Once upon a time, going to a winery meant elbowing your way through a crowd to a bar where a summer-hire poured three sips of white and three sips of red and made sure everyone had a price list. There are still places like that (avoid them) but, fortunately, much has changed in the cellar door experience.
"Elevated Experiences" is the phrase the Duckhorn Wine Company of Napa Valley, Calif. uses to describe the menu of wine-tasting options available to guests at their three wineries. That description reflects a desire to ensure visitors not only enjoy their time at Duckhorn, but that they take away a warm and fuzzy feeling that translates into a long-term customer.
Duckhorn Winery was founded by Dan Duckhorn and his wife Margaret in 1976. Pioneers in the production of high quality Merlot in a region primarily known for Cabernet Sauvignon, Dan and Margaret were also pioneers in the concept of wine hospitality. "Every guest should be seated and every wine should be poured individually" was a Duckhorn axiom from the beginning.
Though simple, the idea defined the rules for Duckhorn employees and how they interact to this day with their guests. Each visitor is to be made comfortable and time is to be taken to adequately explain each of the wines poured.
Today the simplicity of this concept remains at the core of a sophisticated multi-tiered tasting program that, according to Ryan Moore, Duckhorn's manager of retail operations, is designed to give guests a "pyramid of options" when they visit Duckhorn's family of properties. These properties include the original Duckhorn Farm House property in St. Helena, their contemporary Paraduxx Winery on the Silverado Trail and Goldeneye, a new silver LEED-certified property in the Anderson Valley focused on Pinot Noir.
"When people come visit a winery they have different needs, different interests," Ryan explains. "Some just come to relax, others want an education and others are looking for a luxury experience. We try to offer different options and then match them to our guest's expectations." To accomplish this, Moore oversees a variety of tasting programs.
At Duckhorn, for example, guests who want to learn about a wine's origins can choose a session titled "Taste of Terroir." Here the wines are tasted adjacent to barrels filled with the soils of the vineyards where those wines were grown. This is a hands-on, tactile tasting where one can actually "get dirty" and feel the earth in their hands that made the wines.
A wine educator explains the geology of each vineyard, the aspects of the hillsides, the drainage of the soils and the unique weather characteristics as guests taste, say, a Sauvignon Blanc from the sandy soils of Marlee's Vineyard, or a Merlot from the rocky Three Palms Vineyard.
Guests at Paraduxx have the option of enjoying a unique food and wine pairing program that utilizes "tiffins," small, stacked, stainless-steel serving bins that date back to the working-class meals of British India. Each of these round tins features a different course - say, a starter salad with fruit, a main course of duck confit or braised short ribs, a dessert tin with a chocolate mousse - and each course is paired (perfectly, when I was fortunate enough to attend) with the wines of Paraduxx.
The tasting is enhanced by the surroundings. The contemporary, bright, open floor plan of the main tasting room spills out onto a covered veranda that, in turn, tumbles gracefully into a natural garden - not too fussy, not too precise, but pure Napa. Just beyond is a 10-sided barn that serves as the Paraduxx crush and winemaking facility. It was perhaps the most well thought-out, efficient and comfortable winery I have ever visited.
Those seeking a luxury experience can opt for a tour of vineyards atop Howell Mountain, one of Napa's most esteemed appellations, and dine picnic-style in the vineyards while sampling some of Duckhorn's most prestigious bottlings.
While different in scope, Moore emphasizes that each Elevated Experience must succeed in touching six separate emotions. Guests must be made to feel welcomed and comforted at the outset of their experience. They must be engaged and entertained throughout. And ultimately they should feel pampered and appreciated when the experience ends.
"Ultimately, our goal is to create a heightened engagement between our guests, our people, the places where our wines come from and our products," says Ryan.
What more could one ask for from a visit to a cellar door?