Cellar Doors: 'would you like some Pinot Noir with your Chardonnay?'

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Dave March comments on the current state of customer service and his wine tasting experiences at some of the Cape's fine wine establishments, and suggests solutions to improve it.

A while ago, I was at a vineyard tasting the wines as any visitor would do. I was given a full bodied, heavily oaked Chardonnay which was not cheap. The girl pouring asked if I would like to move on to the reds and start with their R200 Pinot Noir. Before I could react she had poured the Pinot into the Chardonnay glass which still had a centimetre of wine in it. I didn’t know whether to complain or cry, but I do know that I was not going to be tasting the Pinot as it was meant to be. I wondered if such poor understanding of the nuances of fine wine was still evident in other tasting rooms.

Evidence suggests I am wrong, but am I? Mr Andre Morgenthal, of Wines of South Africa (WOSA) recently stated* that ‘we are up there with the best’ and that we ‘compare favourably’ with the rest of the world in reaction to the results of the Great Wine Capitals Tourism Awards recently announced. I’m sure that is true in the Arts and Culture (La Motte winning a Global Award), Architecture and Landscape, Innovative Wine Tourism, Wine Tourism Restaurants and Sustainable Wine Practices categories that are part of the awards, but what of the daily interaction between customer and visitor? Closer scrutiny of the awards shows that each member country wins a ‘Global Award’ and then up to six ‘National Awards’ but that none of the awards are actually for the cellar door experience.

‘We are very organised when it comes to service’, says Mr Morgenthal. Organised, maybe, especially for visiting parties of judges or wine critics, and whilst I don’t want to appear negative, I do feel there may be a way to go for the ordinary tourist arriving out of season.

Why go to the trouble of nurturing, harvesting and making such wonderful wines, at costs estimated by SAWIS to be around R28 500 per hectare annually, only to have your efforts dashed by poor service at the crucial Point of Sale?

This isn’t the case everywhere, of course. There are dozens of vineyards whose staff are welcoming, interested and informed. Where the glasses are appropriate and clean, where prices are clearly displayed and there is time to linger. But my experience above is not the only time I have left contemplating writing a letter! (ok, email). I remember leaving a Stellenbosch vineyard after waiting for 15 minutes unattended despite calling out (I could hear a radio and conversation in another room). I often see servers disappear to ‘find out’ every time I ask a question.

Several times I have been poured corked wines, once debating my accuracy with a belligerent server who refused to change the bottle until he called the winemaker who sniffed it then poured the wine down the sink. I now ask how long the bottle has been open, especially out of season, as even with air extracting stoppers I don’t believe the wine can be at its best after several days. Surprisingly, many staff don’t record when bottles are opened.

Most people, I suspect, have more manners than me, because my disappointments have driven me to be more honest than is perhaps polite and I usually am quite frank on wines I find thin, overblown, green or just unpleasant. The reaction of the tasting room staff is quite revealing. Good staff simply accept my opinion, agree that wine is a personal thing and move on to an alternative. Bad staff are surprised by my reaction, and insist that most people enjoy it and that sales are fantastic in an attempt to make me feel guilty.

Tasting room staff are hugely important to any winery and they, as much as the wine, are the ‘face’ of the winery. Should it not be standard practice that they attend the Cape Wine Academy South African Wine Course or the Certificate Wine Course or a Get Smarter wine course or two? Spending time in the winery with the winemaker seems an obvious first step and lots of tutored tastings with other staff makes sense. Not that I want to be faced with an overzealous pourer; I’m often put off by those who immediately tell me what I should be tasting in the wine – it makes me feel inadequate if I don’t taste the same. I don’t like ‘robots’ either, those who automatically reel out the wine’s complete history and tasting notes with as much compassion as a shopping list, ‘cool fermentation, six months in new oak and daily prayers’.

Most customers want speedy attention, just enough information, accurate and informed answers, positive and cheerful staff, and time to savour and enjoy without being overly watched. Prices should be clear, too, it’s embarrassing having to ask as it implies purchase. Many will purchase on the strength of the service alone, it makes ordinary wines taste better and can convince the customer that they have just had a great experience to which the wine contributed.

I am a believer in the quality of South African wines and its vineyards. I also think that in nearly every category you wish to measure SA stands up to the rest of the world. There are many dozens of cellar doors here where you feel valued, informed and welcomed. The best offer a service which makes you want to linger and then take the experience home with you in a bottle. So no more Chardonnay with my Pinot Noir, please.

*The statements made by Andre Morgenthal were quoted in Orielle Berry's article "Feather in La Motte's cap" as published in the Bolander on November 30th, 2011.

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