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White Oak - Making Friends in the Alexander Valley: October 2005

Making Friends in the Alexander Valley

White Oak Vineyards and Winery is a living example of the power of relationship marketing. The winery does little to no advertising. Instead it relies on creating lasting relationships with the guests who visit while strengthening ties to the larger wine and hospitality community.

The employees take a sincere interest in their visitors. They ask about favorite wines, where the guests live and where they’re staying while visiting, just as you would with a new friend in your home. Director of Hospitality and Tasting Room Manager Denise Gill says that it’s key to have enough staff so you have time to connect with the people, adding to ‘be aware of their needs, not just keep up with their needs’.

The team also shares recommendations for dining, keeping a restaurant book with menus at hand. This extra level of service makes the winery a partner in the visitors’ experience and creates a relationship that goes way beyond that of traditional sales.

White Oak also welcomes children and dogs with toys, biscuits and a bowl of water. As Denise puts it, ‘if they’ve made the decision to travel with their children or pets, it’s better to make them comfortable so the parents can enjoy themselves and focus on the wines. They really appreciate this’.

Picnics are encouraged as I saw during my visit. A group of women were enjoying their lunch at one of the tables under a leafy and shady oak tree. Beyond the Mediterranean style buildings and grapevines they had a priceless view of the Mayacamas Mountains.

While some tasting rooms appear more like a wine junk bazaar, Denise says, ‘we focus on wine and minimize the merchandising’. The mood is relaxed yet elegant. Norah Jones and other musicians fill the background while not drowning out the wine. The experience is enhanced by a rotating art exhibition to take in while tasting. Currently featured is the photography of Robert Hicks from Rancho Cordova, California.

The winery stays in touch with the new friends they make by using preference-based email messages. The contact is made with anyone who likes White Oak, whether or not they’ve joined the wine club. Denise says that people want to hear from us and this is an easy, earth-friendly way to maintain contact.

Customers return and visit the people who signed them up for the wine club or first poured their wine. There’s a sincere familiarity between the staff and the customers. I was told they return for the wine and the friendships that develop.

People also like to buy wine that is only available at the winery, like the 2002 Alexander Valley Estate Merlot, $34. It smells of concentrated berry fruit and a note of eucalyptus. The mouth follows with full-on fruit and sweet oak embraced by some tannin and acid, making this wine a hit with grilled meats. It stands in contrast to the many flaccid Merlots that wash over your tongue without the slightest grab. Delicious!

As for events, White Oak participates in every event sponsored by the Wine Road and the Alexander Valley Winegrowers. With the Wine Road there are large events such as ‘Winter Wineland’, ‘Barrel Tasting’ and the ‘Wine & Food Affair’.

The Wine Road is likewise a source of camaraderie and support. Denise says that the organization grows by 10-15 wineries every year. She states that she’s a firm believer that ‘the larger the organization, the more impact it has’. There are now about 600,000 of the Wine Road maps produced every two years, reaching thousands of consumers in the Bay Area and beyond.

With the Alexander Valley Winegrowers there is the ‘Taste of the Valley’ on the first weekend of every month. White Oak is also cultivating the relationship with their immediate neighbors Hannah, Alexander Valley Vineyards and Sausal to make their leg of the sprawling Alexander Valley a destination in itself. Denise says that if consumers are excited about more than one winery on this leg of the valley, they’ll spend a half or even a full day here.

The small group of neighbors works closely with Flying Horse Carriage in Sebastopol to create a special wine country experience for visitors. Flying Horse describes it like this on their website: “In a carriage drawn by elegant horses, travel leisurely along our scenic route through the vineyards which produce the award-winning wines you will be tasting. Our tour includes wine tasting at Alexander Valley's finest wineries. It’s more than a tour; it’s a unique wine tasting adventure!”

Then there are events at the winery for the public and those that are created exclusively for the wine club members, like the Crab Feast and Wild about Mushrooms Dinner. Denise creates an annual calendar of all the events that’s available for consumers to plan their wine trips and occasions in advance. It makes perfect sense. If you know you’re going to have a spring or summer dinner every year, get it on the calendar early and some of your biggest fans will create a visit around your event.

Denise and the staff also recommend going to open houses at other wineries and bringing your wine to try. Get to know the other people out there working in tasting rooms and they’ll recommend your winery to their visitors. “It’s not a competition,” she stresses.

Tours are available by appointment but the staff will create one on the fly when it can be accommodated, taking advantage of the chance to see some action in the vineyard or the winery. White Oak is open daily for tasting, just around the bend from the Jimtown Store.


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