Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Everyone is a critic, and wineries should be listening!

The claim that "Everyone is a critic" is no longer a cliché, but a fact. Anyone can start a blog and write about wine. Anyone can post reviews on TripAdvisor or Yelp. Maybe you don't give these amateur critics an ounce of credibility, but many people do. Lots of people look to others for recommendations on what wine to taste or what winery to visit on their vacation. Wineries need to pay attention to how they are perceived by their customers, real and potential. Real customers are the ones giving those recommendations and potential customers are the ones using those recommendations on blogs, Yelp and TripAdvisor.

Out of curiosity, I decided to browse Yelp and TripAdvisor specifically for tasting room recommendations in the Grand Valley AVA of Colorado. I saw lots of positive and overly glowing reviews of most wineries. However, a few caught my eye and made me want to bang my head into a brick wall. Without naming names, I wanted to share three of these reviews, each about a different winery, with you.

1. This was by far the worst experience I have ever had at a winery. We arrived for a wine tasting about 35 minutes before their tasting room was scheduled to close, and there were still a few people at the bar doing wine tastings. We were immediately greeted by this man who seemed agitated that we were there, who rudely exclaimed that they had already closed their tasting room for the day. Since we had driven an extra half hour to visit their winery we pleaded with him to give us a tasting, at which time he got confrontational and ordered us to leave his establishment...

2. ...We bought a bottle - price is $38 - and stored it at correct temperature. Tasted it 3 month later and the wine had turned into a bad tasting vinegar not at all a Merlot or Port. It was visible the cork had visible holes and I think that is the reason for the spoiled wine. I contacted the winery and I only got a very arrogant email back - not really trying to help me much - so I know I would not taste nor buy any wine there - as what they present is not really what you get. A wine can go bad, but I think customer service is most important. Not found here. 

3. ...Then she launched into a rant against the distillery next door and a few other wine makers. An elderly couple entered as this was going down and the phone rang. She took the call without greeting the newcomers and proceeded to gab loudly while walking towards the back of the warehouse. When it became obvious that she had no intention of coming back we left... 

I still shake my head in disbelief every time I read these. All three of these reviews were uncalled for, not because of consumer critics gone wild but because each winery behaved in ways they should never behave. First, why would a winery turn away customers when they are open? Winery tasting room hours are an issue in Colorado. I've tried to visit a winery when it was supposed to be open, only to find the doors locked and the lights off. When customers take time out of their busy (or not busy, who cares) lives and are looking for reasons to give wineries money, wineries should treat them well. I can see no reason why a winery representative wouldn't want to open a fresh bottle at the end of the day for a group of people pleading to taste their wine (fine, maybe the legal requirement to not serve intoxicated individuals would be a good reason). You never know who the customer might be. I actually spoke with a restaurant owner about this same winery a year or two ago and he relayed a very similar story. He said that he would not serve this winery's products because of the poor customer service.

Ok, now on to the second review. Bad bottles happen. When they do, the winery should do the right thing and replace the bottle at no charge to the consumer. Maybe the next bottle would have been bad too, but the act of listening and caring is what this customer obviously wanted. As I will keep saying over and over, wineries are more in the customer service business than the wine business. Excellent customer service can go a long way. This review could have been glowing had the winery ponied up $38, plus shipping, to make the customer feel appreciated. It amazes me when I hear people complain that wineries or even restaurants won't take back product because of quality concerns. Just a few weeks ago, I tweeted that I was drinking a bottle of Two Shepherds Grenache. I described the bottle to the winemaker, who had responded to my tweet, and he said that the wine sounded off to him and he'd send a replacement bottle. I didn't even ask for him to do that, but that kind of proactive customer service is more likely to secure a loyal customer than an arrogant reply.

I used this third example not to illustrate more poor customer service, but unnecessary industry squabbling. The small alcoholic beverage producers in Colorado all have to work together. Why a winery would bash another winery is beyond me, yet I hear local vintners continually put down other vintners. Instead of focusing on the negatives, producers need to focus on the positives and grow together rather than competing against each other. Complaining about neighbors or industry partners just makes the complainer come across as petty. I know I'd rather support a winery that is support of their neighbors. Just as Robert Mondavi is famous for promoting California and Napa Valley above his eponymous winery, small Colorado producers need to start banding together and promoting each other.

As unfortunate and unnessary as each of those reviews were, wineries should be paying attention and do something about them. I still think negative reviews are the time when a winery's true customer service ability can shine. Thankfully, I was able to find an example of just this. I noticed that Jay Chrisitianson, owner and winemaker at Canyon Wind Cellars and Anemoi, responded to 95% of the reviews on TripAdvisor. To the positive reviews, Jay personally thanked the reviewer. To the one less-than-positive review, Jay thanked the reviewer for her comments and offered a solution to the complaint. Customer service doesn't get much better than that.

Wineries should not be afraid that customers might post bad reviews on blogs or TripAdvisor any more than they should be afraid of Wine Spectator publishing scores about their wines. Wineries need to adopt the mindset that every single customer interaction is the most important one. Try not to give consumers things to complain about, but when complaints happen (and they will) please act in an appropriate and kind manner. The goal of every winery shouldn't necessarily be to sell more wine, but make their customers sell it for them. There is nothing quite as powerful free brand ambassadors: consumers need to be thought of as part of your marketing department. In this age of social media, you may not know who your customers are or with whom they will communicate.


  1. While it's true, "everyone is a critic" in today’s social media saturated world, I believe both customers and tasting room attendants bear some of the responsibility upon their own shoulders in the tasting room experience.

    Kudos to the winemaker of Two Shepherds, excellent customer service!

    1. Customers need to manage their expectations.

    2. Customers should call ahead, this is common courtesy.

    3. Tasting rooms can be very busy places; it's easy to overwhelm 2-3 tasting room attendants. So please be patient.

    4. Remember you're there to taste not drink!

    5. Please have a designated driver who is either committed to 100% spitting or to not sampling wines at all.

    6. As a wine 'tasting' customer, please remember to stay hydrated. Pour out or dump unfinished samples.

    7. If needed/required make appointments ahead of time, that way you and the winery on the same schedule.

    8. Tasting Room attendants should never bad-mouth their neighbors. That's poor form!

    9. Tasting Room attendants should do their best to acknowledge each new customer who walks through the door. "Smile, hello, I'll be right with you!"

    10. Lastly, please remember this should be a fun experience, follow some basic guidelines of common courtesy and everyone will have a better experience.

  2. Bill, your points are great advice! The tasting room experience is definitely a two-way street.

  3. I can happily say that in all my winery visits across the country I have never had a bad experience.

  4. Michael, and that is a good thing! Now only if all wineries could say the same thing...

  5. Good to know that the majority of the reviews you read were positive. As for the exceptions, I humbly offer the following observations:
    Scenario #1: The narrative does not pass the smell test. Were these visitors tasting at other wineries--and drinking--beforehand? The effects may well have altered their behavior to the point that "pleading" might have been seen as belligerence, thus the owner told them to take a hike. Just wondering...
    #2: Responsible wineries usually replace one bottle with no questions asked, if it's returned within a reasonable period of time. Shame on this one.
    #3: Report this kind of behavior to winery management immediately. This is bad, bad news. Of course, if the individual in question IS management, go to the owner...however, if they're the owner, then wait until the place implodes, then let the schadenfruede wash over you!

  6. David, Yes, I do not know the context of scenario #1, you could be correct. As for #3, most wineries are exceptionally small, family-owned with the family owner/winemaker working the tasting room...

    Either way, there is no excuse for any of the scenarios in these reviews to have occurred. In each case, the winery could have done something different...