The Windsor Wine Wonder
By Gerald D. Boyd

Windsor Vineyards is a unique winemaking phenomenon in transition.  The largest direct-to-consumer winery in the United States, Windsor Vineyards sells an impressive 95 percent of its annual 200,000 case production through telemarketing. This sales technique is virtually unknown in the wine world, but Windsor Vineyards--the company that put the personal into personalized wine labeling--has moved onto the cutting edge of direct-to-consumer wines sales.

Headquartered in the small Sonoma County town of Windsor, this innovative wine company was purchased by Fosters Wine Estates in December 2004, opening the newest chapter in Windsor's long history.  Windsor was the brainchild of noted Sonoma County vintner Rodney Strong, who in 1959 started the company under the name of Tiburon Vintners.  Then in 1961, following considerable growth and morphing into a direct-to-consumer winery, Strong moved Windsor Vineyards to Windsor to be closer to his vineyards and his newest enterprise, Sonoma Vineyards, which eventually became Rodney Strong Vineyards.  After a shaky relationship with Renfield, then the distributor for Rodney Strong wines, a more positive change occurred in 1989, with the purchase of both wineries by the Klein Family, which invested new capital into the winery and vineyards. 

A few years later, Klein sold to Fosters which had also acquired Beringer Vineyards, International Wine Accessories, and the American Wine Exchange, a direct-to-consumer company that sells imported wines.  Then in April 2005, Fosters Wine Estates appointed Tammy Boatright, a direct marketing specialist, to the position of president of Windsor Vineyards.  Boatright, who came from International Wine Accessories, understands telemarketing and direct-to-consumer sales, and she sees the partnership with Beringer as an advantage for Windsor Vineyards.  "We now have the benefit of Beringer's winemaking experience and of working with Beringer's vineyards." 

Windsor Vineyards is actually two main facilities: the headquarters in Windsor, facing the town green (where the heart of the telemarketing and fulfillment operations is located), and the winery across town, near Rodney Strong Vineyards.  The Windsor headquarters is an unassuming modern building that looks like a hundred other business structures in the corridor running from Santa Rosa to Cloverdale.  But inside, the well-oiled Windsor Vineyards machine processes virtually all of its 200,000-case annual production for sale direct to the consumer. 

Wine sales employing the direct-to-consumer approach at Windsor had appeal to Boatright because of the way it was applied.  She understands that a negative image about telemarketing and the intrusion of telemarketers persists.  But Boatright maintains that, at Windsor Vineyards, there is a difference between the "cold-call" telemarketing intrusion at dinner and the "out-bound" telemarketing technique employed by Windsor's Wine Consultants.  "We employ 50 Wine Consultants who establish a one-on-one relationship with customers, sometimes servicing generations of the same family."  Windsor Vineyards also employs a small number of order takers who handle in-bound calls. 

"Once a Wine Consultant is assigned to a customer, they stay in touch by e-mail or fax, usually at their work and rarely at home, unless the customer prefers that arrangement," says Boatright.  She adds that references are mostly through word of mouth, and repeat business is higher than average because the Wine Consultant checks in with a customer whenever there is a new event or new release that the consultant thinks might be of interest.  Windsor Vineyards is also working the Internet for on-line sales and marketing.

Popular features (and a big selling point) are wines from the Windsor inventory that can be ordered with personalized labels.  The tradition has been provided free to customers for 46 years and today accounts for about 85 percent of the annual sales.  Consumers can order a personalized label or check the wide range of custom labels available through the periodic catalog.  The current catalog offers personalized labels as diverse as a private reserve Petite Sirah named for the family's pet cat, to a Sonoma County Merlot sporting a colorful label depicting a snow-covered winter scene.  The catalog provides a list of no fewer than 94 standard inscriptions, and should those offerings prove insufficient, you can compose your own.  Additionally, for the collector and discriminating wine consumer, there are the Windsor Vineyards wine clubs, including the "Wine Master Series" and "Wine of the Season" options.

The Wine Consultants operate out of a maze of small, personalized cubicles, scattered about a much larger room that bears little resemblance the old telemarketing "boiler room" operations.  When I visited Windsor Vineyards, the atmosphere was relaxed and informal, with consultants chatting with customers as though they were old friends.  Yet, there was a certain level of palpable pressure and activity in the air.  Tom Simoneau, director of sales, who has been with Windsor Vineyards for 23 years, showed me around. 

Simoneau says the average Windsor Wine Consultant operates on straight commission with full benefits and takes or makes about 100 calls a day.  He introduced me to Robert Lackey, a 16-year veteran who has been Windsor's top salesman for the last 13 years.  Lackey, who has a client base of 2,000 customers, says that all of his customers are referrals.  "Establishing rapport with the customer is important to retaining a long-term relationship," notes Lackey. 

The wines that Lackey and his associates sell to their customers are made by Toni Stockhausen, an Australian winemaker who turns out an astonishing total of 39 sparkling, still and dessert wines--with no assistant winemakers--and still finds time to seek out new challenges.  "This year I found a really good small parcel of Sangiovese," noted Stockhausen, "and last year we saw that our customers were looking for a Pinot Grigio, so we added that to the list.  If I can't source good quality fruit there is no point just producing another wine style.  I am always open to new wines and styles and seeing what is happening in the marketplace, and having a special project keeps things fresh for me--even after 26 harvests." 

Coral Shelton, Stockhausen's predecessor, was the Windsor Vineyard winemaker from July 1981 to February 2000.  Now making small lots of wine for her own company, Carol Shelton Wines (which she owns with her husband), Shelton has a different perspective about the size of the Windsor line.  "I left because I was getting fried making 45 different wines&and that was just for Windsor.  There were also the zillions of sub lots to be made for Rodney Strong.  It was time to leave and do my own thing."

Tom Simoneau, who, in addition to managing the sales force, also works a client list of 1,000, doesn't agree that Windsor has too many wines.  "What works for us is that our winemaker has access to small lots of grapes, which allows us to produce small batches of high quality wines, such as the Appellation Series."  Simoneau says that Windsor presently ships to 33 states, with California and New York being the best markets.  Now with the Fosters connection, Simoneau says that Windsor Vineyards is looking at selling other wines, and has already taken one small limited step into local retail. 

Windsor does not own vineyards, so Stockhausen sources her grapes from across California, including grapes from vineyards farmed by Windsor's partner, Beringer Vineyards.  "Most of our grapes come from a range of growers, some of whom we have been working with for many years."  In 2005, Stockhausen says the grape source breakout was 47% Sonoma, 47% Mendocino, 4% San Luis Obispo and 2% Napa Valley. 

All of the wine that passes through Windsor Vineyards is processed, labeled and shipped by the Fulfillment Department.  The wines are stored as "shiners," full closed bottles without labels.  As orders come in, labels are created using laser graphics, including reproduction of photos, logos, and just about anything the customer would like to have on a personalized bottle label.  Then every bottle is hand labeled and shipped by ground delivery.

With Fosters' blessing, Boatright is taking a fresh look at Windsor Vineyards as a winery and is exploring how the uniqueness of personalized labels can form a stronger bond with customers.  She has stopped discounting the wines in order to alter the impression in the marketplace that low-priced Windsor Vineyards wines were more about a sales gimmick then quality.  Boatright believes that the new court rulings on direct shipping will have little impact on the way Windsor Vineyards operates its business.  "We've already broken down most of the barriers, so the new ruling will just level the playing field."  

With new capital and new management, Windsor Vineyards is injecting new life into the idea of selling wines direct to consumers.  It would appear that the transition is nearing completion.  To find out more about Windsor Vineyards, visit www.windsorvineyards.com


Tasting Notes

The following Windsor Vineyards wines are from the "Signature Series," and are packaged with the standard buff or white labels.  With one or two exceptions, I found these wines very high in alcohol (two in excess of 15%), affecting the fruit, balance and finish of the wine.  All prices are from the winery catalog.  I prefer to summarize my reviews with word ratings rather than points, but those wishing to see the point ranges to which my word ratings correspond may consult the following table:

Good = 80-84
Very Good = 85-89
Outstanding = 90-94
Superb = 95-100


Windsor, Alexander Valley (Sonoma County, California) Chardonnay Simoneau Ranch 2003 ($18):  Bright gold color, with a pleasant green apple and subtle oak aroma.  This Chardonnay has a rich, buttery texture, balanced oak and fruit, and good length.  At 13.9% alcohol, it is one of the few wines tasted that carries its alcohol nicely.  Outstanding (90-94)

Windsor, Sonoma County (California) Chardonnay 2004 ($22.92):  The color is a medium burnished gold and the nose is very oaky, with spice and acacia notes.  The wine has a thick texture, the flavor of cooking apples, and a medium dry finish with heavy oak tones.  Good (80-84)

Windsor, Sonoma County (California) Merlot 2002 ($26.67):  Lovely deep bright ruby color with a low intensity nose offering hints of ripe berry and mint.  Good rich texture, plumy flavors, lots of oak that seems to intensify in the glass, followed by a medium finish.  This Merlot is pleasant drinking but a bit pricey.  Good (80-84)

Windsor, Alexander Valley (Sonoma County, California) Cabernet Sauvignon Simoneau Ranch 2003 ($26):  This wine has a brilliant deep ruby color and a forward rich berry aroma with vanilla and spice accents.  A hint of Syrah in the blend lifts the fruity flavors with a complimentary choco-berry note.  The wine is supported by smooth tannins and brisk acidity.  Very Good (85-89)

Windsor, Alexander Valley (Sonoma County, California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 ($28.75):  Lovely deep ruby color with a shy nose of bright berry and vanilla.  The flavors are pleasant, fruity, with no herbal notes, supported by good acidity and firm tannins.  This simple, drinkable cabernet leans to the fruity (though pricey) side.  Very Good (85-89)

Windsor, Sonoma County (California) Meritage Red Table Wine 2002 ($28.33):  Deep inky ruby color, followed by a low intensity berry nose and spicy French oak notes.  Fairly simple black cherry flavors, firm tannins, and a medium finish with good acidity.  Good (80-84)

Windsor, Dry Creek Valley (Sonoma County, California) Shiraz 2002 ($20.50):   Very deep ruby color with toasted oak, road tar and anise notes.  Forward berry flavors, big tannins, chewy texture, and some heat in the finish.  This is an Australian-style, brawny Shiraz with a finished alcohol of 15.36 percent.  Good (80-84)

Windsor, North Coast (California) Zinfandel 2003 ($21.50):  Very deep ruby color, forward, slightly jammy berry nose with spice notes.  The soft tannins and ripe berry flavors are at odds with the noticeable sweetness and 15.43% alcohol.  This fruity Zin is more Late Harvest in style.  Good (80-84)