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Tales from the road


When you’re on the road, you can’t be too fussy.

This is an unalterable truth for the itinerant wine critic. You play the cards you’re dealt, and don’t complain. In this case, I’m in Pasco, Washington, at the annual meeting of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers, staying at a chain hotel on a strip that could be anywhere in America. There’s nowhere within walking distance to eat or drink, other than the hotel’s bar and dinky little restaurant. I could take a taxi someplace, but evidently the best place in town is P.F. Chang’s, which doesn’t seem worth a cab ride, especially since it’s really cold outside. Besides, the day was a long one: up early to drop Gus off at his dog hotel, then a stopover in Seattle, then on to little Pasco. All I wanted when I got here was some liquid libation and food.

Do I care that the Riesling and Chardonnay—the first two glasses of wine I had at the bar—were indifferent? Nope. That’s what I mean by “you can’t be too fussy.” It was warm and comfortable, my room was 100 yards away, and I was ready for serious relaxation. If you’ve ever been on the road at an event like this—which is basically a trade show—you know what the hotel bar scene is like. On my left, a young winemaker who just started up his Washington winery and is learning the ropes and was eager to share his experiences. On my right, a filtration salesman.  A little later, comes a young guy who designs tchatchkies for winery tasting rooms—wine-themed earrings, kooky T-shirts, stuff like that. I asked him how’s business. “Through the roof!” he said, elaborating that it’s “drunk women” who buy his stuff.

I love this part of the industry. This isn’t some high-level cult tasting in a rarified bubble, it’s the real world of hard-working people, with their feet on the ground. They travel thousands of miles a year, staying at chain hotels, eating indifferent food in anonymous chain hotel restaurants, and drinking whatever the bar is serving, often to excess, as the night wears on. There’s plenty of laughter, anecdote-trading and confessions, and you know what? I’d rather be in that company than with some snooty MWs waxing on and on about the latest Burgundy they just had “at the domaine with the proprietor.” That’s just me.

The flight from Seattle over the Cascades to Pasco is gorgeous. I had my nose against the window the whole time. You leave the verdant lushness of the Puget Sound area, flying so low over the snowy mountains the plane’s belly practically scrapes the mountaintops, the suddenly the land levels off and you’re over the flat, brown high desert of eastern Washington, where nothing grows without irrigation, even though the coast is the rainiest, snowiest part of the continental U.S. When I first visited here, 20 years ago, it blew my mind. It still does.

I love meeting these real industry people at the bar. We wine critics tend to live in petrie dish. It’s all about the end product, the wine. What we lose track of is that wine is a collaboration of a huge number of people, from filtration salesmen to barrel purveyors to label designers and distributors. Going to trade shows gets us out of the bubble and reminds us that we’re part of a big family of people loosely known as ‘the wine industry” but in reality composed of thousands of individual stories. All of them are fascinating. I look forward to many more chance encounters at hotel bars with lonely, traveling working people just looking for the chance to unwind and relax and get buzzed with like-minded souls they can share war stories with.

  1. Steve, some nice writing here; the story could almost transmute into “Fear and Loathing” in Pasco (Easter child)!

  2. While you mention one of the aspects that I love best about being “in the biz.” that it’s like a “big family,” I take it a step further. When people ask me why I love the wine business, I tell them that it’s a tribal thing — whether it’s a winemaker, the barrel salesperson, a wine writer or another sales rep on the road, we’re all part of the wine tribe.

    Once you’ve been a part of the tribe for a while, you are attuned to recognizing other members — what someone orders, how they interact with staff (generally a bit more tolerant with a new server who shows enthusiasm for wine), how they pronounce some of the tougher names and how they specify what they want. All clear signs that they’re a member of the wine tribe, and generally open to meeting another member.

    Once the introductions have been made, there’s usually a brief back & forth about each other’s bona fides — experiences, who we know in common, industry trends and so on. Then the juicier stories start to flow, along with another glass, please —

    It does make it easier to tolerate the long distances from home, away from family, and trudging through more look-alike airports, when you meet other members of the tribe who are on the wine trail with you.

  3. Sherman, so true. I wonder if, say, toilet seat salesmen have the same sense of bonding?

  4. As a general consumer who is not per-se in the wine industry, I find that there tends to be a shell or wall between those in and out of the “tribe.” Even though I spend pretty much every waking hour I am not at my day job either reading about, learning about, tasting, or making wine, it is very difficult to break through that shell at say a tasting room or other venue as an outsider. It is, however, ultimately very rewarding to successfully break through it on those rare occasions and get beyond the typical tasting room wine speak to something more substantive. If you are in the same boat, let me know what you think.

  5. That’s a nice read, Steve. Thanks for sharing from the road.

  6. Being a transplanted Californian living in Wa for the past nine years, I really enjoyed the earthy feel of your report. Good reading.

  7. Nice piece Steve. Just a couple of nits to pick… Not sure why folks often refer to Washington’s arid and semi-arid regions as a “high” desert. Most of the arid region you traversed is below 2000 ft. and the Tri-Cities (Richland, Kennewick, Pasco) are only a few hundred feet above sea level. Also, it’s not quite correct to say that “nothing” grows in eastern WA without irrigation – we have some lovely non-irrigated sagebrush, cheatgrass, star thistle, etc., and even some non-irrigated vineyards near Walla Walla where it’s a little wetter.

  8. WA Terroirist, thanks for setting the record straight.

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