Windsor Vineyards

Grape Express

MIchael Amsler

Special delivery: Winemaker Carol Shelton and her colleagues at Windsor Vineyards have tapped a national market.

Windsor Vineyard excels at mail-order wine

By Bob Johnson

TRUE STORY: Some years ago, a man in Los Angeles named Rhett was partaking in some inappropriate extramarital activity. He knew of Windsor Vineyards’ personalized label program, and with Valentine’s Day approaching, ordered two cases of wine–one for his wife and one for his girlfriend.

This Romeo was no prolific poet. For his wife, the labels were to read: “With all my love to Barbara. Forever and ever, Rhett.” For his girlfriend, the labels were to read: “With all my love to Jennifer. Forever and ever, Rhett.”

After the sentiments–whether sincere or not–had been duly inscribed, Romeo … er, Rhett … then completed the order form. Only one problem: He transposed the shipping addresses. Barbara got Jennifer’s bottles and Jennifer got Barbara’s.

It’s not known whether Rhett survived this faux pas, or had to leave town in a hurry, gone with the wind, as it were. You see, that was his last order on record with the winery.

Of course, Windsor Vineyards’ fulfillment folks did nothing wrong. They produced the labels and shipped the wine exactly as ordered. That is why the winery has been able to forge a near-monopoly in the mail-order wine business for some three and a half decades. Providing outstanding, accurate customer service isn’t merely a policy; it’s an obsession.

But then, it had better be. After all, Windsor isn’t merely in the highly competitive wine business; it’s also in the mail-order catalog business, a sector of retailing that is constantly under scrutiny by the public as well as government regulatory agencies.

According to the Directory of Mail Order Catalogs, Windsor mails its full-color, 32-page catalog to 850,000 people four times per year. The average order placed by Windsor catalog recipients, the directory says, amounts to $95.

That’s a healthy order size in the $290 billion catalog industry, which last year encompassed some 9,000 companies, hawking everything from non-certified organic-produced Amish cheese to antique ranges and parlor stoves, and from Old West badges to new and used accordions and concertinas. Hell, there’s even a catalog of catalogs.

Been drooling and dreaming about Armenian cracker bread? Valley Bakery in Fresno publishes a catalog on the doughy delectable. Run out of materials for your favorite elective class at school? Go-Cart Shop in Fairhaven, Mass., publishes a catalog jam-packed with basket-weaving supplies.

Close to 40 catalogs offer a wide array of home wine- and beer-making supplies, wine racks, and other wine-related accessories. Dozens of wine shops across the country–including several here in Sonoma County–publish monthly newsletters that also function as mail-order catalogs, including comprehensive lists of nearly every bottling in stock. A couple of wineries sell a good percentage of their wares through direct-mail brochures.

Which Windsor wine are available by mail.

But Windsor Vineyards remains the only winery to distribute its wines almost exclusively via mail-order catalogs. We say “almost” because Windsor does operate a tasting room just off the downtown square in Healdsburg. Where you won’t find Windsor bottlings is on supermarket shelves or wine-shop racks.

Windsor formerly was viewed as a broken-down Chevy on a wine freeway jammed with shiny Beamers. It made some wine of average quality and a whole lot of schlock, but its personalized labels made the wines ideal corporate and personal gifts.

Happily, in recent years, its reputation has changed for the better. At one of the Sonoma County Farmlands Group winetasting events last summer, a Windsor cabernet sauvignon stood head and shoulders above all the other cabs poured by all the other wineries in attendance. It was rich, spicy, and memorable.

Across the board, Windsor wines–especially the Private Reserve and Signature Series lines–are high-quality bottlings that no longer take a back seat to any of their Sonoma County counterparts. Winemaker Carol Shelton gets the credit for that.Even Windsor’s gift catalog, spotlighting more than 200 wine and food items, is earning rave reviews these days. In five of the last six years, it has been an American Catalog Award finalist.

So if you’re a wine lover and a catalog connoisseur, Windsor Vineyards just may be for you. One word of warning: If you use the catalog for gift giving, double check the addresses, OK?

From the July 30-Aug. 5, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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