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A tale of two wineries

My wife and I are avid wine lovers, so when we saw a new winery going up near our home in the central coast wine country of California, we were thrilled. According to the press for Roblar Winery, it sounded like quite a deluxe place; a winery that also offered great food and cooking classes in a lovely setting. We anticipated being regulars at the place as it was so convenient for us. So we were quite excited last week to attend our first event at Roblar—a “harvest barbecue” that they were promoting quite heavily. According to their advertising, it would be an evening of wonderful food, wine and entertainment. Although the $75 per person charge sounded steep for a barbecue, the facility looked really impressive from the outside, and we anticipated a terrific night.

How wrong we were! From the minute we walked in to Roblar it was clear this was not a place for wine lovers. Instead of being offered a wine tasting to showcase their products, we were given two coupons for glasses of wine, and told if we wanted more we would have to purchase at $10 a glass (after sampling their wine, I suspect they did this because the vino was so mediocre it was probably best we not taste).

The band they hired for the evening was loud and just plain bad—a poor choice for the tranquility and elegance one normally expects at a winery.

But all this mediocrity paled in comparison to the truly awful food. Wine lovers understand the essential relationship between food and wine—a relationship that the Roblar folks completely ignored. Their harvest barbecue consisted of chicken legs and mashed potatoes. No salads, no classic corn on the cob, just the cheapest food they could have possibly purchased, laid out on an ugly buffet table that was completely self service. And if bad food was not enough, they quickly ran out of the garbage they were serving.

The crowd was shocked and then quite disgusted. “The only edible thing here is the bread,” complained the table next to us.

Since it made no sense to eat and drink swill when we were surrounded by many fine restaurants, we got up to leave (along with most of the crowd). I do understand the challenges of launching a new business, and hoped this was just an early mistake by management. I stopped to talk to the manager, and nicely told her of our disappointment with the meal.

Her reaction put the entire affair into perspective for me. She was immediately hostile and rude, and replied “what do you expect for $75 bucks?” I told her quite honestly that I had eaten much better food at a $10 Kiwanis picnic, and we quickly left, surmising that Roblar Winery is probably just a tourist trap interested in luring people in once, making as much as they can, and moving on to the next sucker.

As we walked to our car in the parking lot, we met up with a crowd of similarly disgruntled patrons. We all agreed we would head to a fine local eatery for a real dinner and good wine, and never return to Roblar.

The next day we had quite a different experience when we attended an afternoon function at another nearby winery, Brander Vinyards. Unlike Roblar, which I later learned is owned by some kind of large holding company, Brander is run by it’s founder. They were having their harvest function, only Brander knew how to do it right. For $20 each you received unlimited wine tastings of both their current and future wines. The food was simple but spectacular—French cheeses well matched to the wines, and a barbecue with delicious salads, grilled meats and vegetables. A very talented guitarist serenaded the group. The staff was friendly, knowledgeable and helpful.

Now I must admit I expected nothing less from Brander. I have belonged to their wine club and been a patron for 15 years, and have probably spent thousands of dollars on Brander Wine. We have a long term relationship that I appreciate, and I will continue to be a patron.

Great wine makers understand that their business is all about relationships. The relationship between their product and food. The relationship with their customer—that if handled properly it can last decades. I thought it was a shame that Roblar would go to such expense and trouble to build such a grand facility, but ignore the importance of relationships.

And relationships are at the heart of almost all successful businesses. Managers that become hostile when a client complains are simply bad managers. A client that takes the time to relay their dissatisfaction is doing the company a big favor. Most people just silently leave and never return, often leaving the business owner to wonder why they failed. Managers need to understand the customer is doing them a favor—allowing them to repair a damaged relationship.

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