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For wineries, holidays aren't the busiest

TRI-COUNTY AREA—The holiday season at the wineries differs from the experience of most other retail establishments. Those who depend on walk-in customers find traffic is drastically reduced in the winter, even in the lead-up to Christmas and New Year’s which animates other businesses.
“Holidays are not the biggest sales time. This is the time of year the sales room slows down a lot,” says Susan Hayes, co-owner of Miles Wine Cellars in Himrod. “So shipping and other sales are very important to us. “Fall is bigger—and we did see the biggest fall we’ve ever seen as far as visitors and what they’re spending.”
Despite Christmas music, twinkling lights, wine-bottle-sized stockings hung at eye level, there’s restraint as well as holiday spirit in the air. Customers coming to the winery now are a lot more local, mostly from Pennsylvania and the metropolitan areas of New York State—unlike the summer, when people from across the country visit the Finger Lakes. “I think people are being very careful about their spending but they’re ready to be out and about,” Hayes has noticed.
“They’re asking what’s on special, what are your bargains this weekend, which we as a winery have kind of stepped up on, putting better specials together. People are paying closer attention to those things.”
With that in mind, Bully Hill Vineyards recently offered specials promoted through their newsletter, website and direct mail. Their recent two-hour free-shipping offer resulted in hundreds of special orders. Retail and marketing manager Sean King came to work early the following day and with two other employees, spent six hours ringing up the orders. “It went better than expected,” an exhausted but happy King said near the end of that work day. “People are definitely noticing. We’ve already totally massacred last year’s Christmas sales. People are definitely looking for specials. I don’t think this year even compares to last year.”
While most wine customers were buying wine that fell into the lower price categories, King says they bought quite a lot of it—enough to make him feel very optimistic about 2011. And to cement those internet orders, the staff pays a lot of attention to customer service, to create a more permanent relationship. “We check back later with every single person,” King says.
Ann Martini, co-owner of Anthony Road Wine Company in Penn Yan, says at this time of year, her walk-in customers tend to be relatively local to the area, generally repeat customers who know exactly what they want. “Sometimes they’re not even tasting, just coming in to buy a case of what they’re looking for,” she says.
The winery has been busy, with many out-of-state customers whose kids attend nearby colleges. And they’ve seen a definite uptick in internet orders. “The ease of internet sales has a lot to do with it,” Martini says. “It’s people who can’t get here for one reason or another and people getting wine for gifts. I think sales are not up a whole lot, but a little bit.”
Eileen Farnan, owner of Barrington Wine Cellars and also the president of the Keuka Lake Wine Trail, says, “I always check month to month from one year to the next—you have to—it gives you an idea of whether you should stay in business or not!”
A close look at the numbers led her to the conclusion, “This economy is taking its time to come back. We expect that. Here in the Finger Lakes, we never saw the peak in the economy like they saw in the big cities, so the fall wasn’t quite as harsh. I believe we’re coming out flat even with last year, which is better than down. Maybe people are buying a little bit more wine for the holidays for gifts and their own personal enjoyment.”
Her winery doesn’t do many internet orders, finding more success with direct sales at their winery and at the Greenmarket in New York City. “That was pretty good this year,” she says. “And this year, the sales of our grapes at the Greenmarket were phenomenal.”
Trail-wide holiday events bump up sales a bit, but they can also be expensive for individual wineries to host. “Then you’re introducing a whole lot of people to food pairings—here on Keuka we do a big deal with the food.” She explains many of those who attend wine trail events use them as a sort of “survey course” to learn about wine and find new favorites. Hopefully they return later to purchase more of the wine they discovered—but in her experience, most of these visitors are not yet wine enthusiasts.
Instead, their seasonal bread-and-butter are the customers who return each year, thinking of wine to serve at the holidays and “the people who want to stock up on what they don’t want to miss out on for the winter months. This is probably a leftover from the times people had to make sure they had enough in their root cellars to make it through to the spring!”
Are there enough of these to predict better times ahead? “Time will tell,” Farnan says cheerfully. “I’ve been in this business long enough to know you don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.”




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