The Mark Ryan Winery tasting room in Woodinville

The Mark Ryan Winery tasting room in Woodinville

La Dolce Vita: Why we visit wineries

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One of our earliest wine tourism experiences came when we visited California for a holiday in the late 1980s. We flew to San Francisco and signed on for a day tour that would take us out to the Muir Woods and the Napa and Sonoma valleys. Three winery visits were included, as was the chance to wander around the town of Napa and have lunch.

The most memorable visit was to a winery whose name no longer comes to mind. There we got a short but very informative talk about wine tasting and I can still remember feeling it was a revelation. After that trip we started making short detours whenever we drove to Vancouver so that we could drop into wineries along what became known as the Golden Mile. Gehringer Brothers and Divino were among our favourites. Two key reasons kept us going back for more. First, we could buy wines that weren’t available in government liquor stores, the only other place a British Columbian could make purchases at that time. More important was that we inevitably left a winery feeling positive about the future of the industry and about the role it was playing in making B.C. an even more exciting place to live in.

Our less-than-positive experiences in visiting wineries over the decades have been rare. So it came as a surprise when we felt disappointed as walked out of a tasting room on a visit to Woodinville, north of Seattle, last month. Later that night I sat in our bed and breakfast and sent the winery the following message:

“This afternoon my wife and I visited your Woodinville tasting room. I made a point of opening our visit with a mention that we had been enthusiastically referred to Mark Ryan Winery by our server at the Barking Frog. We shared a tasting (I am a wine writer and also the driver, so I spit all samples) and thoroughly enjoyed each of the wines. The hostess, a blonde with what seemed to be a Russian accent, could not have been more disinterested in our presence. She rarely smiled or made eye contact and did not offer information, answering curtly when I asked questions. Between samples she seemed to drift off and, although she was only a few feet away, failed to notice when we had finished our samples. For most of the brief visit we were the only people in the room. We made a purchase and left, commenting that we had just experienced one of our poorest experiences from among the perhaps 250 wineries we have visited throughout North America and Europe. I rarely complain as a customer — I know that service people have their down moments and off days. Your excellent wines deserve much better representation than we witnessed today, though. We are British Columbians and try to visit Walla Walla and area annually. I look forward to visiting the Walla Walla winery.”

Admittedly, we walked into the tasting room with high expectations. Our restaurant server had been effusive in her praise. And we knew that Mark Ryan Winery has been named one of the Top 100 in the world by Wine Spectator. I just couldn’t let our negative experience go without letting the winery know.

The next morning I opened my email and found the following response:

“Thank you very much for your message. Being in the service industry, it is important to us to receive feedback on the experiences that customers have in our tasting rooms. I am so sorry that your experience was negative. I know the employee you are referring to. We have never had any complaints about her before, and so I can only imagine that you are correct in your assumption that she may have been having a bad day. Regardless, that should not affect the way customers are treated. I will pass this information on to the tasting room manager and we will make a better effort at training all staff in customer service to better represent the Mark Ryan brand.

“I am happy that you enjoyed the wines. If you do choose to visit us in Walla Walla, or back in Woodinville again, please let me know. I would be happy to set up a private tasting for you. If you ever have any questions about our wines or our program here, please feel free to email me directly.”

The content and tone were almost exactly what I expected from a winery with a great reputation. In the few minutes the writer, who identified herself only as Kyra, took to respond, she completely turned around our unfortunate visiting experience, leaving us with a very positive feeling about the winery. Remember, we had truly enjoyed the wines we sampled, so all it took was some good service in the form of a written message to push the poor service in the tasting room further back in our minds.

The experience once again served as a reminder about why we like winery visits and people in the wine industry. Mark Ryan will be the first winery I want to visit on our next trip to Walla Walla.

Lorne Eckersley is 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.