alexander meets diogenes1Quiet day in Sonoma. As I start composing this post I’m looking out at a passing storm that has brought us nearly four times the rain we have had since November. We’re still in a drought, but my friends who rely on surface water to raise their vines are getting at least a partial break.

For the moment, things are quiet. The vineyard erosion control measures have been checked and are holding up. I’ve temporarily patched our roof leak, the winery is not flooded, and Kyle and Tiffany are holding down the Salon on a day when most customers are staying home, perhaps watching the Olympics.

Last week I went to Houston for our annual partners’ meeting. It was great to be able to report another year of growth behind us, and make plans for expanding sales in 2014. There is no question but that, with big crop years in 2012 and 2013 expanding our inventory, we are going to have to pursue a return to three-tier distribution — a sales mode we withdrew from in 2008 when the Great Recession hit hard.

But since the crash of 2008 we have found a sweet niche in the long tail of the wine market, a niche where we have been successful directly connecting with many wonderful people — people who love the wines we make, and geek out when they get to sit, chat with us in our tasting salon and share our passion for our wines and for Sonoma Valley. One of the topics under discussion in Houston was how to expand that customer base.

Searching For An Honest Customer

Diogenes was said to wander Athens in the daytime with a lit lantern, looking for an honest man. According to his philosophy, honesty was demonstrated when a person’s deeds and actions matched their words. I think about this a lot.

The Down Side

I thought about it the other day when a group of guests came in to spend a couple of hours, bragged about how they had bought 50 cases at another winery, didn’t believe we were a “real” winery because we don’t have an impressive building and landscaped grounds, and bought relatively little.

I think about it every time someone comes into our salon expecting—sometimes demanding—a free tasting.

I think about it every time I exchange business cards with someone “interested in doing something” with our brand and see the look in their eyes that tells me no matter how many follow-up contacts I make nothing will ever happen.

I thought about it when I was introduced to a wine broker recently at a charity event. It was late in the evening and perhaps she was at the point of finding veritas in vino, but when she tasted one of my wines she commented “ooh that’s GOOD — great ‘food’ wine. But I can’t sell this — well maybe to one restaurant I know. People want ‘lollipop’ wines.” By which she meant sweet, soft and alcoholic. And cheap. It was refreshingly honest.

The Bright Side

Mostly I think about it when we meet someone new at the tasting salon and see their delight when they get more from us than they expected, when they “get” the wines, and when they plunk down their hard-earned cash and take some with them. I think even more about how word and deed go hand-in-hand when some of them come to visit again and again, and some of them join the wine club.

I’ve been doing this long enough to know that no matter how optimistic my outlook, not everybody is a potential customer. The people we come into contact with honestly are not “customers” until they engage with us in the cooperative dance we invite them to, and until they actually buy something. So the big question facing us in 2014 is — how do we find more of our kind of buyers?

More Direct Engagement

When I opened our tasting salon just off the Sonoma Plaza in 2005, it was an untested concept in our town. There were two other winery tasting rooms in Sonoma that opened about the same time. Today, in addition to Westwood there will soon be 26 other winery tasting rooms in our Plaza area (moving counterclockwise from us: MacLaren, Envolve, Bryter, Two Amigos, Haywood, Sonoma Enoteca, Victor Hill, Spann, Kamen, Bennett Valley, Stone Edge, Sojourn, Highway 12, Eric K. James, Walt, Auteur, Hawkes, Roche, Three Sticks, JAQK, Adobe Road, Charles Creek, Bump, R2, Petroni, and Rumpus).

Up to a point, every new tasting room that opened seemed to bring more traffic to our own salon. I’ve got to think we have reached a limit by now — a limit dictated by the amount of parking available in proximity to the downtown area. Even with our loyal customer base, referrals, and our great Yelp reviews, we are not going to get any more people in our door in Sonoma unless more parking is constructed and new hotels with shuttles open in the area.

So where does that leave us? I think we have to consider opening a second location. We have to do it someplace that will not cannibalize our existing traffic, perhaps someplace that is already a destination in its own right — maybe The Barlow in Sebastopol, or even perhaps a place in SF like Ghiradelli Square. The big question for me (aside from whether the place will pay for itself) will be, how do we adapt and evolve our customer experience to a new venue? Diogenes