Wine Tasting Room Success: The Right Referral

Refer In regions like Napa, Sonoma, Anderson Valley, Finger Lakes and other wine producing regions where visitors have great choice which tasting rooms they'll visit and which bars they'll belly up to, the best piece of marketing a winery tasting room can employ is other tasting rooms.

Put another way…referrals.

The couple or group of couples standing at a winery tasting room bar and happily sipping on wine, talking about what they like and don't like and thinking about how much wine they want to bring home or have shipped home is a most coveted prospect for other wineries. These happy, lucky wine drinkers have already committed to a day of wine tasting and wine buying. All that's needed now is a little push from the tasting room attendant in front of them to get them down to your winery.

One of the things I've noticed since moving to Napa Valley from Sonoma Valley is the much more sophisticated approach Napa's hospitality community takes in its tasting room marketing. But what is even more interesting is the methodical way by which many hospitality professionals find just the right group of winery hospitality professionals to create a Referral Circle: a group of five to ten wineries that refer visitors to one another.

While these five to ten wineries that refer visitors to one another often compete over the same "Cabernet Sauvignon dollars" out of necessity (it is Napa, after all), they do tend to look for referral partners that are not too far away, produce other types of wines that they themselves don't, that provide excellent customer service and that have a reputation for quality at a similar level to their own.

Interestingly, this Referral Circle that is created among wineries is not something that is methodically constructed or even formalized in any way. It appears to be developed over time as relationships are developed and as potential referral partners demonstrate their ability to send over good buyers. The Circle will change over time too as it becomes clear that one partner is not sending over good prospects or fails to send any at all.

What seems clear is that over here in Napa these semi-formal Circles are understood by hospitality professionals to be critical to their success. One Director of Hospitality and Sales in Napa Valley I spoke with said straight out that they would probably give up their 90 point wine reviews before giving up their referrals.

While the various referral circles in Napa Valley overlap, one criteria is most critical for keeping your tasting room within the circles: customer service.

"Without a doubt it's going to be bad customer service that gets a winery taken off my referral list," said one hospitality professional. "If the customer service that my client gets at another winery is poor, it may as well be my own staff that is not providing good service since it will reflect directly on us and our wines."

How referrals are given out varies. Some referrals only happen when the customer is already in the tasting room. Others happen at the time the tasting appointment is made over the phone or via email.

It should be noted that Referral Circles are most vitally important and most common among the "By Appointment Only" tasting rooms in Napa Valley, which represent the majority of tasting rooms in the Valley. While these tasting rooms often get "drive ups", most of the tasting happens after a reservation is made a day, weeks or even months in advance. Some tasting room directors will send their list of "recommended wineries" out to the client in advance of the tasting date so the client can make other reservations without the Referral Circle.

These days marketers and tasting room professionals are asked to give a great deal of thought to Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, TripAdvisor and other third party endorsement/Social Media tools. But what's clear is that the simple, old-fashioned, peer-delivered, one-on-one referral remains the most valuable and reliable that a winery can get…and give.

10 Responses

  1. Arthur - July 19, 2010

    All the referrals in the world won’t do a bit of good if your tasting room staff can’t interact with customers properly….

  2. Tom Wark - July 19, 2010

    …it goes without saying.

  3. Randy - July 19, 2010

    Referrals by other wineries is paramount to the sucess of small production, dtc wineries. For this reason, we proudly offer other staff at nearby wineries 50% off our wines. It’s been the absolute best way to get my wines on the tables of my neighbors. I don’t want my colleagues to be merely familiar with my wines, I want them to drink them! Most staff are not working the TR for the big bucks, rather because they love wine and the industry at large so why not hook them up? It’s worked brilliantly for me.
    Apparently, this discount is irritating some owners as “You’re giving them more of a discount than what they get at work”, said one owner to me a few years back. Woops.
    So let me get this straight, we in this industry give the distributors 50-65% off retail, but we won’t give our neighbors who work in other tr’s making referrals 50% off? I recently visited Hartford Family Winery and Jess Jackson is apparently going in the opposite direction. As of recently, we in the industry only get 15% off their Pinot Noir. A billionaire just can’t stand to give the lowerlings the 33% off let alone the full monty 50%. Sweeeeeeeeet.

  4. Hope - July 19, 2010

    As you are once more right on the spot Tom, I could not agree more. I make it a point when I am working in a tasting room to know my other wineries in the area and sometimes outside the area. I have even gotten great emails and reviews from customers who have gone to “recommended” wineries and had a great time. Sometimes I really think we lose sight of who this business is all about… the customer!! With approx over 6000 wineries in the nation at this time. The choices for a customer can be overwhelming and as in many business they look to the tasting room staff to be knowledgeable. I know from person experience traveling that I have ran into many winery staff that know their own product well but not a clue about the rest of the wineries around them. So sad that they are not only losing business for the area but with me and my friends we tend to think you are not really that knowledgable.
    As with Randy most of the wineries that I know offer industry discounts (though most I know are 30% not the 50% he is saying ) and actually that works well to get me in the door for sure! The other thing about the discount does is I usually do not leave with out buying something!
    This is one of the reasons I developed my blogsite is to allow the industry feed back on what customers are saying about their tasting rooms and staff. We are one of the few business that really has no easy way to get feedback from the thousands of people who pass through our doors everyday and they can tell us alot! Actually all we do is for them should they not have a say in how it goes and a word from us on where to go next?

  5. Paulette Eschrich - July 20, 2010

    I concur that referrals are critical. In Temecula, a referral from a winery wher we only bought a couple of bottles led us to a winery where we bought a case! It was a first (and not last!) visit to both of them.

  6. dean guadagni - July 20, 2010

    Hi Tom,
    Our firm provides direct to consumer marketing strategies to the wine industry. Although I am not an employ or “industry”, I have a list of clients in Napa and Sonoma. I am a huge fan of all of my clients wines and I buy wine consistently.
    In my experience, I have been provided a 30% industry discount without fail in almost every tasting room. I would buy even more wine if I were given a 50% discount.
    If wineries provide 50% industry discounts they might consider extending that discount to trusted affiliates or vendors.
    It would make even more sense to provide this discount to vendors who are crafting marketing messages about the products.

  7. Martin Cody - July 24, 2010

    The winery referral is an invaluable tool for winery and consumer alike. A tasting room staff knowledgeable on both her/his employer’s offerings and those in close proximity is a hiring necessity to achieve business growth goals. The “referral” within any industry; electrical, auto, legal, dining, medical, plumbing, etc., is the most valued and most desired because it is someone’s “word”. The individual is immediately placing their personal credibility on the line. If this was not highly coveted, organizations like Angie’s List, Zagat, Frommer, etc., would not be thriving. Referrals, like trust, honor, respect, must be “earned” rather than just given. Medals and points are fleeting as a fickle consumer’s tastes are always changing, however referrals are priceless. And a common, if not mandatory practice is discount provisions for those businesses from which the referral originates. The smaller businesses thrive on them and work their collective behinds off to earn them. I’ll happily raise a glass to them anytime and eagerly provide them a discount.
    Martin Cody
    Cellar Angels

  8. Hampers - July 25, 2010

    Nice blog. enjoyed it very much as I love wine tasting. Tasting Wines is a Fun and Delicious Learning Experience

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