A shorter version of this article was published in the Grapegrower & Winemaker Journal in February 2019.
Since wineries opened cellar doors in the 1970’s they have been used as a marketing tool for building direct relationships between the winery and consumers, as well as offering wine as an Australian product to domestic and international tourists. Over 70 percent of Australian wineries operate a cellar door, presenting their wines to consumers and attempting to boost sales of the wines involved – but as we approach the year 2020 does the wine tasting experience, nearly unchanged for 50 years, need a makeover, or even a reinvention?
Regional wine tourism has advanced with; improved infrastructure, the architecture of wineries has seen significant upgrades, and wineries now incorporate art, food, music and events. But, what are the wine tasting experiences at cellar doors like today? Well, consumers taste anywhere between 5 and 20 wines across a wine producers’ quality range, guided by buzzwords like “single vineyard” and “reserve”. Staff attempt to regale with stories of the wines or winemaker and gauge the tastes, experience and spending habits of visiting consumers to personalise the interaction. Training, where it is done, typically focusses on technical aspects of the wine. There are taste descriptions and some information about the winery as well in laminated tasting notes on the tasting bench. Alternative grape varieties pop up here and there, but despite the ever-increasingly fashionable tasting fees, the wine tasting experience remains uncannily similar to the ’70s.
The Australian wine industry has a reputation for innovation and embracing science and technology in wine production. Yet, we don’t see this in marketing operations such as the consumer experience in cellar doors. It is somewhat surprising because, with the present state of knowledge in sensory and consumer science disciplines, wine tasting goes beyond aroma and flavour described in tasting notes. Wine tasting is a multi-sensory experience, engaging our unconscious thoughts and emotions intertwined with memories. Even the ‘simple’ elements such as an aroma have a far greater experiential impact than most consider.
Flavour perception begins with the wine’s appearance– yes, how it looks in the glass. The shape and height of the wine glass visually evoke expectations of aroma and tastes qualities. Research also shows that ambient music, lighting, décor and odours in the surrounding vicinity affect what we see and taste in a glass of wine. The appearance of the bottle it has come from and who has poured it impacts our opinion. Colour, intensity, and clarity all create expectations of the wine’s flavour before we even reach towards the glass. The aromas might generate further expectations, like citrus aroma associations with vibrant acidity or dried fruits and spicy oak aromas with warm, rounded palate. Or how about something savoury to enhance the drying sensation of tannins? What do those tannins feel like? Smooth like velvet or as rough as sandpaper? Can you relate that tactile sensation to the bench surface you are resting your hands on or to the loud, distorted rock music playing in the background? Different wine flavours evoke different emotions; for example, chocolate and rose, happy, well-being, pleasantly surprised and romantic; lemon, energised and invigorated emotions. These are areas for staff to utilise in the crafting of the sensory experience. If it was a sparkling wine, the popping sound of cork and fizzing bubbles would have set the scene for citrusy refreshment even before smelling the wine – as well as a heightened sense of ‘celebration’, something not experienced by those who are just tasting but not present when opening the bottle.
Flavour perception does not end at the interactions between our sensory modalities of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Based on our past experiences, we tend to couple memories with certain aromas and flavours. It is also known as the Proustian moment, a brief, vivid sensory invoked memory of a nostalgic childhood moment. During tasting, the memories evoke emotions and vice versa, which will impact the perceived flavour and thus the tasting experience. Arousing a consumer’s involuntary memory through suggestion from staff communication in the experience of wine tasting might prove to be a defining moment in the consumer adopting and generating positive word-of-mouth for the wine brand.
Sensory marketing is a type of marketing that engages consumers’ senses on an emotional level, and affects their perception, judgement and behaviour about the brand/product/service. Emotional bonding using sensory marketing has been widely used in the luxury goods industry to create long term brand loyalty that has moved far beyond merely ‘wanting’. This is because other than utilitarian products consumers do not buy products or services only, but they buy experiences, and experiences are created using the senses.
Engaging the multi-sensory component of the wine tasting experience allows sensory marketing to enhance the emotional part of flavour perception and tailor it into a memorable winery experience. To achieve that today, a tasting room with a fancy vineyard view may no longer be enough. An increasing number of wineries offer wine tasting with food or canapés. To some extent, this approach creates consumer engagement but still remains rather product-focused by presenting a sequence of wines instead of an experience. This is the approach used in promotional wine dinners as well, each course is paired with a glass of wine to showcase the wine. This does not involve sensory marketing, nor creates a memory through an experience. Variations of steak and veggies might pair well with bold Shiraz and Cabernet wines, but how does it set apart the showcased wine from others? Wine provenance is important to high-end consumers as are vintage conditions, but are you able to tell the story of winemaking and vintage through the paired aromas, flavours and textural elements of the wine – and of the physical environment in which it is taking place? Food and wine pairing is desired by consumers, and with a scientific approach, it may lead to significant consumer satisfaction and financial gain.
In short, a memorable consumer experience is immersive, innovative enough to engage and entertain the guest. Simultaneously, the environment - and in this case, the food pairing - is appropriate with the wine and memories intended to be created. As the wine industry evolves, the tasting experience and food pairings should go in hand with it. It is time to explore sensory marketing as a field – combined with communication techniques and engage science to deliver experiences that create memories – and wine customers.
Though not exhaustive, here is a list of questions to consider when planning your wine tasting:
1. Do you quality check opened bottles or decant new ones? How are they tagged/stored? Oxidised wine or flat sparkling is disappointing!
2. What is on display in the tasting area – e.g.: texture of the tasting bench, colour of walls and surrounds? For example, blue light makes wine taste bitter.
3. What music/sound do you use? Pitch style and genre changes how we perceive wine aroma taste and flavour.
4. Do you use premium glassware for your top wines? If so, pre-pour the wines so they can unfold in the glass and offer enhanced sensory qualities to your.
5. Do you limit yourself to crackers and bread as palate cleansers? Do you include local or seasonal produce?
6. Have you trained staff communication to avoid purely technical language? Are they able to invoke memories or arouse ‘Proustian moments’?
7. Do you ensure engagement throughout the tasting?
The present state of sensory marketing permits us to understand multi-sensory interactions and reconstruct memorable sensory experiences, but we can also use that knowledge to create new ones.
In many ways, cellar door experience is like a theatre piece, or a sensorial roller coaster. So put time aside to plan your tasting experience starting with what you want to achieve. Then talk with (and listen to) your visitors, after all, it is the perfect opportunity to solicit feedback from consumers – but then ensure there is a system or process for capturing this and passing it along.