Wine is about stories and relationships and the experience that wineries provide their clients — buyers, visitors and wine club members — is very important. Wine tourists, for example, provide direct economic benefits in the form of hotel occupancy, restaurant business and of course cellar door and wine club sales.
More than the sum
But wine tourists and club members are more than the sum of their direct sale parts. They can ideally also become brand ambassadors for individual wineries and their regional associations.
One of wine’s major advantages over other fashionable beverages is its ability to capture a real sense of time and place and to connect people, product and producer in personal ways. You can add the wine experience to the list of strategies that successful wineries actively manage.
One of the great aspects of my job is that it allows me to survey different approaches to wine experience in many countries (Sue and I are in South Africa this month, for example, being wine tourists for a while before I speak at a conference here). Today’s column is the first in a short series on Extreme Wine Experiences based on fieldwork we did in Australia a few months ago.
The Rockford Experience
Our first stop is Rockford Wines on Krondorf Road near Tanunda in the Borossa Valley. The wines we tasted were extremely good (including the iconic Basket Press Shiraz, of course, and the much admired sparkling Black Shiraz), but that’s not what made this an extreme wine experience.
The winery itself has a sense of place, with the shady trees, rustic stonework, corrugated steel roofs and very much still in use pioneer-era vintage equipment in the shed and cellar. Very atmospheric both outside and in, where fireplaces were lit to take off the chill. There’s a comfortable personality to the place that reflects the personality of the founder and winemaker, Robert O’Callaghan, who was nice enough to spend some time with us.
The members of the Rockford wine club are called Stonewallers and the name is significant on several levels. The winery has plenty of rustic stone walls, which I suppose is the obvious reference. But the Stonewallers are more than parts of the scenery — they are meant to be and seem to feel themselves to be a part of a family or perhaps the solid foundation of the operation.
Membership is limited as it often is in such cases, and wines are allocated. But, as O’Callaghan explained to us, the point of the club is to reward long-time supporters of the winery and to cultivate a long term relationship rather than to cash in on short term sales. You need to purchase from the winery for a number of years before you might be invited into the club and then it is the persistence of your commitment rather than the size of the transaction that is rewarded.
An Inherited Trait?
Some folks of relatively modest means are members, for example. We were told of families who saved up a little at a time over the year so that they might splurge at Christmas on their allocated half-dozen bottles of festive sparkling Black Shiraz. The club stood by members having temporary fiscal troubles. And, yes, there had been some talk about whether Stonewallers could bequeath their memberships to favored heirs.
We happened to visit on the afternoon of one of the regular Stonewaller lunches, where members are invited to dine (at their own expense) in the winery and to enjoy the wines, the food and the company of fellow members. Back at our vineyard bed and breakfast (Blickinstal, on Rifle Range Road in Bethany) that evening we found that the other guests had come some distance in the middle of the week for the specific purpose of attending that luncheon. There was a very strong sense of belonging among these folks, with one couple — the newest Stonewaller initiates — still almost giddy at their good fortune.
You can just imagine what ambassadors they must be, with their insider tales and first person accounts, and how well they must represent the wines and the winery to others. The atmosphere thus created seems to extend to wines not on the allocation-only list.
The O’Callaghans seem to have created a destination winery in an unlikely location half way up a dusty road a few kilometers outside of Tanunda. The thing that makes it extreme is that everything — the place, the values, the commitment to long term relationships — is at once so perfectly calculated and so completely authentic.
This is a place that knows what it is and seems to draw together people who wish to share — through wine and fellowship — those characteristics. So that’s extreme wine experience lesson one: wine and family. What’s next? A history lesson.
Thanks to the O’Callaghans for spending time with us. Thanks to Diana Phibbs for steering us to this fascinating experience.