by Sally Colby
People who visit wineries may arrive for a taste of wine, but guests at Fenn Valley Vineyards get a lot more: a combination of education along with a true vineyard experience that the owners of the Michigan vineyard have been fine-tuning since 1973.
Education for wine tasters starts with the basics of growing grapes for wine, including the influence of appellation. Brian Lesperance, marketing director at Fenn Valley, says there are four appellations in Michigan, and that the vineyard is in the Fennville appellation; a subset of the Lake Michigan Shore appellation.
“Within the Lake Michigan Shore appellation, most of the wineries are further south; in the heart of the old Welch’s grape juice growing country,” said Lesperance. “We were one of the first to come further north — we’re about 45 minutes north of most southwest Michigan wineries.”
The entire 230-acre farm is licensed as a tasting room, which allows Fenn Valley to conduct tasting tours throughout the 70 acres of vineyards. “We’ll head out to the vineyard and do three to five stops depending on what’s out there to look at,” said Lesperance. “Each time we stop, the guide will bring out a couple of bottles of wine that we’ll use to illustrate the points that are being made. We begin with white wines, starting with white wine 101 — we want to orient people so they understand what we’re talking about.”
Starting in June, guests on the vineyard tour board custom-designed wagons, starting the two-hour tour in the vineyard and finishing in the cellar. “We explain how the appellation affects what they’re tasting in the glass, and how viticulture practices affect wine,” said Lesperance, adding that tasting is going on throughout the tour. “We’ll talk about the plants, why they’re on trellises, how they’re pruned and tied the way they are. We talk about how the fruit is developing, the impact of pruning throughout the season, and how the land and geography impacts the wine. Then we switch to red wine and talk about tannins and aging, and how the cool climate affects tannins and ageability of wine.”
In fall, when grapes are ready for harvest, visitors can sample the grapes as they sample wine made from those grapes. Winter tours are held in the wine cellar and focus on the winemaking process. Lesperance noted that some people come several times a year in order to experience and learn all of the aspects of grape growing and winemaking.
Although the tours are structured, hosts allow the conversation to be driven by questions guests ask; from basic information to highly technical chemistry questions. “We look at it as their tour — we’re just there to facilitate it,” said Lesperance. “We also offer private tours, which are definitely customized. If it’s a private tour, I can pretty quickly gauge what kind of wine drinkers we have.”
This year, new tours will focus on food and wine pairings; something Lesperance says customers have asked for. “We see two camps of people coming through,” he said. “Some people are really into the culinary experience and how wine fits into it, and some just really love to learn about wine. We’ve served the food and wine crowd at different periods throughout the year, and now we’re going to try to serve them the whole year with food and wine tours.” Tables on the wagons will allow hosts to serve food and wine as the tours wind through the vineyards.
For guests who aren’t interested in a tour, Fenn Valley’s tasting room includes an observation deck that overlooks the vineyards and a glimpse into the cellar. “We look at the tasting room as sort of a launch pad for a lot of expanded experiences,” said Lesperance. “The tasting room sets the stage for the experience, and hopefully it ties back to the wine.”
To meet customers’ desires, Fenn Valley will be offering more tasting room options that allow people to expand their experience, including small plates of food for purchase as they’re sampling wines. “We can sell wine by the glass in the tasting room,” said Lesperance. “We have a lot of great places they can sit and enjoy wine. We’re looking into working with a local deli so that people can order a boxed lunch that they can take out into the vineyard to enjoy.”
Lesperance says that because people vote with their wallets, tasting rooms are a great opportunity for market research. “They may try different wines for a variety of reasons, but you have to look at what they’re buying,” he said. “We sell everything from bone-dry red wines to sweet reds to semi-dry in both categories, and specialty products. We try to cater to a lot of different folks without spreading ourselves too thin. We like to keep the wines in the $8-$12 range, and within that range we typically have more than 30 wines available.”
As he explained how Fenn Valley has evolved to meet customer needs, Lesperance referenced Michigan State University research that examined reasons people visit tasting rooms. “The number one reason is for entertainment,” he said. “People want to relax and experience the winery. They’re serious about buying wine, but they may not always want two hours of interactive education and entertainment.”
Numerous special events throughout the year draw people to Fenn Valley. Lesperance says at first, these events were a means to bring people to the winery, but now the vineyard is a destination and events are a cornerstone of keeping the brand alive.
In addition to monthly food and wine pairings, Fenn Valley holds a wildly popular chili cookoff. “It started with about 12 people and now it’s at 500 plus,” said Lesperance. “This year we had about 100 chili entries. People like it a lot — it’s January, and people are looking for something to do.”
Lesperance says Fenn Valley is constantly adapting based on customer feedback. “We learn so much about our marketplace and our customers — what they like and don’t like — because we’re out there directly interacting with them on these tours.”
Fenn Valley visitors can make tour reservations online, which makes scheduling easy for both the winery and guests. Lesperance says the tours, which are offered at $8/person, are a marketing opportunity. “We give back five of those eight dollars if you buy four or more bottles of wine,” he said. “We’re grateful for people wanting to come out and learn about wine. We know that if we can create more ambassadors around the idea of Michigan wine, and our wine, it’ll pay long-term dividends.”
Visit Fenn Valley on line at www.fennvalley.com.
by Sally Colby