Making the most of the winery experience

20 June, 2017

Tourism is an increasingly important part of the wine business.

Get it right and the rewards – in the shape of intense brand loyalty and word-of-mouth buzz (“this is the wine from that place I told you about, the one we went to when we were on holiday”) – are potentially enormous for wine producers. Get it wrong, however, and they run the risk of tumbling into the specific circle of hell known as the Tripadvisor one-star review, feeling the burn from the kind of PR which dispels the myth that all publicity is good publicity once and for all.

After spending much of the past few months researching some of the best in the wine tourism business, it’s clear there are some rules of thumb that the most successful all share – and some pitfalls that the worst have all failed to avoid. So here’s my list of dos and don’ts of vinous visitor centres.

A chance to meet the people who actually make the wine is one of the biggest draws for visitors. But if that’s not possible, investing in a properly trained, enthusiastic and motivated guide is a must. You can’t leave it to chance: a robotic, sullen or hostile host will do a winery’s reputation more damage than not having any visitors at all.

Unless a winery owner happens to be friendly with a film director who owes them a favour, or they actually are a film director (step forward Francis Ford Coppola) or they have such limitless funds that they can employ the genuine article, it really is best not to inflict a promotional video on your guests. Nobody wants to listen to a series of vapid, portentous clichés about “nature’s handmaids” or “the land’s great bounty” intoned over images of vineyards in the voice of God or Zeus from a 1960s Hollywood sword and sandals blockbuster. Silence really can be golden.

The best hosts will go out of their way to get an interesting bottle into the visitor tasting room. It might be a super-premium wine, but it doesn’t have to be – something old, something off-beat, or something that they can’t get hold of anywhere else is just as effective in making visitors feel they’ve had something special – something more than a sales pitch – from the experience.

It has to be easy – and cheap – for visitors to buy wine. Farmgate prices should be just that – nobody wants to log on to and find out that special price was no more special than the supermarket back home. As with tasting, offering something unusual is vital. So is a delivery service, especially for visitors whose home is a long-haul flight away.

There’s a reason residential cookery courses are big business in places from Tuscany to Sonoma – people want to feel they’ve learned something they can’t learn anywhere else with a genuinely personal touch. Offering workshops that give visitors the chance to do something that seems like an everyday task for a winemaker – blend your own wine sessions, a day in the vineyards harvesting or pruning – can be novel experiences for wine lovers.

Food is a must. That doesn’t mean a winery owner has to become a full-blown restaurateur, but offering pre-arranged meals (using a caterer if necessary) for groups, or platters of cold meats, cheese, bread and olive oil, can turn what could be a cold, clinical wine tasting experience into a warm, fuzzy memory.

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