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Wine Scene: Friendships are key to selling wine

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Tasting room staff can make or break any wine tasting experience. Susie McFerran, second from right, and Jeff Davis at Two Mountain Winery do the experience right. From left are Jenny Schmidt and Athena Adams.

When one thinks of the wine industry, top of mind are charismatic winemakers with great stories about their wine, and wine grape growers who care tirelessly for every vine in the vineyard. What we don’t typically think about is the person in the tasting room offering you the wine tasting experience that will most likely leave you with a lasting impression of that brand.

If you are out tasting wine in the Zillah area, Susie McFerran, wine club manager at Two Mountain Winery, and Jenny Schmidt, tasting room manager for Sheridan Vineyard Winery, will be key to your tasting experience — even if they aren’t behind the bar.

These two have been working the tasting rooms for many years and offer much more than a taste of wine to any guest in their tasting rooms.

McFerran focuses like a laser on the winery’s wine club. She has managed the tasting room, events and the wine club during her tenure at Two Mountain Winery. According to McFerran, “My expectations are very high. There are so many wineries in this Valley that we have to do something that stands out and above everyone else. I’ve asked different club members what is important to them. Almost every person has said it is the relationship. The story and the wine are important, but it’s the relationship that makes them want to be a part of our program.

“I will plan their trip for them. We have club members from more than 30 different states. When they are coming in from out of town, they shoot me a note and let me know their travel dates. I will look up availability, send links to hotels, dining and wineries they need to visit. We are gaining in members because they love what we are doing, and it is fun to do.”

“It’s not just about them coming to see me. It’s about coming to the area and it’s promoting the entire area,” says McFerran.

Schmidt echoes McFerran’s philosophy: “Our club members love the sense of being part of the winery, and I love going above and beyond for them. Building relationships is very rewarding.”

Schmidt has been pouring wine and working in the industry since the early 1990s and has seen a big change in the expectations of wine tasting visitors.

“We used to see a lot of party buses. People wanted to visit as many wineries as they could during their visit. Today visitors are only doing two or three wineries per day so they can get more fully immersed in the wine,” says Schmidt. One example of that is the tasting itself. “Our tastings used to take 20 minutes; now they last an hour.”

“What I see on a regular basis is people wanting to have “their” winery. They want to be known by the staff, they want to bring their friends in and share their knowledge of the winery and the wine while having fun,” says Schmidt.

How does turning customers into friends affect the bottom line? According to McFerran, her wine club has increased over 600% since she has started implementing her customer service skills.

So if you are out looking to learn about wine or just wanting to enjoy a wine tasting experience, don’t miss a visit to the Two Mountain or Sheridan Vineyard tasting rooms. The hospitality is so good that you’ll leave with new friends and newfound wines.

• Barbara Glover is executive director of Wine Yakima Valley, an industry group representing member wineries.

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