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03.07.2011  
 

When the Wine Futures Didn't Arrive

Couple's long wait for Washington state wine is finally over

 
by Peter Mitham
 
 
plaza winery futures
 
Eight months later than expected, a Washington couple that bought a case of red wine futures from during an April 2010 barrel tasting received the long-awaited case of wine.
Prosser, Wash.—‘Tis the season for barrel-tasting wine events in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere, but consumers and wineries both should be aware that buying yet-to-be-bottled vintages can come with some peril. One Yakima couple learned this lesson at Prosser’s Vintner’s Village. It took some prodding from Wines & Vines and the Better Business Bureau to achieve a satisfactory outcome.

Two weeks ago, Susan and Terry Gresswell complained to Wines & Vines and the BBB that they had yet to receive a case of wine they ordered from 3,000-case Plaza Winery during a barrel tasting in April 2010. Plaza was one of six wineries hosting tastings at Winemakers’ Loft, a winery-incubator center within the initial phase of Vintner’s Village, a 50-acre business park established by the Port of Benton just off I-82.

The Gresswells regularly attend barrel tastings and pay in advance for cases of the wines they’ve most enjoyed. In this case, a barrel of red wine offered by the fledgling Plaza Winery caught their attention. The couple paid $110 via credit card for a case. They understood the wine would be delivered in June and went home hoping to see it in time for their anniversary that month.

It didn’t arrive, so in July the couple made the 45-minute drive to Prosser to follow up. “We were told they were having trouble getting their label approved,” Susan Gresswell told Wines & Vines. To the veteran enophiles, the story didn’t seem unusual. Keen on Plaza’s wines, they purchased another case of red wine, put it in the car and headed home.

A second visit later in the summer yielded the same story regarding the label. Subsequent inquiries by phone and e-mail resulted only in further explanations and apologies—or worse, silence. While co-owner and winemaker Bryan Eglet promised the Gresswells their wine, Plaza had yet to make good on the commitment. Its tasting room closed at the end of December, but wine shops such as Cascade Wine Co. in Yakima still stock its wines. The most recent post on the social networking site Twitter, published Jan. 17, 2011, announced: “New year, now new adventures@ a greatful (sic) sense of accomplishment.”

But as of last Friday, the Gresswells remained frustrated and wondered if they’d ever see their wine or be reimbursed.

A sad back-story

A call to Plaza Winery from Wines & Vines was returned by co-owner Kevin Jorgensen, Eglet’s stepson. He explained that the winery was an offshoot of Plaza Socievole, a restaurant Jorgensen’s mother, Rita Jorgensen, opened in Yakima. The fallout from her death in 2009 led Jorgensen to sell the restaurant, which had doubled as a tasting room for the Prosser-based winery, and consolidate operations at Prosser. Tough economic times prompted a decision in 2010 to relocate to Yakima, where Eglet owns a bonded wine distribution warehouse.

Jorgensen said he would like to continue making wine but would focus on direct-to-consumer sales and distribution until business stabilizes. He confirmed that label approvals delayed wine deliveries in 2010. The lapse of Plaza’s liquor license, and then the transfer of its business license to Yakima have further complicated matters.

Jorgensen said he hoped to see all outstanding orders fulfilled shortly, noting that the winery’s half-dozen advance purchasers have been notified. Zan Deery, a lead investigator with the Better Business Bureau in Spokane, Wash., said complaints about non-delivery of wines are highly unusual. The situation at Plaza Winery may be the first of which she’s aware.

Protect consumers—and your reputation

Both wineries and consumers have options for avoiding and defusing situations when they do occur. These include due diligence prior to making a purchase, having a contract and maintaining open and regular communication.

“You have to do your research ahead of time. You don’t want to just go skipping down Winery Lane going in and out of wineries—just off the top of your head deciding you’re going to make purchases without knowing what you’re getting into,” Deery recommended. “You can tell by talking to people who has their act together and who doesn’t.”

A written contract for the goods—with specific terms and conditions—is also helpful.

“You don’t want to be selling bigger than what you think you can handle or promise to people,” Deery told vintners. “You need to have written agreements.”

When delivery doesn’t fall within the terms of the purchase contract, Deery urged maintaining direct communication. A new timeline for performance of the agreement should be announced, and updates should be made through as many channels as possible, including online and through social media.

“So many times, companies don’t use their websites for this type of thing, but we can’t stress how important that really is, because your website is a communication tool.” At the moment, Plaza Winery’s site, plazawinery.net, is a mere placeholder that reads “coming soon.”

While there’s always an element of risk involved when consumers buy something not yet available, Ryan Pennington, public relations director for the Washington Wine Commission, said wineries must be aware of the implications o f non-fulfillment. “Your long-term brand reputation should be more important than the short-term revenue,” he emphasized.

The wine arrives

The Gresswells have now received a case of wine from Plaza Winery. They accepted a replacement wine, rather than the wine they ordered. This morning, Wines & Vines received an e-mail from Susan Gresswell. “Interesting turn of events. I received an e-mail from the BBB, and I had wine delivered to my home on Friday afternoon. Yes, we have had a bottle, and yes, it is good. Thanks for caring.”

The unfortunate combination of circumstances that dogged Plaza Winery is unusual. Kari Saccomanno, business and property manager for the Winemakers’ Loft, owned by Dearborn LLC, said the center enjoys 75% occupancy. Visits during the recent Red Wine and Chocolate weekend Feb. 19-20 were up over last year, and several new events are planned for this spring.

Progress in Vintners’ Village
Meanwhile, sales of lots in the second phase of the Vintners’ Village development are set to begin when servicing of the site is completed later this month. Sidewalks, walking trails and lighting are imminent for approximately 13.5 acres: about 20 lots averaging a half-acre each. Average appraised value of the development sites is $98,000 per half-acre.

Seattle restaurateur Deborah Augustavo signed an agreement last summer to purchase a 1912-vintage home on the site and renovate it for bed and breakfast use, with outbuildings providing complementary shops. Diahann Howard, director of economic development/governmental affairs for the Port of Benton, told Wines & Vines that a bonded warehouse for wineries on the site, and more hospitality and retail uses complementing the 14 wineries in the first phase would be nice.

“We have not seen a tapering in Prosser for space, especially for wine-related or agritourism uses,” Howard said. “We hear from a lot of the smaller wineries—they just need more room.”

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