Extreme Wine Experience: The Stray Mongrel of Hentley Farm

Winery dogs are a ubiquitous presence. You see them everywhere. There are even photo-filled coffee-table books and colorful calendars devoted to them. Decanter, the self-declared “world’s best wine magazine” used to profile a winery dog on each issue’s final page. Always dogs — almost never cats (I once met a winery cat called “Muscat”). Go figure

Exception to the Rule

It comes as a bit of a surprise therefore that The Stray Mongrel of Hentley Farm is a wine, not a four-legged cellar companion. A blend of Grenache, Shiraz and Zinfandel (!), it received the 2013 Rob Schubert Trophy for the most outstanding red wine at the annual Barossa Wine Show Awards. The Stray Dog has a gnarly name, but it is really quite an elegant beast — it would have to be to win such a prize — and it represents the elegant spirit of  Hentley Farm very well.

We had the good fortune to visit Hentley Farm the day after the big prize was announced and Keith Hentschke, the proprietor, was glowing with pride. Recognition is always welcome — who can complain about good scores or reviews? — but this was something special and the warmth that filled the room was only partly the result of the fireplace’s glowing embers.

We came to Hentley Farms because we wanted to see what Hentschke and his team had created in terms of an extreme wine experience. Hentley Farm was started in 1997 and has evolved to align with very definite ideas of what it should be from the vineyard to the cellar to the marketplace.

This 360-degree vision of the supply chain and wine experience is something that Hentschke acquired over the years, starting at age 15 when he began to manage the family vineyard on through agriculture training, an MBA and work at Orlando, Nepenthe and other wine businesses. All this helped prepare him to launch Hentley Farm and to produce wines as distinctive — and unexpected — as The Stray Mongrel.

First Class from the Ground Up

The initial strategy at Hentley Farm was to focus on exports, but then the global financial crisis turned things around a bit and now the Australian market itself is the priority and the cellar door experience the key. The idea, as I understand it, was to create first class wine and a first class wine experience from the ground up with as much attention to the business side of things as to enology and viticulture. Hentschke warmed to the opportunity to talk about markets, marketing and so on, so we learned a great deal about his carefully calculated approach.

There are many interesting aspects to the Hentley Farm approach. The wine club, called simply the Loyalty Program on the webstie, impressed me by offering a choice of progressive levels of expenditure and engagement. It reminded me very much of museum memberships and symphony and opera donor clubs, with very clear expectations about financial commitments and benefit levels.

Restaurant Australia Realized

Sue and I came to Hentley Farm having spent a week at Savour Australia and it seems to me that Hentschke’s winery is the very model of the branding approach — called “Restaurant Australia” — that was launched at that meeting. The idea behind Restaurant Australia, as I have written before, is to appeal to upscale tourists through their interest in food and wine. Come for elevated cuisine, enjoy the great wine then go home and tell your friends about an idea of Australia that is little in common like the “shrimp on the barbie” Yellow Tail tales of the past.

Hentschke and team seem to have realized the power of this relationship well before the current campaign launch, so Hentley Farm’s visitor center pairs a warm cellar door facility with The Restaurant, which features multi-course tasting menus paired with the estate wines. (The Restaurant was named South Australia’s restaurant of the year for 2013.) It brings in the patrons, who seem delighted to find a destination restaurant in this surprisingly quiet valley. The wine hook, because there should be one, was clear and successful. Hentley Farm wines with the meal, of course, and then also a credit to be applied against Hentley Farm wine purchased that day at the cellar door.

One of the challenges of designing a wine tourism experience is to get the target audience to “stick” — to stay around long enough too be engaged and for a strong impression to be formed. The restaurant, with its elaborate (and not inexpensive) tasting menus asks  visitors to make a significant time commitment. Perfect if you want to communicate the sense of the place.

Chance and Circumstance

We ran into some new friends we had met in Adelaide at the Barossa Valley farmer’s market in nearby Angaston and asked about Hentley Farm. The Restaurant? Fantastic! Did you use the credit to buy the wine next door? Of course! Would you go back? Can’t wait! It was really an enthusiastic response from a sophisticated wine industry couple and provided a bit of unscientific evidence that the Hentley Farm strategy does its job.

The wine, the food, the experience. Hentley Farm brings it all together and provides a model for others in the wine business who seek to design an experience to capture the imagination of sophisticated wine enthusiasts.

I think there is a real winery dog at Hentley Farm and maybe he is a mongrel — I don’t really know. But if a mongrel is the product of chance and circumstance, Hentley Farm itself is just the opposite — a well-conceived and designed wine destination.

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Thanks to Keith Hentschke for finding time to meet with us.

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