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  May 3, 2017
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WISE Bites   Tasting Room Spotlight
Onboarding Winners   Washington’s Maryhill Winery

We’ve hired the best candidates for our tasting room and now we’re ready for high season, right? Not quite; our work is not done until we onboard them properly. This goes far beyond having the new hires shadow our best staff members. There are best practices we should follow to make sure our newbies learn our brand and procedures and stay excited to work for us and take care of our guests.

Imagine two guys starting out at two different wineries on the same day. They leave the house in the morning—kiss the spouse, kids and goldfish goodbye—and head off to their first day on the job. They are both very excited because each landed a job in the tasting room of his favorite winery.



There’s something about Maryhill Winery that is truly unlike any other. The winery, its tasting room and its 4,000-seat open-air amphitheater all overlook the majestic Columbia River Gorge that divides Washington from Oregon. Although nearby lodging is scarce to non-existent in this out-of-the-way location, it’s some 13 miles of winding road from the agriculture-based town of  Goldendale, Wash., which is almost 70 miles from Yakima. Depending on your preferences and willingness to taste and drive, Maryhill need not be a one-hit destination. The winery is wedged between a museum of fine art in the former mansion of 19th-century railroad magnate Samuel Hill that displays works by impressionist masters and a full-scale replica of Stonehenge. 

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The first guy (let’s call him Sam) gets to the winery on time, but there is some “crisis” and his manager is too busy to meet, so he gets shuffled around for a while and is finally told to shadow Carrie, who is nice and competent. But Sam soon discovers that Carrie doesn’t really doesn’t like her job. There are lots of wines to learn and Sam asks lots of questions, about half of which are answered by “Cranky” Carrie. Around 3 p.m. Sam is finally given a huge pile of training and other admin paperwork by the office manager and told to go through it, sign everything that needs to be signed, and let his manager know if he has any questions. His manager pops in quickly at the end of the day and apologizes for not having time to meet with him, but promises to do so when he gets back from his market visits next week. Sam heads home.

The second guy (let’s call him Harry) has a different day. When he arrives, there are balloons on his locker in the break room and a big “Welcome Harry” sign. His manager is there to greet him, hands him business cards with his name on them, a well-organized training manual and an agenda laying out what to expect over the next few days and weeks. The training manual includes the winery organization chart and contact list, a sample performance review, the department metrics and goals, and a self-assessment where Harry will indicate the areas where he knows he needs more training.

His manager confirms they will have lunch together and introduces him to his orientation buddy, who we will call “Thorough” Theodore. Theodore is just that. Harry spends the entire day getting up to speed on everything he needs to do his job and understands that any knowledge or skill gaps he has will be covered through more training over time.

Before he leaves, he discovers there is a brief but fun surprise welcome party for him—a longstanding winery tradition—where he gets to know his team members a little better. Harry heads home.

That morning they both left home in the same state of excitement and enthusiasm, but when they get home that night, how does each one respond when their wife asks “How did it go?” What is Harry’s Response? What is Sam’s response?

Sad Sam is dejected and very worried that he made a mistake. He is not confident he can do the job, or that he will like it. Going back in tomorrow is going to be tough.

Happy Harry is over the top and already feels like a superstar. Can’t wait to go back tomorrow and do whatever it takes to start selling some wine. Now Harry’s wife isn’t surprised. She has prepared a special dinner with the welcome basket of organic vegetables sent over by the winery earlier that day, along with a bottle of their Reserve Cabernet.

Both new hires started out equal. We, their managers, created Sad Sam and Happy Harry.

While the example may seem simplistic, the truth is these are close enough to reality to be recognizable. When it comes to effective on-boarding, the buck stops here. If we don’t plan well and take steps to get there, we’re not setting up our staff with the tools they need. Consider a checklist to ensure we’re setting up our new employee for success:

  • Manager has cleared time for the new employee, including lunch on their first day.
  • Training agenda is prepared, laying out what to expect over the next few days and weeks, including a sample performance review, and department metrics and goals.
  • Business cards, training manual, winery organization chart and contact list are ready and printed.
  • Self-assessment is ready for the new employee to take to highlight where they feel more training is needed.

We have one chance—and only one chance—to set the right tone on day one. A person’s first day at work makes a lasting impression. What impression are you making on your new hires?

Source: WISE Academy,



Operations manager Maureen Lee has been with Maryhill since Craig and Vicki Leuthold opened it in 2001. She’s seen and made some changes since then, and she had worthy advice for others in charge of tasting rooms, wherever they may be. Maryhill produces dozens of different wines and, with the help of ShipCompliant, ships to most states. It also has national distribution, although not currently in California, where as a mid-sized producer, a prior distributor left it by the wayside.

Additionally, tasting room sales figures do not include those of the amphitheater, which books baby boomer favorites like Santana, Boz Scaggs, Michael McDonald and ZZ Top every summer.

Recruiting and retaining
When your winery is in the middle of nowhere, it may be more difficult to establish permanent tasting room staff than obtain seasonal vineyard labor. Personality is key, Lee said. Recruits need to like people and have the gift for gab. “You can train skills, but not personality,” she observed.

As the largest winery in the immediate area, Maryhill is able to employ its servers all year long. During the slower months from October to February, when much of Eastern Washington is snowed in, Lee puts three to five people in the boiler room for outgoing phone calls checking in with wine club members. Initially hesitant to use telemarketing, Lee said the program is now very successful, and members are happy to know the winery values them. Smaller wineries within hailing distance cannot afford to keep staff working all year—a distinct disadvantage.

Adding to the membership list is, she said, a “no-brainer.” The tasting room menu lists both retail and wine club prices. This encourages visitors to join the club and maintain memberships. “We have great wine club conversion,” Lee said.

Maryhill provides extensive training for tasting room staff with a six- to seven-week program. “We believe in making sure the servers can answer questions and have confidence to sell wine,” Lee said. “We want a relaxed approach: We don’t want anyone to leave feeling like they were being sold. Enthusiasm sells wine.” 

Recruiting still presents a big challenge, Lee said. “You have to care about your staff as people. It’s like nurturing a plant. It’s so simple but true: I don’t think people work for money, they have to enjoy what they do.”

E-commerce still has a minimal role in Maryhill’s wine sales. After several non-productive tries, a new platform from TrueCommerce Nexternal, which integrates with the ShipCompliant system, upped the role, increasing e-sales last winter to about 3.5% of total sales.

Although nothing could compare to the original, Maryhill will launch a satellite tasting room in Spokane (249 miles away) this September. Beside the Spokane River in a posh commercial/residential development downtown, it will also feature music to a year-round crowd, helping to make up for slow traffic in Goldendale.

—Jane Firstenfeld

Wines & Vines contributing editor Jane Firstenfeld has been writing about the North American wine industry since the 1970s. If there are any questions you would like answered by future Tasting Room Spotlight participants—or if you would like to have your tasting room featured—email her here.


Tasting Room News

Washington: Gov. Jay Inslee is considering a bill that would expand the number of offsite tasting rooms a winery can operate in Washington state from two to four. The state House and Senate already passed the legislation by wide margins, and the bill went to Inslee’s desk April 21. If passed, the law would apply to facilities operating with domestic winery licenses.

California: The Healdsburg City Council voted to limit the number of downtown tasting rooms to one per block face. The next step would be for the planning commission to enact an ordinance, which would likely apply to wine bars as well as tasting rooms.

Pennsylvania: 10,000-case Buddy Boy Winery of Duncannon, Pa., is opening a tasting room in Gettysburg, Pa. The winery also operates locations in Ridgway, Pa., and Brookville, Pa.

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