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Working in the tasting room is not for the faint-hearted

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I’m up in the wilds of the western Sonoma mountains. I’ve been running around Dry Creek Valley all day for a story in Wine Enthusiast. It’s late and I’m tired and need sleep but wanted to get in a word on tasting rooms. I’m speaking tomorrow morning in Santa Rosa at a panel on tasting rooms that will be attended by winery owners, so during my travels to wineries today I spent time scoping out the tasting rooms, watching closely these ecosystems that really have their own patterns of culture. And I realized that I could never, ever work in a tasting room, because it takes a very special talent and spectrum of personal qualities that I simply don’t possess.

You have to answer the same questions, day in and day out. You have to make it sound like it’s for the first time, every time, and do it with a smile. Some of the questions are really lame. The showoffs — those big shots who want to impress their wives or friends with how much they know — ask really idiotic questions, and you have to try to be respectful to them without letting them know you think they’re blowhards. You have to deal with drunks. Probably the easiest people are the ones who ask direct, simple questions, like “Where are the grapes from?” You’re on your feet all day. People get impatient if you don’t pay them attention right away. You’re juggling a million things at once, but you can never let the customers see you sweat. You have to be perfect. You’re a performer, but you have to come across as natural and unrehearsed and likeable. And just when one party is leaving, another one shows up. You may not even have time to go to the bathroom!

I wonder if all tasting rooms are the same, job-wise. Is working in a MacMansion winery with a gazillion dollar tasting room easier or harder than working in a little wooded shack with plywood walls? If I had to work in a tasting room, I’d prefer a simple, rustic place with no pretensions. But as I said, I could never work in a tasting room. Don’t have the right personality.

Tasting room personnel are the winery’s front line troops. They’re its public face, its image, for better or worse. Watching the hard-working people today as I did, I came away with a new-found appreciation for how hard the work is, and how well most of them do it. Congratulations to all the tasting room staff of California, of the world. You have a hard job, you’re under-appreciated, and you deserve some kudos.

To bed…

  1. kelkeagy says:

    Absolutely right on Steve. Good tasting room staff are to be valued and appreciated. I’ve experienced a few who seemed to forget that hospitality should be hospitable, but mostly they are a friendly group who genuinely love wine and enjoy sharing their knowledge with others. Great post!

  2. Many years ago while working on an enology degree at Fresno State I had a part time job in the (now defunct) Cibari Winery tasting room. Most people touring and tasting were fine; a few, as you point out, were real blow hards attempting to impress friends. One day a party “lead” by a chemical engineer came in; the “chemist” commenced asking a lot of really technical questions playing stump the tour guide. Fortunately I was in the midst of studying for a wine chemistry final and was able to explain the complete chemistry of the Krebs cycle, all the involved compounds, enzymes co-factors etc. Unfortunately his questions came at a point in the tour when we were outside on a concrete pad at the height of Fresno’s very hot summer. At the conclusion of an admitedly overly detailed disertation it was obvious that his friends were PO’d with his numerous questions…he had no more for the remainder of the tour. It was a great experience!

  3. When I realized that I loved being at Mondavi Winery, but I couldn’t do three renditions of “Why I want to be reborn as a yeast on a Chardonnay Grape” everyday, three to four times a day, for one and a half hours with each performance, I took a really deep breath after only tree months. And this was only after three months of being on the job.

    It was like Lilly Tomlin doing, “Searching for Signs of Intelligent Life on Broadway… I had seen the play in NYC, and I knew I was now in that boat.

    I told my supervisors that I loved the fact that they gave me the job, adored my colleagues, the winery, and seeing Robert Mondavi on occasion; but, PR is my true calling, and if they couldn’t get me into their PR department, I’d have to find another job. I was told by Mondavi’s PR maven that I was overqualified for the available position. They went on to hire someone with a Masters Degree in communications… Guess that made me a PhD of PR…

    So, I then told Jose, “I’m going nuts!” He said, “Then, your new job, until you find another one, is to be a great actress.”

    Shortly after that, a visitor came to me and said, “I just know you love your job, dear.”

    That’s when I realized that I could also have a career in acting; like the time I realized that I could have a career in writing, when an English teacher accused me of plagiarism for something that I wrote as an assignment.

    You nailed it Steve, even though you’ve never had to be behind the counter.

    I’ve been behind three counter, and lots of tables are national food and wine festivals. It’s all the same, and it takes one really amazing person to keep going for any length of time. I’m not that person, either.

  4. Thanks for the shout out Steve,
    It’s about time someone realized the effort and hardwork. You have pretty much nailed it. We are performers, entertainers and educators all at the same time. We are on stage for hours at a time. As an educator you do get satisfaction out of watching the light go on in peoples eyes when they get it. At the end of the day you get to drink wine as well.

  5. Mark, I guess that’s the coolest thing about working in a tasting room — drinking the wine! Hopefully, not when you’re working, though.

  6. Jo, back in the day I used to sell silkscreened teashirts at craft trade shows. I also waitered. So I have a little sense of what it’s like.

  7. Stephen Hare says:

    Steve,

    Your assessment of tasting rooms is quite accurate. I’ve been in the trenches essentially since 1982 and have seen a massive transformation in what wineries do for their guests.

    It used to be simple; be nice to them, pour some good wines, show them around and sell a few bottles and that was that.

    With the advent of Clubs and that many visitors want to get hammered for the lowest possible fee, it has become a proverbial chess game. On the winery side, we want to spend the least amount of time with the guests, pour them the smallest amounts of wine, sell them the most bottles at the highest possible price while signing them up for the club thus allowing us unrestricted access to their credit card.

    On the guests side, they want to spend as much time as possible, drink the most wine they can get while paying the smallest amount of money possible.

    It used to be simply that we were in the entertainment industry but now it is so much more. It really is trench warfare and those who design their visitors programs like military campaigns (anchor the flanks, hold the high ground and hit them with everything you’ve got) are the ones who go to the bank WITH deposits. What is really intersting to me is that some wineries now want a person with an MBA to manage their consumer direct sales…experience not required. In my humble opinion, one cannot successfully manage a consumer direct program unless they have years of trench experience.

    BYW, I NEVER have allowed my staff to drink on duty. But off duty…

  8. Rusty Eddy says:

    I’ve spent the past few weeks working with distributor salespeople in NY, FL and SF/San Jose. I can tell you that I respect these folks a lot more now than I did before. They have to answer the same questions, kiss ass, and make their customers feel special all at the time. They have to be “on” all the time. Plus, these days, they have to put up with everybody asking, “so what kind of deal do you have for me?” I’d rather listen to a consumer mispronounce Gewurztraminer all day, any day.

  9. Rusty, good points.

  10. Steve,

    I cannot agree more with your thoughts here. When i look at the efforts our retail/tasting staff and their managers put in, it boggles my mind. They are our frontline as a winery to customers new and old, and have to find a way to make each visitor feel THEY are the most important visitor we will have that day. I am also amazed how many seemingly over-qualified people we have doing the job–MBA’s, CPA’s, and the like, many who could probably do my job as sales manager!
    Fortunately, we all share something in common–passion for wine, its tastes and history and our own unique niche in the wine business. A very infectious passion indeed.

  11. Colin, well said. I hope you pay your tasting room people accordingly and as best you can. They are indeed the front line troops.

  12. Kate Jones says:

    I enjoyed this entry, Steve. I started in the tasting room at Simi Winery in 1980. It was my first job in the wine business, and I loved it. People were so interested in learning about wine, it was fun to be part of helping them. And, I was learning at the same time. Zelma Long was the winemaker and she believed in educating the staff, so for me, it was a wonderful experience and one that set the foundation for my career in this business. Hope you enjoyed Dry Creek Valley.

  13. Thanks for acknowledgment Steve

    ….and it’s the one person (couple or group) that doesn’t get enough attention on a busy day that sends the tasting room manager an e-mail about their “less than enjoyable” visit while all of the hundreds who had a great time rarely bother to write about their experience.

    And, historically, tasting room staff are on the bottom of the economic food chain even though every year they account for more and more of a winery’s profit.

    On the positive side, I worked with someone who once said”Where else can you work where you get to taste great wine, talk about something you love, meet great people from around the country and world and get paid for doing it?” That pretty much says it all. I feel I have the best job in the world.

  14. vinorojo86 says:

    With all the hard work they do and all the wine they pour and move out the door, it’s amazing that most wineries are only willing to shell out about 12-15$ an hour for these poor souls. Do they really think they’re going to attract top talent with that kind of mediocre compensation?

  15. So very true, it’s an ongoing performance, and a tough job…but also a very fun one if you love wine, and like people….

    Luckily for us, our tasting room & winery is right downstairs from my living quarters, (it’s a Live/Work Business Condo in Healdsburg) so the tasting room kind of does double duty as a living room! (is anyone old enuf to remember when people had “Rumpus Rooms” ?)

    It’s the Roadhouse Rumpus Room! Now Serving Pimento Loaf and Velveeta Grilled Cheese Sandwiches! (Not really, but I wish)…

  16. Steve, Getting to drink wine has its rewards but teaching is where I get the most satisfaction in the retail environment. Oh BTW tasting always but spitting as well.

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