Michael Bigatini

Michael Bigatini

La Dolce Vita: Educating and enriching consumers at Willow Park Wine and Spirits

Web Lead

Some of my best shopping experiences have included an element of education — who doesn’t like learning more about something we already have an interest in? Luckily, for those of us who enjoy wines and spirits, producers and retailers of those products seem especially good at educating.

Educating? Well, isn’t that really what tasting samples at a winery is all about? We are learning about our own tastes and preferences, not just about the particular products being sampled. And, at many wineries, those pouring the samples are especially good at providing information that heightens our awareness. Over time, these visits combine into what amounts to a wine appreciation course.

Retailers have also caught on, perhaps not to the extent they might, but still, when one visits places like the BC Wine Information Centre in Penticton, Kelowna’s Discover Wines and BC Wineguys in Nelson it’s hard to imagine not coming out having learned something. Knowledgeable staff, tastings and events help educate customers and build a loyalty that doesn’t happen with typical transaction-based businesses.

I always look to Calgary when I think of the gold standard business when it comes to customer education. Over the course of two decades, Willow Park Wines and Spirits has set a high bar (pun intended) when it comes to attracting, educating and maintaining its customer base. Many years ago, when I first walked into the Macleod Trail building I was in awe. If the large main floor area wasn’t enough to impress, another small nook was filled with an amazing selection of sparkling wines and a lower level was filled with premium wines. Half of that space was, and is, a climate controlled room where customers head for ultra-premium wines — Brunello di Montalcino, Barolo, Bordeaux, Burgundy and Napa Valley are all represented. It’s a rare place to see Chateau d’Yqem and Sassiccaia and Chateau Latour wines.

On the mezzanine above is a space that will seat perhaps 60 people at tables, with a full-service kitchen in behind. Countless events involving wine, beer and spirits, usually with food, having been held in this space — there is hardly a day throughout the year when Willow Park staff, suppliers and friends aren’t busy with a special event of one sort or another. Angela and I have attended more tastings in that space than I can remember. One memorable evening, we joined a dozen others in a boardroom upstairs to learn about the art of blending Bordeaux wine varieties. Leading the seminar was Chateau St. Jean winemaker Margo Van Staaveren, who once was named winemaker of the year in the U.S.

A brief scroll through the events calendar for the remainder of 2013 is a perfect example of the range of functions designed, in large part, to educate.  In the last two weeks of November, customers can sign up to attend events featuring Spanish wines, Absolut vodka, Scotch whisky, tequila, holiday drink mixology, winter spirits cocktails, beers of the world, single malts from Scottish islands, port and chocolate fondue, wine from Portugal, the launch of a new wine brand from Napa, and fortified wines from Spain and Portugal. It’s a crazy schedule, but somehow they make it all work.

Product selection and customer education isn’t the only focus of the business, though. Willow Park is a leader in corporate responsibility to its community, too. On Nov. 9, I attended the 20th annual gala fundraiser that raised hundreds of thousands for a charitable cause. Each year, four consecutive nights are dedicated solely to raising money for the Vintage Fund, which distributes the proceeds to selected charities. In some years I have attended all four — a whisky festival, beer bash, California wine night (it used to be Canadian wine night) and the gala, which features dozens of great wines, a fabulous selection of food from some of Calgary’s best chefs and live and silent auctions.

With all proceeds from the night designated to help rebuild pedestrian bridges washed out in last summer’s floods, auction bidding was fast and furious. The evening’s theme was Viva Las Vegas and many of the approximately 300 in attendance were decked out in glitzy regalia. One, whose homemade costume was covered with playing cards, was awarded $10,000 for her favourite charity. My personal favourite, a lovely cigarette girl who looked like she’d stepped out of the 60s, was a finalist.

Willow Park Wines and Spirits has this whole business thing figured out. It’s a model that others would do well to explore.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance. His website, www.lorneeckersley.com, features a collection of columns, stories and photographs about wine, beer and spirits, food, travel and arts.