Wine Tasting: Tasting Room Etiquette or Customer Service?

I am always seeing articles about the tasting room etiquette that customers should have when they visit tasting rooms.  That is perfectly understandable, but what about the customer service that staff should have when customers visit the tasting room?  Growing up in the South, I am all about hospitality.  Especially when you work directly in that industry!
It really cooks my goose when a tasting room lacks in the customer service department.  I expect amazing experiences when I go to wine country.  I imagine walking into a bold and beautiful or quaint and elegant tasting room to be greeted immediately by the first staff person who sees me.  Unfortunately, stellar customer service has not been my experience at every tasting room I have visited.
My first lack-luster experience was to a very popular winery in Napa Valley that I have frequented often!  Whenever I have family or friends to visit, this is one place I am sure to take them to.  However, on this particular day, Hubby and I had visited several other tasting rooms before deciding to stop by this one at the end of our journey to pick up a few bottles of our favorites.
It was about 45 minutes before closing, so we decided to do a quick tasting before picking up what we needed.  The bar hostess was visibly agitated that we had decided to do a tasting, as most customers had cleared out and she was wrapping up with another group.  She passed by us several times before even acknowledging us.  When she did, it was only to say “hi”,  put a couple of glasses in front of us, slide us a menu and continue attending to her previous guests.  She must have heard me say, “I guess people aren’t welcome 45 minutes before closing time here,” as she quickly made her way over to us to see what we wanted to do.  It was not until she realized that we were frequent visitors and knew exactly what we wanted to taste, that she cheered up and managed to salvage the experience.
On another occasion just a couple of months ago, Hubby and I were making our first tasting trip through the Sonoma Valley.  I had a couple of places in mind that I absolutely had to go to and the third stop was just on the way out, so we decided to end our trip there.  The tasting room was very tiny, but inviting and cozy.  The bar host greeted us immediately and began what would be a stellar presentation.  During this time, he spoke very highly of the owner and commented on how personable he was with tasting room guests.  He even mentioned that the owner, an older gentlemen, often steals guests away from the tasting room to take them on personal tours of the property.  To our surprise, the owner arrived on the property and slowly made his way to the tasting area.  The bar host greeted him as he took a spot right next to where we were standing.  I became a bit disturbed that a property owner would be within two inches of us and not even say “hello.”  So, I made an attempt to strike up a conversation with him by inquiring about how he enjoyed his holidays.  I was met with a very brief and sharp response.   I felt a cold rush of a familiar feeling come over me.  Naturally, I was ready to go.  We thanked our bar host and purchased a bottle of wine, only out of courtesy to the host, who had been exceptional.  Hubby and I discussed the event all the way home.  He had felt the same cold, familiar rush that I had.  We vowed NEVER to return to this tasting room again.  For an establishment with very mediocre wines, the least you can do is be inviting to all of your guests.  I would have never expected such behavior from an owner.
Another brief incident came just recently from an estate winery that I am personally acquainted with.  I went there to pick up an order I needed for a party.  The tasting room was nearly empty, only three people being served, two of them a couple.  You would think that in a small tasting room, such as this one, on a slow day, surely you will be greeted when you get to the bar.  No such luck.  There were two people working the bar (another one appeared later).  The hostess at the bar I was standing at passed by me twice before even acknowledging I was there.  A young lady came from the back, smiled at me and passed me by to go stand at the cash register, not even asking if I had been helped.  Trust me when I say that if I did not absolutely NEED that wine for this particular event, I would have left the tasting room immediately with no purchase.  I told the young lady at the cash register that I needed to pick up my order.  When I begun speaking with her, the bar hostess came over to see if she could help me.  At that point, I was not very interested in her assistance.
From hotels to stores to hospitals to tasting rooms, every customer expects a certain level of service.  There are places we may go because we have to, but know that we will not receive the best experience.  There are other places we may frequent where we expect an exceptional experience.  Sometimes our expectations are met, sometimes not.  I worked in customer service for several years before stepping into the background to support front line staff.  I know first hand that there are customers that can be more than a handful and cause you to ask yourself why you got into this line of work.  However, the next customer should not have to suffer from your previous experience.  No customer should suffer because of your lack of hospitality skills.  Customer service is a hard business to be in.  You have to know if that field is right for you.  Simple things like acknowledging the next customer waiting by saying, “Hello, we will be with you shortly,” can go a long way in ensuring that guest has a nice experience and is likely to return.  It is important to put yourself in the shoes of the consumer and think about what you would expect from the experience.
While certain experiences will keep me out of particular tasting rooms, nothing and no one can keep me out of wine country!

Shundria Reed, M.Ed.

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