Wine Country – A Case Study in Customer Service

Thursday, the Wife and I headed out to Sonoma county to build a long weekend around one of her friend’s weddings.  I think this was our sixth trip to Wine Country in the last 10 years or so.  Every time we go we make sure to visit our favorite winery, which I’ve written about before, Vincent Arroyo.  Last time, in 2008, Vince himself took us under his wing, got down on his knees in the dirt and dug with his hands to show me the root stock, and generously gave me three bottles of wine from his own cellar.  This trip, we hit Arroyo early on Friday morning, and Dave in the tasting room provided similarly exceptional hospitality.  He poured roughly 14 different wines for us, and took us out to the vineyard to show us how the young vines that we’d observed two years ago were progressing, and even how a few of them didn’t make it.  He also showed us how they measure brix (sugar content) in the grapes by smushing some fresh grape juice onto a refractometer and letting us look through it.  Very cool.
Arroyo’s continued friendly atmosphere, quality wine, pristine hospitality and lack of snootery, including absence of tasting fees, actually have the effect of making me want to give them more business.  By that, I mean that if you treat me like a VIP for free, it makes me want to buy more of your wine, which I did. This isn’t rocket science, but I mention it because it was in stark contrast to another experience we had the following day at Lambert Bridge Winery.
One of my wife’s friends had booked 8 of us for a tasting at Lambert Bridge, including a catered lunch.  It worked out to $100 a head with tax and tip included, which included a tasting of their “reserve” flight ($25) and a mandatory purchase of a total of three bottles of wine. (Note:  I would positively not recommend booking something like this – buy a nice lunch at one of the many high end gourmet deli’s around, like the general store right at the end of Lambert Bridge Road, do the normal tasting, picnic outside at the winery, and save your money to buy the wines!)
So, Lambert Bridge is beautiful – they tore out a few acres of chardonnay grapes several years ago and put in gardens and picnic tables.  Their 1975 winery is flat out stunning – made of redwood – and looks like it was just built.  Additionally, they make some excellent, although certainly not cheap, wine.  For my tastes, there is plenty of great wine to be had at much more reasonable prices all over Napa and Sonoma counties.
We were seated at a nice setup in a side room away from the throngs in the main tasting room.  As our host, Tony, poured 6 different wines for us, discussing each of them in depth and doing a good job answering our questions, we pondered the ordering sheet and price list on the back of the tasting notes.  Lambert Bridge, in the last several years, has slashed their production (from 50,000 cases to closer to 8,000, I believe), and now markets largely through their wine club.  They have two versions, one of which commits the buyer to 4 shipments per year of 6 bottles each, and the other of which is 6 shipments of 12 bottles each.  This is relevant because they only allow wine club members to purchase their “reserve” wines – their special selections, which comprised 4 of the 6 wines we were tasting that day.
I asked Tony, “Can we taste the regular releases as well?”  and he responded “These are the regular releases.”
“I meant the non-reserves,”  I prodded him, and he coldly answered “These are the wines that you’ve chosen for today.”
Now – this is the wrong answer.  Come on Tony – DYKWTFIA?  When we’re sitting in the private room, paying a hundred bucks a head for a private tasting like this, and I ask to taste their more “common” wines as well, the answer is “no problem.”  I’m not asking to taste your super elite, tiny production, massively expensive rarities, I just want to taste what’s on the basic tasting flight.
Obviously, wineries (like all businesses) have to balance their costs and giveaways, but you can’t get customers if you won’t let them taste or buy the wine, or if you treat them coldly or like a revenue source.  Contrast this with Arroyo, where Dave happily poured us everything they had available and then threw in a free bottle of Pinot Noir for us to enjoy at dinner after I added 6 bottles to my order and my wife bought three more for her sister, or Hawley, where Drew in the tasting room eagerly poured every one of the 12 wines from their list I asked him to pour for me and my 6 friends, while Dana Hawley doted over us and talked about her art with us (and of course, waved the tasting fees for everyone because I was a wine club member of Hawley’s).  My wife and I had noticed several years ago on our second trip to Napa that things had changed massively from our first trip – the entire region seemed to be morphing into a much more commercial enterprise, treating customers like revenue sources instead of guests, and ruining the experience in the meantime.  Hawley and Arroyo vineyards stood out to us as winemakers who avoided that pitfall, and we reward them with our repeat business.
Back to Lambert Bridge: as previously noted, Lambert Bridge’s policy is that you have to be a wine club member to buy their special wines.  We assumed, erroneously, that this “rule” would be waived if we wanted to buy any of the wines that we were sampling today.  Nope – Tony refused to budge, even though we were talking about 1-3 bottle quantities – not threatening to buy him out of his inventory.  Atrocious answer, again.  If you’re going to host a private tasting for people who are willing to pay $100 a head to be there (which is far more than anyone should pay for something like this, in my opinion), you need to sell them the product when they want to buy it!  Here we were,  fish on the line, trying to pay Lambert Bridge’s premium prices for their premium products, and he wouldn’t let us!  I didn’t say a word, merely shrugging.
I asked Tony where the bathroom was, and he made a joke about how I wanted everything, trying to be funny, and asking “Where’s the wine order?”   I laughed it off, raising my eyebrows in confusion, and then wished I’d told him what I’m about to write here:  “Let’s see – I asked if we could taste the regular wines, and you said “No.”  I asked if we could buy the wines we tasted, and you said “No.”  Hey Tony – WTF do you expect me to buy?”
I’m a member of Hawley’s wine club, and I have a “standing order” at Vincent Arroyo, which is equivalent to their version of a wine club.  I buy a decent amount of wine every year, and this goofball’s pompous policies eliminated any possibility there was of me becoming a customer of Lambert Bridge.
There are certainly people who will like Lambert Bridge.  As I said, the tasting room is beautiful, as are the grounds.  However, their pompous service and lack of value will keep me from becoming a customer.  
-KD

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