Winemaker Judd Finkelstein knows there’s a lot riding on the tasting room. Blunder and you’ll leave visitors with a sour taste. Get it right and you’ve got a customer for life.
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach—the iconoclastic Finkelstein is likely the lone winemaker to serenade visitors to Judd’s Hill Winery with his beloved ukulele when the mood feels right—but there is a common thread running through successful operations: Connect with the customer.
“We want to get to know you. We don’t want to just pour you some wine and go on to the next person,” says Finkelstein.
Here Finkelstein, along with Tyler Plant, director of business operations at Jackson Family Wines, and Regina Weinstein, director of marketing and retail for Honig Vineyard and Winery, share their tips for setting up a successful tasting room experience.
- Decide your vibe.
The first Judd’s Hill tasting room was the wine cellar of the Finkelstein family home. Then ten years ago, when Finkelstein decided to open a tasting room at the winery on the Napa Valley’s Silverado Trail, he knew he wanted to offer the same friendly, low-key ambience. Visitors must make an appointment, but there the formality ends, and they’re seated at a long dining table to taste through the day’s offerings. “It’s as if you’re coming into the family home,” says Finkelstein.
- Stress your strengths.
Competing for attention in winery-studded Napa Valley isn’t easy. “You have to figure out what’s going to make you stand out and make you special—and it’s hard,” says Weinstein. Honig, like most Napa Valley wineries, is also appointment-only, and while it doesn’t have caves or stunning architecture, it does have gorgeous vineyard views, a commitment to sustainable farming, and a family history going back four generations. To capitalize on those great features, Honig offers an eco-tour showcasing the winery’s farming practices and solar power capabilities, and emphasizing the winery’s family roots. Visitors get “an insider feeling,” says Weinstein. “They feel like they’re learning something about the valley that they might not get a bigger place.”Meanwhile, Honig has also made a name for itself as a family-friendly venue, providing children with snacks, juice boxes, and sidewalk chalk.
- Find the face in the crowd.
The Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate and Gardens, set in Sonoma County, receives a huge number of visitors, and providing an experience that’s worthwhile for everyone takes an immense amount of flexibility, says Plant. “We always try to accommodate their needs, but we also have a pretty good idea of what will be special for them, and we try to meet in the middle. If you think about a large group as a couple of small groups, it makes it easier to provide the one-on-one experiences that customers covet.”
- Hire based on people smarts, not book smarts.
Finkelstein’s confident he can teach employees all they need to know about his wines. In hiring, he looks at how well an applicant can interact with people. Promising candidates audition by taking Finkelstein and his general manager through a tasting. “What we really want is that the person who has an ability to make someone feel welcome.”
- Follow through with training.
Establish a robust curriculum of team education focused on functional, sales, wine, and team building activities, says Plant. “It’s just as important to ensure your team can speak effectively about a wine as it is for them to work seamlessly to provide ‘the unexpected’.”
- Treat your employees as you want them to treat your guests.
Want your employees to make visitors feel like family? Treat them like family, says Weinstein. “We support our employees and we make them happy to be here.” Most of the Honig employees are full-time with benefits, including 401k savings plans. Compensation is in line with industry standards and a commission is offered based on group—but not individual—goals. The winery engages in team-building retreats and exercises and accommodates workers with flexible schedules. “I think when you have happy employees, people see that,” says Weinstein.
- Update, don’t stagnate.
As someone in the business of providing customer service, Finkelstein zeroes in on how others do it. When he’s out—shopping, dining, whatever—he makes note of things that impress him and things that don’t, then passes tips along during biweekly staff meetings. Here’s one small example: He made a reservation at a high-end spot, and despite having given his name carefully at the beginning of the conversation, the reservation taker came back with, “What’s your name?” That led him to remind his staff to write callers’ names down at the beginning of the conversation.
- Read ’em…
When Honig gets honeymooners who want to sit in a corner and gaze into each others’ eyes, servers just pour their wine and let them gaze. If there’s a wine enthusiast interested in everything—even down to the recycling programs for the Nomacorcs Honig uses—employees happily unleash their inner geeks. Plant tells his team to look for something that will be a customer’s “unexpected delight,” such as a special taste of something not on the menu or a peek behind the scenes. “An experience becomes fascinating if it becomes their experience,” he says.
- …and feed ’em.
Wine and food programs are “increasingly effective at allowing customers to see how wine can be a part of their lifestyles,” says Plant. “Not everyone has a decanter or a wine fridge back home, but everyone gathers round a table with family and friends, and we want to show them how wine can be a part of any occasion and add to the enjoyment of bringing people together.”
- Don’t forget why you’re doing it all.
“To me, the ultimate satisfaction is getting to know the people who enjoy our wine,” says Finkelstein, of the tasting room dynamic. “It’s a lot of hard work making wine, and there are days when I think, ‘Why did I get into this business?’ It might be in the midst of harvest, and I’m sticky with juice, and some yellow jacket just stung me… and then all I really have to do is take a break, walk to the front—even if I’m still sticky!—and see who’s drinking wine. If they’re enjoying the wine and I see that, it touches my soul. I think, ‘Wow, I did something that made people happy.’”