Turning novices on to wine

The wine industry in the US state of Virginia is growing at a tremendous pace, capitalising on passing tourists. But what do you do if you’re not on the tourist trail? Felicity Carter reports.

Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, the father of Virginian wine
Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, the father of Virginian wine

What do you do if you’ve got wine to sell, and cellar door employees to pay, but ­nobody’s coming through the door?

If you’re Carl Henrickson, you set up a Wine Immersion Boot Camp.

Up by the bootstraps

Carl and Donna Henrickson are not classic wine people. ­Before they created their Little Washington Winery on the eastern side of Virginia’s famed Blue Ridge Mountains, Carl worked on ‘K Street’, the heart of the political lobbyist industry in Washington­ DC. Donna also commuted to Washington. Eventually, the job satisfaction wore off. “We said, ‘to hell with it’,” says Carl Henrickson­ – and decided to build their own boutique winery.

Their chosen location is spectacular, being at the northern end of the Skyline Drive, the 169 km road that runs the length of the Shenandoah National Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The road attracts 2m visitors a year, ­particularly in autumn when the leaves are changing. Sometimes this can be good for business, because drivers can’t go faster than 35 miles an hour.

“You’re supposed to stop and see the bears, but it makes people really dizzy,” says Henrickson. The result is people streaming into the winery begging for a drink. 

But Little Washington Winery also has the unhappy distinction of being the ­furthest winery away from the all-important Washington DC trade and there’s not much marketing funding to bring them in. Many of the people who make it to their cellar door are total wine novices, unsure of what to buy. On their side, though, the Henricksons had experience running the Virginia Wine Festival, so they knew about dealing with the general public. As Henrickson says, “I know more about tents and toilets than ­anybody in the whole world.”

He learned something else from the ­festival: when it comes to wanting to know more about wine, the general public: “are rabid dogs. They love the product.”  So he hit on his idea – to set up wine education at the time the cellar door was quietest. “The learning piece is a big element of what we do here. If they don’t walk out of here ­having learned something, we’ve failed at what we do.”

Plenty of fun

Just before 11 o’clock, the cellar door starts filling up with boot campers, who have paid $40.00 to be here. Soon, a loud buzz and laughter is emanating from the tasting room.

Henrickson says the two-hour session features a talk on how white and red wines are made, and introduces a rosé. “We feature a red wine that’s been breathed, and then we open the identical wine in another bottle. The difference is profound and suddenly the audience is wide awake.”

There are also food matches with a sandwich and some chocolate. The Little Washington Winery also sells wines from other wineries – including a pineapple wine from Hawaii – which can turn up on the syllabus. 

Cellar door wine education is not, of course, a new idea. A quick Google search of Napa wineries ­offering courses of some kind brings up hundreds of entries. But wine education is often pitched at the ­serious consumer, who may already know a great deal about their own palate, and something about the world of wine. What Henrickson is offering is a no-holds-barred, no-embarrassment introduction to wine at its most basic level – potentially turning complete novices into regular wine drinkers.

While it can be an enjoyable experience for many, as evidence by yelp.com reviews, it can clearly frustrate some customers: “Do not waste your time or money on the ‘boot camp’ if you know anything about wine,” wrote ­Sarah H. “The information that we learned (that I found interesting) is stuff I know we probably would have learned while standing at the bar tasting the wines from the actual vineyard.”

Of course, from a wine industry point of view, the big question is – does it make money?­ It’s become popular enough that it’s now offered twice a day. And Henrickson says his average cellar door sale to boot camp graduates is typically $80.00, compared to $50.00 to passersby. “Our club memberships have increased about 125% since we started boot camps.”

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