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Talking about tasting room staff



I spoke to a group of people last night—marvelous people, actually, employees of Kendall-Jackson’s Wine Education & Garden Center (I call it the chateau), in Fulton, just outside Santa Rosa. They had invited me up for a periodic dinner they have together.

They asked me about tasting, and here’s part of what I told them: How to taste wine depends on your background and experience. By that I meant that your actual physical and mental impression of the wine is based, not merely on the wine’s objective qualities, but on your mindset. Dr. Timothy Leary used to say that a person’s experience of an acid trip depends on “set and setting.” “Set” is the person’s mental state, a composite of everything he’s ever done, learned, felt and thought. “Setting” is the physical environment around the person doing the trip. Two tripping people might share an identical setting, but obviously they have two different sets: hence, they will have different trips, sometimes drastically different.

So it is with wine. I told them they my entire orientation for 25 years had been toward the consumer. The first obligation of a wine, I said, is to be delicious. Therefore things like “typicity” or alcohol level don’t concern me; they’re irrelevant. Now, someone else—a sommelier, perhaps—might be more concerned with typicity and therefore find fault with a big, fat, juicy, fruity California Pinot Noir for not being “Burgundian” enough, or not being like the Pinot Noirs from Burgundy that he likes, But the sommelier has a far different job than I had, as a critic. The somm has, in other words, a different “set.” We might taste the identical wine (“setting”) and arrive at two entirely different conclusions about it. And that’s okay. We have different jobs; we look for different things in wine; and we experience wine in different ways.

Neither way is better than the other; neither is right or wrong. They just are. Afterwards, a few people came up to say they agreed with what I said about a wine’s obligation to be delicious. I can see why. They work in the tasting room, a very hard job. All day long they encounter people’s reactions to the wines they pour. They’re the first ones to know that most people don’t buy a wine because they think they should, or because somebody gave it a high score, or because its name or region is famous, or because rich people were drinking it 150 years ago, or any of those reasons we can call “set.” No, people buy wines they find delicious. And what better reason could there be to buy wine?

Speaking of the tasting room, the K-J folks invited me up to spend a weekend afternoon working there. I’ve never done that. I have a great deal of respect for tasting room staff. Not only do they have to answer the same questions 400 times a day, all year long (“What’s the blend on that wine?”), they have do so pleasantly, personably, and with a smile. It’s a job that requires patience, a healthy attitude and above all, human social skills: a tasting room staff person has to genuinely like people. They also have to put up with the occasional a-hole who gets drunk or rude, and they have to do so graciously. And yet the tasting room pourer is often the public face of the winery. So I’m looking forward to the day when I work the K-J tasting room, and I will faithfully report on it here.

Have a great weekend!

  1. “And yet the tasting room pourer is often the public face of the winery. So I’m looking forward to the day when I work the K-J tasting room, and I will faithfully report on it here.”

    I look forward to your report, Steve.

    It always puzzles me as to so many wineries are so clueless when it comes to their tasting room staff. When that customer walks in the tasting room door, they should go out of their way to welcome that person and indicate they are delighted they stopped by to try their wines (even if there’s a tasting fee) and actually engage that person. I’m amazed at how often I walk into a tasting room and that person behind the pouring counter could not care less if I stopped into taste. Worse yet, they’re preoccupied texting on their iPhone or playing computer games (where it was at one wnry…I had to request her to pour each wine for me…never bought their wines again).
    Some of the wineries that DO get it are DryCreekVnyds, Ridge, TablasCreek, Eberle, Qupe. But so many others…meh!!

    So enjoy the experience, Steve. But leave your iPhone in the car.

  2. Hi Steve, can you do something like “monthly (special) appearance” at KJ tasting room? It’d be so much fun and special experience to taste their wines and hear your perspectives first-hand on each of them. Someone like me would drive to SR rain or shine on such days/hours for that extra layers of enjoyment. Cheers!

  3. Dear Susan Wu, would be happy to!

  4. Hola Steve,

    It was an honor to have you with us and hope you come to spend an afternoon working with us in the Chateau soon.

    Working in the tasting room is fun, yes, we do answer lots of questions but we are trained to do so with Magic.

    It is very rare to had a situation with a guest that misbehave, that in my three years l had experienced may be two or threes instances but nothing major.

    My favorite part is to educate our guests, as you might remember l am Hispanic and the only bilingual ( Hablo Español tambien) person there, so l also do get to educate our Hispanic employees, those who do work all aspect of the operation but who do not drink wine.

    Again Gracias and have an outstanding weekend!


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