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#wine farms – do they say the right things and make the customer feel special?

Do cellars really hit the right notes that make a visitor remember the visit – perhaps farms should ask themselves a few questions

Train your tasting room personnel and treat them well.We have visited far too many tasting rooms where the people behind the counter don’t really know anything about the wines, which makes the whole experience mediocre. No, not everyone has to know which wines were made with the punch-down method and which trellis system was used, but a basic understanding of the wines is essential. At some tasting rooms, there are easy-to-read technical sheets that deal with issues like malolactic fermentation, should anyone care. This is a very good idea. Also, we are old enough to have visited tasting rooms when the people behind the counter were pretty much always winemakers or family members. We know that’s now impossible at many places, but if wineries at least treat their tasting-room personnel like family members, it’s more likely that they will, in turn, treat visitors like guests in their home and actually talk with them instead of just mouthing a tired script.

Practice some crowd control. Especially on weekends, too many wineries are overcrowded. Tasting rooms have to figure out a way to deal with this. Maybe it’s possible to put out a “No Vacancy” sign when the parking lot is full. Or maybe, on nice days, put some chairs and tables outside for the overflow. Or, like some wineries already do, open a “reserve room” where better wines are poured for more money. We understand there are all sorts of issues here, some of them related to local laws, but no one is really having a very good time when a tasting room is like the bathroom at Newlands Stadium during half time, and this isn’t good for you. (Along the same lines, try to figure out something to do about the increasing number of drunk people. Some wine regions are coming up with various plans — like levying a sanction on tour companies that bring disorderly people to wineries — and we’re all for that.)

It’s OK to charge for tasting, but… Keep the tasting fees simple. Many small wineries these days still don’t charge for tasting, and that’s great. But we understand that this may not be possible for many wineries and that’s fine. If you charge, though, keep it simple. We’ve visited some tasting rooms where the whole fee structure was so complex that we wanted to call our tax lawyer to figure it out. How about one fee for a basic tasting and a higher fee for better wines? Simple is better.

It’s OK to charge for tasting, but… Refund the money with a purchase of a certain amount. We have been to some places where we spend more than R400 and still get charged a R30 tasting fee. This is annoying.

Forget the “free” glass. It’s hard enough to lug around and, in many cases, ship the wines we have bought. We really don’t want the glass with your logo that comes with the paid tasting. It’s a sweet gesture and we know you think that this will be free advertising for you when your tasters get home, but we have never, ever been to anyone’s home where they served us wine in a glass that had something like SUNRIDGE WINERY printed on it. We know some people really do want those glasses, but we’d guess fewer than you think. And it’s always painful for us to say, “No, we really don’t want your free glass,” so we leave them in the hotel. Our guess is that some hotel housekeepers have awesome collections of winery stemware.

Ease up on the numbers. We like tasting rooms where the pourer says something like, “This was picked from the vineyard you passed as you drove in,” or “We fermented this entirely in stainless steel because we like the fruit to shine.” Instead, these days, as a wine is poured, we’re likely to hear, “This got an 89 from Parker and an 3 1/2 star from Platter.” We’d rather hear wineries talk about themselves than what other people think of them. In any event, if you’re going to do this, why not just hold up an unopened bottle and say, “This got an 89 from Parker and an 87 from Spectator, so there’s really no reason for you to taste it because it’s obviously pretty good”?

Keep open wines well or pour them out. It’s amazing how many wineries we have visited where we taste oxidized wines. Because we tend to visit early in the day (before the crowds), we are often poured yesterday’s wines and they’ve simply been recorked and stood up in the tasting room overnight (or maybe longer). Remember: Those wines are your advertising and marketing; you don’t want to serve bad ones. We visited a charming little winery once — anonymously, of course — and tasted some wines, poured by the owner, that were clearly tired. When we called later to ask questions for a column and mentioned that we’d been there, the owner said, “Why didn’t you tell me who you were? I would have opened fresh bottles.” Does that make any sense to you?

Have something for kids to do. Yes, wine-drinking is an adult activity and, no, we don’t expect any winery to be a junior Disney World. But many wine-lovers out there have children and still want to visit wineries. Have some coloring books or kid-friendly dogs and cats and maybe some little crackers (which aren’t a bad idea for tasters, either). It doesn’t take much space or thought and probably means that Mom and Dad will stay longer and spend more. That seems like a win-win to us.

Have something special under the counter. Some people who visit are really nice and care a great deal about wine. Your tasting-room staff should be able to figure out who they are. In so many wineries around the world, once the people behind the bar have understood that we really do love wine, they’ve pulled out something that they’re passionate about. This is the extra taste that always makes a visit extra special. However: If you’re going to pour something special for a taster and not everyone standing in front of you, be discreet. At an artsy winery in Elgin, we walked in on a guy behind the counter pouring something with a handwritten label on it for three people. It stayed on the counter for a while and no matter how longingly we looked at it, we weren’t offered a taste. Finally, the pourer put it away. The message: You folks aren’t special enough for this wine. And that brings us to …

Don’t ignore us because there’s a VIP at the bar. At far too many places, we stand there like potted plants because someone has just identified himself (it’s always a guy) as a retailer, a distributor, a restaurateur, a wine legend in his own mind or somebody else who deserves special attention. If you treated everyone like a VIP, it wouldn’t matter, but if you are going to lavish wine and attention only on these people, get a room — we mean, take them to another room and flatter them instead of just pretending that we’re not there.

Make it clear what wines are available only at the winery. Many wineries have small-production wines that are available only at the tasting room and we have often found them quite special. But you’d be surprised how often we have to ask, “Is there anything that’s available only at the winery?” Have a blackboard or a sheet of paper that gives these gems the attention they deserve.

Don’t forget: We really do appreciate this. We’d guess that at many wineries, especially smaller ones, the owners at times feel overwhelmed by tasters and sometimes, especially on weekends, feel that visitors are a plague of ungrateful locusts. On those days, remember: We honestly do appreciate you opening your doors to us. There aren’t many businesses around that give away their products for a small fee or even no charge and far fewer that welcome guests into their homes and offices. Wineries are special places and winery people are special people. The people who enjoy a visit to your winery are your biggest fans

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