A Question of Building Brand Loyalty
I can’t imagine many of you are unaware of the ongoing, and possibly worsening, economic conditions we face in the United States. Unemployment rates remain stubbornly inflated and the housing market seems to only come to life after a treatment of government sponsored electroshock therapy. Sales of new and existing homes offer mixed to negative results nationwide. Local governments have seen their tax base erode in the face of declining property values. In other words, the economy sucks right now.
So what exactly does this have to do with the world of wine? Simply put, the laws of supply and demand seem to be taking an agonizingly circuitous path toward my long hoped for decline in the overall price of some wines. However, for this anticipated price adjustment, one must wait for the consumer to finally feel the pain necessary to curtail continued expenditures on luxury items, including the purchase of premium wines. If this were indeed a logical world, we should expect to see a corresponding decline in the prices of products to meet, and even stimulate diminished demand. Of course, price and demand elasticity must be considered when weighing the factors that influence price and demand in the marketplace.
Okay, by now I envision many of you nodding off in complete disinterest, so enough of economics 101. Let me attempt to explain to you why I find myself punching out this screed. Yesterday was a lovely Monday here in San Jose. Warm weather made this Labor Day one worth getting out of the house to enjoy. No better time to check out a local winery’s tasting room here in the San Francisco Bay Area. For the sake of being at least cordial, I will refrain from naming names and simply say that this tasting room is bright, tastefully decorated, and features some of my favorite wines. In fact, the winemaker is, in my estimation, one of the brightest young producers in California. His wines are exceedingly well crafted and well worth a reasonable premium.
How could there be anything to grouse about with every aspect of this experience pointing to a truly pleasurable time sipping beautiful wines cultivated from vines just a few miles from where we stood? Here’s where the economics of the moment come into play. Upon entering this lovely space we notice immediately that we are the only folks in a room featuring two tasting room hosts, one working diligently on the point of sale system, or playing a riveting game of solitaire. No matter, he was essentially non-existent and clearly much more interested in what was displayed on the screen of the iMac.
His partner launched our tasting with one of our favorites from this producer. She then set about opening other bottles. Our conversation consisted of possibly 40 words being exchanged between the two employees and my wife and I. This is not to say that these folks were in any way rude, just disinterested. Then came the shocker for us. At the top of the tasting menu it indicated that there was a $10 tasting fee per person. The fee would be refunded after purchasing $100 worth of wine. Even this didn’t particularly bother me, but what struck me was the fact that I did indeed make a $100 plus purchase – not making it to $200 – so we still were required to pay one of the $10 tasting fees! Even if I get to a $199.99 purchase I still need to pay for one of the tastings?
This is the moment that I suddenly realized that this was way too similar to my time cruising the Silverado Trail in Napa. There was that time my wife and I stood at the tasting counter of a well-known winery only to have a tasting room employee tell my wife that that flavor of melon she was experiencing was absolutely incorrect, and this after paying $10 per person to taste meager quantities of five wines ranging in quality from average to decent.
Now I know and completely sympathize with the plight of the winemaker. Heck, some of my best friends are winemakers, but to stick it to a customer that has just purchased several bottles of wine, and still applying a tasting fee strikes me as being an incredibly poor strategy. Even if economic conditions in this country were significantly improved, I would still hope that the savvy winemaker would use common sense while trying to nurture a profitable relationship with the customer.
So here is where the rubber meets the road. I was set to join this particular winemaker’s wine club prior to our visit to the tasting room. I looked forward to receiving the new releases, sharing them with others, and encouraging them to pursue these outstanding wines. I was on the verge of being a self-appointed evangelist for this winemaker. Then came the moment of truth – in a matter of seconds I went from an enthusiastic consumer willing to part with my hard earned money, to feeling nickel and dimed by representatives of a winery that probably would have been just as happy if we had paid our $10 tasting fees and left them to their “work” on the computer.
The moral of the story is indeed a simple one. There are approximately 1,200 wineries in California, with many of these producers working insanely hard to offer the finest possible wines to their current and potential customers. Certainly the small boutique producers, once proven, can ask premium prices, but in so doing there is very little to gain from losing potentially loyal, long-term customers by hanging them from their ankles and shaking another $10 from their pockets. Will I ever purchase wines from this producer again? Sadly, but honestly, I probably will not considering there are just too many gifted, hard working, winemakers out there that deserve my support.
For those wineries out there that realize you don’t exist in a vacuum – to you I raise a glass – a glass of YOUR wine!
photos and text © 2010 craig allyn rose