the dawn-tinted Villa Fiore mansion in sight, I fancied myself walking the grounds of my very own palace.

Inside the tasting room–which offers a large selection of retail, including shirts, hats, dishes, aprons, olive oils and Christmas ornaments in the likeness of the mansion-a large window behind the bar reveals more breathtaking views and a tantalizing pool. Ferrari Carano Vineyards and Winery is a stunner and a must-see, if for the grounds alone.

Such an exquisite introduction to the winery conjured in my mind visions of a lavish tasting room experience, complete with immacu-late service. This wasn’t exactly the case.

The tasting bar worker who served me did briefly educate while pouring wines, but aside from this, I didn’t feel engaged, which made the experience impersonal. More bothersome, I felt that the worker, while pouring wine and speaking of the wine’s qualities, focused her attention on the older couple next to me, rarely, if ever, glancing my way. However, in Ferrari Carano’s favor, there were two employees working the bar, one who appeared to be in training, and a good 10 to 12 people lining the bar, the majority purchasing two or more bottles. It was enough to keep a trainer and her new employee on their toes.

Along with the gardens, I enjoyed, oddly enough, a trip to the bathroom. Why? The restrooms are located in the underground cellar! A flight of stairs gives way to the heavenly scent of oak and beautiful cast iron gates–emblazoned with the Ferrari Carano insignia–that overlook stacks of barrels.

The Ferrari Carano tasting room took up residence in Villa Fiore in 1993. According to Fredson, Ferrari Carano receives 500 visitors on Saturdays. Tasting costs $3 per person for any four wines, which is refunded on a $20 purchase. The reserve tasting costs $10 per person on any four reserve wines, refund not included. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Tours avail-able by appointment. For more information, phone (707) 433-6700.

Cakebread Cellars

“The philosophy of the tasting room is basically the philosophy of the Cakebread family. The position that they’ve held since 1973 to welcome everybody in their home still holds true today. But education is key. The Cakebreads feel that when you learn about wine and understand it, you can better enjoy it.”

Angelique Ball, tasting room manager

Cakebread is one of those wineries that you seek out. Literally. The winery, which resembles a modernized version of a California coastal barn, is tucked away on Highway 29 with no flashy sign declaring its presence. But it’s a winery worthy of numerous U-turns on the heavily trafficked road.

“I think we differ because one thing we strive to do is separate ourselves in the quality time we spend with customers,” Ball says. With its unique layout, Cakebread certainly achieves this. The tasting room is a modest, converted barn lined with stainless tanks, little-to-no retail (at least I can’t recall seeing any, except for, and get this, bottles of wine!) and five or six separate tables that serve as tasting bars. Each table has one or two attendants to serve visitors, which makes for a personal experience and essentially guarantees good service, as you won’t go unnoticed.

On this particular visit, our server seemed tired, preoccupied and didn’t impart much information, but on another visit with family, our server was congenial and offered backgrounds of each wine we tasted and information about the winery.

Ball notes that, based on customer comment cards, Cakebread gives one of the best tours in the Valley and the tasting experience is very enjoyable. Although I didn’t take a tour and our server wasn’t at the top of his game, I can vouch for an enjoyable tasting room experience.

The Cakebread tasting room was opened in the 1980s, and Ball approximates that hundreds visit the winery on weekends. Tastings cost $5 for three wines or $10 for five wines. Glass included. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily. For more information, phone (707) 963-5221.

Napa Cellars

“We want people to have a wonderful experience and learn a little bit about what makes Napa Valley and Napa Cellars wines different and great quality. We make a serious effort to make sure the customers feel very comfortable and that they get their questions answered, have a good time and feel very relaxed. We want happy customers.

— Eric Markson,

retail sales and marketing manager

Edward and I were certainly happy customers. Simply put, Napa Cellars is a must, especially for anyone with a good sense of humor. This simple, no-frills tasting room offers a precise combination of education and entertainment, courtesy of the friendly, witty and knowledgeable workers.

According to Markson, Napa Cellars makes an effort to have fun with visitors and offer knowledge “without forcing it down their throats.” He adds that there is no routine speech told to visitors and that they “go with the flow. We just talk to the customers, see what they want and take care of them.”

More importantly, they’re engaging. The worker serving me asked questions in a friendly, nonchalant manner–“What do you smell? What fruit is that? What do you taste?”–which led to an amusing and educational conversation about the wine s qualities. Even the winemaker, who was passing through, joined in.

This experience couldn’t have been any better; it was like hanging out with buddies and trying wines. I laughed the entire time.

Napa Cellars has been under its current ownership for roughly five years. Markson says the winery receives a couple hundred visitors on Saturdays and does most of its business through the tasting room. Tasting costs $5 and includes three to four wines; however, tasting is free if you purchase wine. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. For more information, phone (707) 944-2565.

Cosentino Winery

“Our philosophy is that everyone comes here for a good time, so we want to educate them but in a relaxed manner. We want to explain wine as an art form and make sure that people leave us understanding more about wine, about what they like, and kind of point them in the direction of where else to go in the Valley.

–Kelly Murray, wine club manager/assistant tasting room manager

If you’re driving north from the Bay Area, one of the first tasting rooms you’ll encounter on Highway 29 is Cosentino: small, modern and low key. When we arrived, only three other couples were at the bar, with one tasting room worker serving. Two of the couples were clearly enjoying themselves, as they were deep in conversation and laughing a lot, and the tasting room worker seemed to migrate toward their side of the bar. However, despite the jovial atmosphere, upon entering, we did not feel welcomed and were not immediately approached. In fact, I became bored waiting and began to wander about the tasting room to look at the retail offerings, which included some clothing and books.

Cosentino definitely lives up to its philosophy of providing a relaxed atmosphere: the woman serving was not overbearing or pushy, and she answered all the questions we had, even taking the time to explain filtering procedures. However, she did not volunteer any information, and this laid back approach almost bordered on indifference. Our visit proved to be definitely pleasant and relaxed, but mostly nondescript.

According to Murray, Cosentino can host as many as 500 people a day on weekends and about 50 on Wednesdays. About one-quarter of their wine production is sold in the tasting room. The cost is $5 for a vintage tasting, which includes four to five wines, and $10 for the reserve tasting, which includes three wines. Glass included. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. For more information, phone (707) 944-1220.

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