Pros to Teach Tasting Room Management

Sonoma State certificate program brings in seasoned veterans to maximize tasting room returns

by Jane Firstenfeld
Sonoma State Tasting Room Certificate
Pamela Personette
Rohnert Park, Calif. -- The latest offering from Sonoma State University's rapidly expanding Wine Business Program is a Tasting Room Management (TRM) Certificate. Designed for those considering the field, the certificate program is equally suited for those already employed in tasting rooms.

To earn the certificate, students must complete at least eight of nine available half-day courses, scheduled from February through May 2009. Courses will be taught by highly regarded industry specialists. According to Linda Nowak, director of the Wine Business Program, the TRM certificate will help prepare tasting room staff to step up to more responsibility, with courses in direct shipping, staffing, marketing, wine club management, database management, sales, budgeting and customer relationship management. (Mack Schwing, former long-time director of SSU's Wine Business Program, recently teamed with wine marketer Lesley Berglund to found WISE Academy, providing education, training and certification for winery consumer direct professionals. It's slated to launch this year. Schwing and Berglund are co-chairs of the Green Wine Summit, Dec. 1 and 2.)

The TRM program begins on Feb. 2, with "Hospitality Management for the Tasting Room." Instructor Pamela Personette, director of hospitality training at Illumination Hospitality Group in Sonoma, regularly teaches similar courses at individual wineries and at Santa Rosa Community College and Napa Valley College.

"This class provides information that can be used at any winery and in any company culture," she told Wines & Vines. "It's about making the customer feel special. People are often intimidated when they walk into a tasting room. Even educated, professional people from around the country often don't know the protocol. This class really helps the tasting room staff to know that wine tasting is fun."

Personette uses real life stories to illustrate her points, and encourages students to share their stories. "Students appreciate the fact that I've worked in many tasting rooms. I'm one of them," she says. "I've done and seen it all."

Positive pointers included in her syllabus start with making eye contact, asking appropriate questions, listening and creating rapport, and creating a buying atmosphere. On busy days, she suggests, combine groups of visitors for a congenial experience.

Sonoma State Tasting Room Certificate
Paul Wagner
Public relations maven Paul Wagner, owner and president of Balzac Communications in Napa, will introduce "Wine Marketing Basics" on Feb. 6. He'll concentrate on a couple of different issues. "One goal would be increasing the right kind of traffic. How do you make sure the people who show up in your tasting room are prequalified to purchase your product?"

Wagner stresses that, for many wineries, the tasting room is the primary interface with the customers. "It's not just about traffic," he says. "It's how best to communicate your brands to those people." He points out that frequently, although the tasting room is literally the front line for winery marketing, the tasting room staff is often last to hear about new marketing initiatives.

"One thing (tasting room managers) should do is look at your best customers, the ones you're getting right now. Find out as much as you can about them, and then try and get more people just like them."

Wagner, who regularly teaches continuing education courses on wine marketing and sales, feels the TRM certificate will provide a valuable industry service. "In a lot of tasting rooms, there is no true job description for the tasting room manager."

Sonoma State Tasting Room Certificate
Jean Arnold
Perhaps for this reason, the inaugural TRM course curriculum is exceptionally diverse. Jean Arnold, president and general manager of über-exclusive Hanzell Vineyards, a 6,000-case-per year Pinot Noir and Chardonnay icon secluded in the hills above Sonoma, will present "Marketing Wine as a Luxury Product" at the March 13 class.

Although she will emphasize the very small amount of wine produced in the high-end or luxury segment, and define "luxury wine" by brand image, quality, availability and pricing, she says, "I've started with a definition of luxury as well, and that it is not a dirty word. We all have our large or small luxuries that enhance our lives. My usual example is gelato or ice cream at the drug store. One is 50 cents a scoop, the other $5. If you love greatness in ice cream, which do you choose and why?"

She hopes to bring in several guest speakers actively brand-building high-end wines. The luxury experience, she says, "Starts from the moment a consumer hear about your wine or winery, and goes through the entire process, including reordering your wine and your bonded brand relationship. So instead of a one-night stand, you proceed with your customer from meeting to dating, to courting, to engagement, to marriage, so to speak."

A luxury brand such as Hanzell must exhibit a seamless image, from packaging through collateral materials through, Arnold says, a very well educated tasting room staff that can provide in-depth information in bullet-point fashion--and longer, if requested.

"I don't think the luxury experience is lacking so much in tasting rooms as just not understood. It is challenging to understand Five Star hotel service if you have never experienced it, or had it really put into context for you. How to study this will be discussed in the class."

Interestingly, Hanzell does not have a public tasting room, although it hosts private tours, tastings and events by appointment. And its wines certainly meet all the criteria for a luxury brand. Still, Arnold says, "All wines don't have to be in this segment to be absolutely fabulous. A wine needs just to be true to its reason for being. We all love everyday wine, once-a-week wine and once-a-month wine. But if a wine is put forward as great and a luxury, all aspects of the experience need to match. It is always in the details."

This first TRM certification course will wrap up on May 18, when Sandra Newtown will delve into "Technology in the Tasting Room." Newton is an associate professor at Sonoma State, and coordinator of the school's Wine MBA program, launched earlier this year (see, "Wine Business Program Upgrades").

Acknowledging that the proliferation of winery and tasting room-specific hardware and software "is just crazy," Newton plans to help students get better acquainted with the software their employers are using, and focus on methods of doing a better job with what they have. "This class is to get them exposed to what is out there." Smaller wineries, she suggests, may not need the more elaborate systems, if they have a way of getting necessary customer information. "Then, it's what do they do with that information."

Newton says that while her TRM certificate class will start out focused on database management, and exposing students to currently available options, "This will probably evolve," in much the same way that Sonoma State's vineyard and wine programs continue to grow and change.

Also among the school's Professional Development Courses next spring is "Wine Entrepreneurship." For details on this, and much more on the Tasting Room Management certificate, visit sonoma.edu/winebiz.
Posted on 10.29.2008 - 23:11:16 PST
Who is this Balzac guy? Why does the picture of Paul Wagner look so red? Like he knows about the classic visitor experience....C'mon, how often do wine veterans like him actually visit a tasting room on a busy Saturday afternoon?
paso, CA USA

Posted on 10.29.2008 - 08:08:56 PST
I think this is timely and sounds like a terrific course. I wonder if compensation and benefits for tasting room personnel will ratchet up a bit as staff become more sophisticated.
Novato, CA USA