A Funny Thing Happened in the Tasting Room

Archery Summit Tasting Room

In my continuing pursuit to keep my “butt in the seat” and pursue the writing life, I endeavor to take insightful moments and capture them by “writing myself into existence.”

Something wonderful happened working in the Archery Summit tasting room in coming out of my introverted head way of selling. I experienced what happens when you start leading more from the heart and one’s passion.  I would never have believed that I was going to learn more about selling in two days at Archery Summit than I’ve learned in a lifetime of professional selling of software products and equity stock to investors in the companies I’ve started.

A couple of months ago I learned that Patrick Reuter and Leigh Bartholomew decided to build a tasting room at the end of their new winery location for Dominio IV.  In talking to Leigh’s mom who handles a lot of the wine club billings, she was excited about the tasting room but worried that Patrick and Leigh might not have any more weekend time together or not afford to hire folks to work on the weekends for the tasting room.  That gave me the idea to help out by volunteering one weekend a month in their tasting room.  So I called Patrick and asked if volunteering would help him out.  He was very excited and I couldn’t wait for the grand opening (which was on a Memorial Day).

After a couple of days reflection, it occurred to me that I didn’t know anything about working in a winery tasting room.  I’d spent a lot of time observing the tasting rooms at Benziger Family Winery and Imagery Winery for their Direct to Consumer project, but I had not stepped across the line and actually worked with paying customers.  So I scratched my head and wondered how I could get some experience.  Finally it occurred to me that Chris Nagy, tasting room manager at Archery Summit, might be kind enough to let me volunteer once a month.  I called Chris and she welcomed the idea.

A couple of weeks later, I drove down to Archery Summit for my first weekend of volunteering.  Chris asked me if I had my Oregon Alcohol Servers Permit.  “What’s that?” I asked.  It turns out you have to attend a half day class and take a test in order to pour alcohol in the state of Oregon.  Chris was kind enough to fill out an application and pay the application fee for me and let me know that I had two months to come to Oregon and take the test.

To warm up for the Oregon test, I attended a class at a seedy pizza joint in South Seattle where I endured three hours of lectures and videos and bad jokes, took a test and got my Washington Alcohol pourers permit.  I asked the instructor if he knew an equivalent course for Oregon and he related that the nice part of Oregon is that you could do everything online.  He pointed me to the website and I signed up online and took the Oregon online classes and test and passed with flying colors (OK, I missed one question).

As I was relating the experience to Patrick, he laughed and said “You dummy, I got all of the questions right.  Don’t you know that you take the test in one browser window and have the tutorial and materials open in another browser window.  You’ve got to be really dumb to miss any questions that way.”

Pinot Gris Vineyard within Red Hills Estate

Armed with my new, official, laminated Oregon Alcohol Servers permit, I was ready to go back to Archery Summit and take that next step to really serving and selling consumers.  Of course I would pick a Wine Club (A-List) release weekend to practice my new skills.  Saturday was the Spring A-List release event for customers to pick up their 2009 Pinot Gris, 2009 Vireton Rose, and 2008 Premier Cuvee Pinot Noir.  Those wines would be served at the first three serving stations in the barrel caves underneath the winery.  The last serving station would be for the 2007 Arcus Estate.  I was assigned this last table because presumably as an A-List customer for 10 years I knew a lot about the Archery Summit wines. All the staff knows that Arcus Estate is my favorite of the Archery Summit Pinots.

Along with the wines being poured at each station, there was a food pairing.  On my Arcus table there was a plate of dark chocolate with hazelnuts from Honest Chocolates of Newberg, OR.  The aromas from the dark chocolate and the Arcus Estate Pinot Noir were cruel and unusual punishment.  I knew I couldn’t dive into the chocolates or I’d be munching all day.  Then, I realized I’d be pouring Arcus Estate all day for the guests and I couldn’t have any for myself (Oregon Alcohol Pourers Law – look it up).

At 10am sharp, the guests started arriving.  We’d been advised to do 1 ounce pours to make the wine last as we didn’t know how many guests would be coming for the day.  Over the course of the day, it became clear that I was incapable of delivering a one ounce pour.  The bigger problem was that as I was the last station and had the best wine, the guests kept coming back for second and third pours.  Nobody had warned me about that phenomena.  I didn’t want to turn anyone away and the rest of the staff was so busy there was no one to ask what to do.  I kept on pouring graciously. From the guest perspective they were delighted to find a newbie pourer.  At the end of the day I had gone through 36 bottles of Arcus Estate wine for the 500+ guests.  I gained the dubious distinction of the pourus maximus.

Pinot Noir Grapes Ripening

At the beginning of the day, I assumed that since this was an A-List release event all of the guests would know about the wines, particularly Arcus Estate, since Archery Summit has produced this wine since the early 1990s.  Then I remembered that Chris shared that unlike other wineries, Archery Summit wouldn’t turn non A-List members away if they showed up for a tasting.  So I started “presenting” the wine to each guest and describing a little about the qualities of the Arcus Estate Vineyard.  If they started asking questions, I shared some more.  Pretty soon I realized that relatively few of the guests knew that much about my favorite vineyard.

I started honing my pitch a little more and began engaging with the guests to learn more about their backgrounds.  Where are you from?  What did you think of the Pinot Gris?  Which wine was your favorite today?  All of these were easy warm up questions, and most folks took the questions for what they were – an invitation to a deeper conversation about the wines.  I was really having fun now.  I realized it is easy to be an extrovert when you have a great product that you are holding in your hand and that lots of people want more of (well, OK, I did taste a little of the wine to help the extroversion along).

Tasting through the vintage

Even when the crowds got real dense and I was scrambling to pour wine and open new bottles to keep the flow going, I was having a great time.  My tongue got tied up at times and twisted around and I got a temporary case of “word salad” popularized on Boston Legal.  All in all, it was an invigorating day spending ten hours on my feet interacting with 500 fine wine consumers.

After we cleaned up from the Wine Club event, it was time to stage an experiential seminar for twenty couples who were CEOs of businesses in Southern California.  Anna Matzinger led a sensory experience seminar with some 32 differing “smells” in covered wine glasses and five “spiked” wines infused with different aromatics.  During the seminar, Patrick joined one of the tables and worked his irrepressible magic by going through the seminar with the guests.  When it came time to taste the 2008 Arcus Estate, Patrick created his visual language map of the wine and enthralled the guests at his table.

Tasting a range of Oregon Wines

After the seminar, the couples came down into the fermentation room to taste wines from three wineries of which Dominio IV was one.  I think all of the couples at Patrick’s table immediately started tasting his wines and Patrick did a booming business in the 30 minutes that went by so quickly.  I had the chance to observe and listen to Patrick as he described his wines and extolled their virtues.  I felt like I was in the presence of the pied piper.

After a quick dinner with my daughter, Maggie and her fiance (now husband), Brian, I went back to the hotel and collapsed into bed.  Everything hurt from my feet to the top of my head.  I wonder as I nod off if I will be able to make it through the next day in the Archery Summit Tasting room.

Archery Summit Estate Vines

I showed up in the tasting room the next day at 9am to get ready for the 10am opening.  There would be just three of the permanent staff on duty as it was expected to be a slow day.  In addition, a recent hire who did not yet have her Oregon alcohol server’s permit was there to help out with the glass cleaning and behind the scenes chores.  Because there were several tours and private tastings during the day, it meant that for much of the time there were only two of us in the tasting room to pour and educate as many as twenty five people squeezed into the tasting room.  Because it was pouring rain and cold most of the day, there was little relief for the guests to relax outside on the patio.

In the beginning, I was tentative with my first set of customers.   At least 90% of the consumers were on their first visit to Archery Summit with many of them from out of town (couples from Boston, Dallas, Houston, South Carolina, Seattle …).   As the morning wore on, I became more comfortable and more confident in my delivery of the wonders of each of the four wines we were serving (2007 Premier Cuvee, 2007 Renegade Ridge Vineyard, 2007 Looney Vineyard, 2007 Arcus Estate).  I’d present the bottle to each consumer and describe where each vineyard was located and a little about the aroma and taste profile that each vineyard imparted to the wines.

I would then answer questions as they arose trying hard not to do too much MSU (making stuff up).  Whenever someone indicated that they were interested in buying some wine, I’d hand them the A-List brochure and let them know that the $15 tasting fee would be waved and they could be assured of receiving the fine wines as they are released during the year along with the 20% discount.  At least four of the consumers that I engaged with signed up for the A-List.

I was really having fun now.  As the afternoon wore on and there were only two of us serving, I was hopping between four different groups at a time.  The challenge of figuring out where each group was in their tasting sequence, remembering to do the presentation and a little education on each wine, engaging the consumer in a personal conversation and showing my enthusiasm for the wine was quite a trick.  I loved it.  Every once in a while somebody would recognize the Masters logo on my shirt and we’d have a great discussion about the latest tournament.  About mid afternoon I was getting playful and my description of the Arcus Estate wine included – “note the wonderful aromas that hit you even before your nose gets close to the glass.  Whenever I smell those wonderful floral notes from the Arcus Estate, it just screams time to have a party.”  I’d get a good laugh and the guests would go “Yeah, it is time to have a party.”

“Well, then surely you need to take some Arcus Estate with you,” I’d respond.  Some of the folks even took me up on that silly line.

One of my favorite questions during the day came from a couple who wondered how many bottles of wine the grapes from a single vine would make.  I just happen to know the answer to that one as a result of reading Brian Doyle’s The Grail:  A Year Ambling and Shambling Through an Oregon Vineyard in Pursuit of the Best Pinot Noir Wine in the Whole Wide World.  So I passed on the story that Brian shared in his book and suggested they find the book on Amazon.com.

“Grapevines are amazing life forms when you think about it, they plunge their fingers a hundred feet down into the rocky soil, they can live for hundreds of years, they fend off all sorts of insect attacks, and they have been working with human beings for so long, thousands and thousands of years, that you wonder sometimes who cultivates who, you know what I mean?  Are people manipulating and taking advantage of grape vines, or are grape vines deftly using human beings to take over the world?”

“On my way back uphill to my car I remember what Jesse told me once, that each vine produces enough grapes to make about three-fourths of a bottle of wine, and I chew on the idea that three-fourths of a bottle of excellent wine is probably just the right amount necessary for two or three people to start telling stories fast and furious,so that each of the vines I pass is pregnant with stories, some of which were never born into the world before, and this idea makes me happy also, so by the time I get to the town where I am supposed to give a talk I am cheerful as a chipmunk.”

I shared with this couple that everytime I pick up this book I have to reach for one of my Archery Summit wines and pour a glass to sip while I reread Doyle’s wonderful Dundee Hills descriptions.

Pretty soon it was 4:30pm and the last of the guests were leaving.  The afteroon just sped by.

As a team we were all pretty beat as most of the us had worked both days and two of the team had worked four very busy days straight.  We reflected on the day and I helped a little with the cleanup and then said goodbye for the four hour (turned out to be five hour) drive north.

As I drove out of the red hills of Dundee, I just had to call my friend Barney and share a quick reflection.

“Barney, I just got the best sales education I’ve ever had in forty years of professional life.  What a great learning cauldron is trying to sell something in a tasting room under full load.”  I knew Barney could relate as he’d shared stories of his managing tasting rooms in his early winery career.  It is one thing to hear those stories and another to experience the tasting room selling environment for myself.

I realized there is something so powerful about sharing what you are passionate about with other people who are trying to learn.  Particularly the customers who brought themselves to a remote hard to find tasting room to learn about wine in this place called the Red Hills of Dundee.

Over the last 40 years, I’ve been a part of “selling” in many trade show booths to the masses who come by.  I’ve always hated those shows because it is such hard work to figure out the knowledge level of the person standing in front of you and then adapt your message to fit their needs.  Because I was always selling serious enterprise level software, I figured I had to be even more serious in my presentation.  I always felt it was a losing proposition to present something as complicated as Attenex Patterns in two minutes to somebody who only marginally cares.

As part of my wine education, I’ve had the joy of discovering the incredible complexity that goes into fine wine grape growing and fine wine making that it takes to produce a joyous product like the Archery Summit Pinot Noirs.  The gift of wine is that complexity comes down to the color of the product, the aroma that wafts from the glass, and the taste as the wine’s structure pours onto our palate.  Yet in the tasting room, I was still in my head in describing the wine and trying to figure out how to impart all that I’ve learned about the wine process.  Some folks found that interesting but not compelling.  It wasn’t until I started having fun with the consumers that the breakthrough occurred.  Once I got comfortable getting out of my head and letting all the knowledge and passion come out by being playful and engaging, I started creating relationships that also turned into selling transactions.  Could it be that simple?

There is also a power in being able to repeat a pitch over and over again, much in the same way that Bill Murray got to repeat a day in his life repeatedly in the movie Groundhog Day.  Quickly you realize that each new consumer is a chance to experiment.  The ability to go through 50+ pitches in an afternoon across a wide range of age groups – 22 years old to 75 years old – of both genders and with people from all over the country and with a wide range of knowledge about wine, hones one’s “selling” capability quickly.  Of course, wine also has the nice characteristic of loosening up the consumer as they taste the wine and help them be more relaxed and open to the “relationship.”

In so many of the sales training courses I’ve taken, you might get two or three opportunities to practice your pitch to a “customer”.  Invariably these practice sessions are with other students in the class, not live customers.  With most of the products or companies that I’ve been making pitches for over the years, if you get 5-10 times a week to deliver your pitch that was a busy week.  In two short days, I was able to pitch to over 650 consumers.  I made plenty of mistakes but a quick shrug and a smile would overcome those mistakes in a heartbeat as I’m sure everyone could see how much I enjoy the wines.

There were several questions I couldn’t answer and often there was nobody more knowledgable around, but there is always a way to move the conversation forward.  My favorite question over the weekend was “how does the 2005 vintage year compare to 2006, 2007, and 2008?”

“Gee, I don’t know, I can’t remember back that far, but look over here, we put a vertical together of just those years of the Arcus Estate as a package deal for you today at a great price.  Pick one up and taste for yourself the difference that the vintage made on those wines.”

There is something about being on the firing line with the customer with no backup that brings out a rapid education.  Of course, having a great product that speaks (tastes) for itself helps a lot – “taste the wine and what does each of these wines say to you?”  Being able to turn the question around is so easy with an Archery Summit wine.  Reflecting on this phenomena is when it really clicked what a great way and place to learn to sell is a tasting room.  When in doubt, let the wine speak for itself.

Arcus Estate Pinot Noir

I shared with Barney, how knowing what I know now, I wished I had worked in a tasting room 30 years ago.  Then I realized that for those who are just starting out what a confidence booster working in a tasting room could be.  Over the last several months I’ve noticed how quickly the younger tasting room staff goes from not knowing much about the product and being little more than a server, to being confident in their interactions with the customers and demonstrating a wide range of knowledge.  Could it be that a tasting room selling education is even better than a Dale Carnegie course or a Toastmaster’s course?

And the truly funny thing is that as an alcohol server you can’t drink any of the wine while on duty.  So all of this education is coming while I am completely sober.

The next time you open up a bottle of Archery Summit Arcus Estate Pinot Noir and drink in the floral notes of the wine’s aroma, know that the wine is just screaming “use me to learn to sell.”  Let’s have a party.

This entry was posted in Attenex Patterns, Content with Context, Human Centered Design, User Experience, Wine. Bookmark the permalink.

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