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New course for tasting room employees


Wines & Vines Magazine (which is edited by my former boss at Wine Spectator, Jim Gordon, who in turn used to blog for Wine Enthusiast’s unreserved — it’s a small world out there!) has an interesting new article, Pros to Teach Tasting Room Management, explaining how Sonoma State University’s Wine Business Program is teaching a new class for tasting room staff. It will bestow on them what I believe is the nation’s first Tasting Room Management (TRM) Certificate.

Now, I’ve never been big on these certification programs. There’s too many of them. Whether it’s a mail-order divinity license that lets you marry people, or some fancy-pants piece of paper you get from taking a two-week course in wine appreciation, they make it too easy for somebody to become an instant expert. It’s like when the Wizard of Oz gave the Scarecrow a diploma, proving that he had a brain. But Sonoma State’s certification program is one I fully support, for the simple reason that tasting rooms — which have become vital customer centers for wineries — all too often have abysmal staffs. My biggest gripe is when a tasting room person can’t answer a simple question about the wine, such as where the grapes are from.

I do have one apprehension about the Sonoma State course: I hope they’ll let the tasting room employees be themselves and remain warm, friendly human beings, instead of over-educating them to become little marketing managers who see walk-ins as nothing more than dollars on legs.

As part of the Sonoma State program, Jean Arnold, president of Hanzell, will teach a course on “Marketing Wine as a Luxury Product,” which Hanzell certainly is. I’m of two minds on the wine-as-luxury thing. Part of me hates the elitism and snobbery that can accompany it. The other part of me totally relates to it. (So I’m vinously bipolar.) Sit me down to dinner and serve me up ‘61 Latour and I’m impressed! A course on “wine as luxury” flirts with the danger that it reinforces the notion you have to be rich and wearing black tie to enjoy wine, but Jean Arnold is the perfect person to teach it. She’s solid and down-to-earth, as has been everyone I’ve ever met who worked at Hanzell.

Incidentally, a Master of Wine by the name of Sheri Sauter Morano, who’s a spokesperson for the Wines of France campaign, is running a poll on her blog called “Which Wine Will You Open on Election Night?” Speaking for myself, next Tuesday I’ll have a bottle of Roederer Estate 2002 L’Ermitage in the fridge. Here’s what I hope and expect will happen. Shortly after the polls close in California, the national news outlets will declare Barack Obama the winner by a considerable margin. (I’m predicting a minimum of 340 electoral votes.) That’s when I’ll pop the cork, lift the glass high, and shout out L’Chaim! to toast President-elect Obama.

Please vote tomorrow, if you haven’t already. And if you live in California, vote against Prop 8, a vicious, mean-spirited and misguided attempt to deny civil rights to thousands of people. As Bob Dylan wrote, in Slow Train Coming:

But the enemy I see wears a cloak of decency
All non-believers and men stealers talking in the name of religion
And there’s a slow, there’s a slow train coming up around the bend.

  1. I hope you’ll report on how the ’02 L’Ermitage is tasting. I’ve got a few bottles of the ’99 kicking around in my cellar that I think I should probably open fairly soon.

    As for tasting room staff…forget knowing where the grapes came from…I’d be happy if they could tell me what grapes are even in a blend!

  2. Steve,

    Thanks for highlighting the Sonoma State certification program. I think it is a great concept and I think tasting room staffs – and especially managers – can always work to improve what they do to increase revenue $.

    I also agree with your take on ‘wine as luxury’ but I’m a bit less bi-polar.In my dealings with folks coming through our tasting room down here (Fess Parker), there is a huge disdain for the ‘pompousness’ that still prevails in our industry. I’ve talked to quite a few people – both newbies to wine as well as those consuming high end stuff – and there are challenges in talking with both – and therefore you need to speak to each VERY differently. This is a HUGE challenge in our industry at the tasting room level – talking TOO customers – not above or below them . . . I’m hoping this will be covered as well!


  3. Morton Leslie says:

    The title of the class instead should be “Marketing Wine as an Interesting Product.” You can always avoid the pitfalls of wine snobbery by remembering to focus on the world of real stuff that makes wine smell and taste the way it does. This approach works with the serious collector, the hedonist, the snob, and the greedy individual who has to possess what others can’t have – all luxury wine buyers. But it doesn’t turn off the curious wine novice who just wants to learn more. Marketing wine as a “luxury” product is much easier, you simply parrot the Parker scores.

  4. Dr. Horowitz says:

    Thanks for mentioning SSU.

    I hear the Wine Business Program phone line is blowing up–call (707) 664-2260 everyone!

  5. YES on Obama, NO on 8, and Six Degrees I suspect, because my 99 Veuve Cliquot is out of reach tonight…


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