The cat. The cat was definitely the worst.
Granted, it wasn’t exactly a pet. More of an outside cat, a vineyard cat, protector of the realm. But it had its peeps: the staff at Keswick Vineyards, and customers who'd gotten to know her since she made Keswick her home. Pounce was her name. And then one day, gone. Buh-bye kitty. Stolen. Nabbed. Catnapped. One bright, otherwise happy day at the winery, a customer stole Pounce.
And Pounce wasn’t the only little goodie customers helped themselves to. “We've had lots of glasses taken,” says Kat Schornberg. “Also corkscrews, wine chilling buckets--we got cleared out of those every weekend! Cutting boards, bottles of wine, decorations.”
Jen Breaux at Breaux Vineyards in Purcellville says, “We started our year with almost 2,000 Riedel [wine glasses] and I now have 180. I've had 42 bread knives stolen, 20-something cutting boards, and this past weekend somebody literally was walking out of my grounds with my corn hole boards in their hand and the beanbags, too. I’m so incredibly dismayed.”
Cindi Causey, owner of Potomac Point Vineyards, reports equally ballsy thefts: a painting, a 3-foot by 4-foot tapestry. Statues stolen right off the winery’s patio. “We even had a half barrel stolen from the tasting room,” she says.
“Is this exclusive to Virginia?” Jen Breaux wonders. “Or is this epidemic?”
IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT VIRGINIA
Donniella Winchell, executive director of the Ohio Wine Producers Association, posed the issue of customer theft to her members. The replies immediately poured in. “You must have hit a nerve,” she says.
In Ohio wineries, patio chairs have gone missing. The staff's cash tips. A wine competition medal, right off the bar. Framed art work. Bathrooms signs. Even a decorative stone pediment.
"They stood on the stair columns and pried the stone free of the epoxy cement," says one aggrieved winery owner. Fortunately (and bizarrely), a fisherman found it in a nearby river and recognized it. He hoisted it out and brought it back.
DOES SIZE MATTER?
Is this a big winery vs. small winery phenomenon? When the owner is pouring and creating a personal connection, is a customer less likely to walk away with her corn hole boards?
Maybe. Both Breaux Vineyards and Potomac Point Vineyards are large by Virginia standards, and have dozens to hundreds of customers on the grounds at any given time. Both wineries work hard to connect with their guests, but it’s not the same as Granite Heights Winery in Warrenton, where the winery owners pour tastes for a handful of visitors in the parlor of an 1800's farm house. There’s no avoiding eye contact with the owners, Toni and Luke Kilyk -- they’re right there.
Toni says they haven’t experienced this sort of theft, yet. “Maybe because we're small and new still, or because the seating areas are close by the house such that we can see, or because of the intimate and personal tastings where our guests meet us and hear our story.”
AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION
Craig Root, a consultant in Napa Valley who advises winery clients on theft prevention, says it’s important to greet customers within 15 seconds. It’s just good customer service, but it also lets the customer know they are being observed, so they’re less likely to steal.
“There’s almost a curtain that falls behind the first row of customers at the tasting bar,” Craig explains. “Tasting staff need to look beyond the first row, use their ‘big eyes’.”
Other tips Craig shares with clients include keeping an eye out for people who work in pairs – typically, a man, who creates a distraction, while a woman slips wine or gift shop items into a large purse – and to be aware that shoplifters tend to scan the room much more than others. “Shoplifters typically look around 80% of the time and spend only 20% of the time looking at the merchandise – the opposite of actual shoppers.”
Craig also suggests having a designated staffer make regular rounds of the patio and picnic tables, chatting with customers to help build relationships, and also check for the dumb-drunk sort of behavior that leads to lawsuits – and to stealing corn hole boards and statuary.
Stupid alcohol syndrome is what many wineries blame as the biggest driver for petty thieves, though they’re much too polite to say this for attribution.
“As we all know, alcohol makes people do really stupid stuff. Really stupid stuff,” one manager says. “I could write a book.”
“I believe that it’s more of a 'what can I get away with' mentality that we’re seeing here after people have been drinking,” says Aubrey Rose of Rosemont Vineyards in southern Virginia, diplomatically.
Some wineries report a growing sense of entitlement by customers. Jen Breaux shared this troubling story: “When the guy was walking out with the corn hole boards, I asked what he was doing and he said he had a right to take it because he'd spent enough money."
Aubrey Rose thinks that sounds right. “[Jen] brings up a good point – perhaps people think that it’s okay to take it. Like the wineries are making enough money off them - purchasing wines and tastings - that they feel that they are 'owed' something.”
And that behavior hurts. "Especially with smaller wineries that don’t have the sales numbers that the larger wineries have, it really does hurt the bottom line," Aubrey says.
TIME FOR ACTION At Potomac Point Winery, “We had to implement a policy to hold guests’ licenses when they take wine outside so we get our glasses and chill buckets back,” said Cindi Causey.
Aubrey Rose shared one of Rosemont's solutions: “I think smaller things tend to wander off easily – especially wine glasses. That’s why we made the decision to raise the price of our tasting and give the wine glass as a souvenir. People were stealing them and taking them in their purses or bags, so why not just give it to them and actually recover our costs for the glasses they want anyway?”
Wendy DeMello of DeMello Vineyards/Third Hill Winery in the Shenandoah Valley reports that they’ve lost about one-third of their glasses. “Now we taste out of branded glasses, but serve unbranded glasses with bottles purchased.”
Stealing is stealing. A glass, a corkscrew, a roll of toilet paper, a cute little necklace in the gift shop (which was actually a theft from the artist, not the winery). It's not cute; it's theft.
Let's leave the corn hole and the cats alone.
(c) Nancy Bauer. This post was first published in 2017.