The first exposure I ever had to a tasting room of any sort was at an undisclosed winery in Sonoma County. At the time, I was a buyer managing a small boutique restaurant focused on California cuisine. We boasted an eclectic wine list, with a focus on California wines. I was starting to love exploring the many incredible wines that were available at the time, selecting wines with sales reps that I felt best paired with our menu offerings. Despite working typical restaurant hours (I basically lived there), I was delighted to hear that I could be set up with a tasting and tour experience at one of the wineries that we showcased on our wine list. Heck yessss, I wanted to go visit that winery and go on that tour! 

Upon arrival I was over-the-moon delighted. It was all that I had hoped for: rolling hills decorated with dancing vines, a rough and gravely road winding up to a building that overlooked the vast and gorgeous Sonoma landscape. The bar was set high in my heart and mind, I remember that mix of excitement and expectation. The disappointing crush happened pretty quickly upon entering the tasting room (winemaking pun totally intended) There was no host of any kind. No one to greet us upon entering. So my motley crew and I simply mosied up to the tasting bar, where the staff were busy but by no means slammed. 

There was no hello or welcome. There was no visible menu. After I managed to catch a staffers eye and they came over, I felt even less welcome than before: It was a “Can I help you??” vibe. I explained who we were and what we were there for. The person had no idea, and made no attempt to conceal being “put out” by my simple statement of, “Hey, my name is Andie, I manage such and such restaurant, we carry your wine, and our sales rep set us up with a tasting and a tour.” 

It turns out the message had been lost in translation and, sadly, no tour had been set up. Oh, well. Not the end of the world. But could we still do a tasting? Yes, and my, oh, my, the wines were delicious, just as I knew they would be. Yet the staff were not knowledgeable about the wines, and when we asked questions we were met with snickers and, dare I say it, even eye rolls.

Andie It may seem like this had to have been a one-off, an out of the ordinary negative tasting room experience. Sadly, it wasn’t. These less-than-stellar interactions at tasting rooms in the early 2000s were a dime a dozen. I continued to visit wineries, where I often felt like they were simply missing a vital component to their staff training: hospitality. Certain experiences soured me so much that I would no longer carry their wine at my restaurant — and alas, harboring such resentment is simply not good for the spirit.

Another Way

Eventually I took a new position at another restaurant, which came with one fabulous regular who would tell me the most ridiculous jokes. One night, he regaled me about a mystical unicorn of a tasting experience: a craft distillery making brandies and liqueurs and vodkas and whiskey had a tasting room on the island of Alameda in an airplane hangar on the decommissioned naval air station, and my life was forever changed. That regular was Bill Owens, who would go on to play an even larger role in expanding my mind and exposing me to the wonderful world of the American Distilling Institute.

The first time I went to that magical island off the coast of Oakland, braved the rough roads out to 2601 Monarch Street, and parked with an insane view of the San Francisco skyline, I was blown away. Then, we got inside. We were greeted! “Hello” and “Welcome!” “Have you ever been here? Is this your first time tasting spirits? Let me be your guide!” We were ushered through the tasting experience and encouraged to ask questions. We were actually educated on the product. I thought, “WTF!? This is wild and amazing and I want IN!”

The stars aligned, and I was indeed honored to join the tasting room team in May of 2006. During the first few years, we grew from 50 visitors over the course of a weekend, to tours on the hour, every hour, with more than 50 people on each tour. And that didn’t count folks who just partook in the tasting room flight experience. Private events, dynamic tastings, tours, education! Our fan base grew, and people brought their people. I would be hours from the distillery at a random grocery store people would come up and say “Hey! You’re the Vodka Vixen! You were my tour guide, love your stuff!” Moreover,  the numbers did not lie. The reach of that one small tasting room was seemingly immeasurable (although there are now all kinds of systems to measure those metrics). 

The Power of the Tasting Room

I have always been a huge proponent of a tasting room as a public house. A place where folks can come, be welcomed, meet other amazing humans, sample the liquid they are interested in, and sometimes even taste a sip or dram of something they’ve never even heard of. Tangible experiences like this that don’t just sell products; they build brands. And when a human is in love with a brand, they walk this world colored with that experience and a desire to share it with others.

The key is to ensure that you are thoughtful about the type of lasting impression you wish to make on your visitors. Some of my early bad experiences in tasting rooms soured me on some of those brands. I still have a “meh” response when I see them. (It’s not at all rational, but my lizard brain processes trauma the way most do — anything to avoid that pain at all costs, even though years have passed.) Noting the power of a lasting impression, it is vital that your tasting room does what it should do: build your brand and not tear it down. That means building out a space that is reflective of your brand’s identity, being mindful of  guest comfort, thinking about the functionality of the space, and carefully choosing features like lighting, music, and glassware. BUT, above all, it is most important to hire the right staff.

As the owner or manager of a brewery, winery, cidery, meadery, or distillery, you must hire wisely. And, after you have hired someone who seemingly is a great fit, you must train, train, train. Training your staff to KNOW your products in and out is a must. These folks on the front line must be the very best of brand ambassadors, because that is exactly what they are. They can make or break your guests’ experience. In addition to ensuring the team knows the WHY (the story behind the brand), the WHAT (what are the products being offered and what defines them), and the HOW it is all made, from soup to nuts, these folks must also be trained in the fine art of hospitality. 

Hospitality is defined as the “friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors or strangers.” Without this key component, people simply won’t connect with the brand and you will have lost out on reaping the rewards of having invested so much in a fancy tasting room and crafting fabulous products. When building a brand, in my humble opinion, it’s all about the people, the humans, the team. It always has been and it always will be. 

There is a way to approach building your Liquid Marketing experience at your facility that will place you on the path to brand-building  success. Your tasting room is of vital importance when it comes to your growth. To dismiss it, or ignore it, is to leave a large piece of the puzzle missing from the box. Learning from the vast experiences of others and building on their failures and successes will give you the confidence and leverage you need to really take your small craft business to the next level. When you invest heavily in your Liquid Marketing, you grow your brand via the passion of your tasting room team.

Join us in Las Vegas this August 22-25 at the 2023 ADI Conference for my workshop where I will share my keys to building up your Liquid Marketing arsenal, creating a truly amazing tasting room experience for your soon-to-be lifelong fans, and forever changing the first impressions of your brand.