Friday, November 2, 2007

How Do They Sell So Much Wine?

Can you take a few more?” Rick Healy sticks his head inside the door, interrupting. We’re in Dennis Zablosky’s office at Frank Family Vineyards (that's Dennis in his office in the photo), where Dennis is giving me, along with David Harmon III, owner of Carneros della Notte, and about ten VIPs a private wine tasting. And with that many clinking wine glasses crowding his desk, the place is wall-to-wall jammed. Dennis sputters, “Absolutely not!” “OK,” Rick quips, “I’ll send them right in.”

Vaudeville. Everybody laughs, of course, why not. They’re having the time of their lives, sipping Frank Family Vineyards’ award-winning Chardonnay, described by Dennis as “liquid crème brulee”. It’s not just the office that’s jammed. It’s the whole tasting room. Dennis, who runs Frank Family Vineyards’ direct sales, has been a larger than life presence in the local wine scene for nearly four decades. Robert Mondavi, the most eminent wine celebrity in the valley, called him “a living legend,” and rightly so. Not many wineries get this kind of foot traffic, day in and day out, with much of it serious wine buyers: CEOs and business tycoons, sports celebrities and movie moguls, film stars and famous authors, well, almost famous – the movers and shakers of the world – who fly on private jets to visit wine country, and to sit down with Dennis. “It’s a day-long party,” Patrick Cline says to me, “from the moment we open until closing time.” I marvel at their stamina. Patrick is one of Dennis’ raconteurs, entertaining and pouring wine along with Rick Healy, and Jeff Senelick, and Jerry Smith, and Tim Murphy – all men, mature and self assured, who create a club-like atmosphere that’s as inviting to women as it is to men. Somehow they manage to juggle a host of new visitors everyday, who arrive by the minute, spreading them out amongst three pouring bars in that old ramshackle building, more like a small-town Mayberry government DMV than a grand wine palace. (Rumor has it a new winetasting room is in the works at Frank Family Vineyards.)

Rick is back moments later with the two new VIPs, a business executive who had visited Dennis on a previous trip, and is back for more star treatment with his gorgeous girlfriend. As Dennis tries to explain once more about the lack of room, he catches sight of her at the door. “Well, hello sweetheart.” To the executive he says, “If I’d known you brought such a beautiful woman with you… Make more room!” He motions at the rest of us to clear some space as more laughter erupts. “What do you do, honey?” “I’m a masseuse,” the girlfriend says carefully, aware that all eyes are watching her. “Oh,” Dennis moans with true feeling, “you can save my life. Come closer honey. Give her room.” He rolls his shoulder painfully. “I have this old rotator cuff injury that stiffens up on me.” Obviously, this is the price of admission. As room is made, the girlfriend happily obliges.

There’s something special about a visit to Frank Family Vineyards. When you’re near the pulse beat of a place, the very heart of what’s happening, where the who’s who gather, you can feel it – that same draw that pulled Marilyn Monroe and joltin’ Joe DiMaggio north from Hollywood years ago when Frank Family Vineyards was called Hans Kornell, and when Marilyn fell in love with pink champagne that later she was rumored to have bathed in, and is still being made in the old Champangnois method by Frank Family Vineyards’ winemaker, Todd Graff.

Many wineries in the valley draw huge crowds, and have great stories to tell, and have fantastic wines, but Frank Family Vineyards not only gets visitors packing bottles out the door, but whole cases. Cases and cases and cases.

I’ve wondered how exactly they do it. Somewhere near 85% of the wine is sold directly at the winery. What makes this wine tasting room so successful? It’s actually quite simple. They make you feel like a star. And being a star means getting star treatment. From the moment you step foot inside, you’re in the spotlight, greeted with a smile at the door, offered a glass of champagne, and asked, “Where are you from?” and “What brought you to wine country?” You’re special. And to prove it, they’re putting on a party, just for you. It doesn’t cost you anything. Just showing up makes you a member of the club. And club members get privileges. Maybe even a private pouring at Dennis’ office. And that special feeling can keep going just by taking some wine home with you when you leave. Cases and cases and cases.

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