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My conversation with a guy in a tasting room



What do you do when you’re tasting wine with a novice in a tasting room, and there are points you want to make—and the other person says something about the wine that you don’t understand?

Over the weekend I worked a shift at the Murphy-Goode tasting room, the second time I ever did that (the first was last month, at Kendall-Jackson), and I found there’s a very typical kind of taster: perhaps a little younger, enthusiastic, friendly, curious, there to learn about wine, open-minded in a way that older folks may not be. My approach is, I’m not going to do a hard sell. I’m not going to lecture them with some pre-set spiel. I’m going to find out where their interests lie—what direction of thought their mind is going in—what sorts of things they might want to learn more about. And then I’ll take it from there.

So, with this one guy, we were tasting a reserve Zinfandel, and we had it following the winery’s other tiers of Zin, Liar’s Dice and Snake Eyes. These three tiers are absolutely rational in terms of price and quality (which you can’t always say about tiers). I had joked with the guy (he was a firefighter), “I’m going to test you after we try the three Zins, and I’ll ask you how you perceive the reserve versus the other wines.” After we tasted the reserve, I asked him again to compare it to the first two. He was silent for a moment, thinking, and then he said, “The reserve is more consistent.”

I wasn’t sure what he meant, because “consistent” isn’t a word I normally use to describe a wine. It’s more of a term I’d use to describe a wine that’s pretty much the same year in and year out from the winery (in which case, consistency is a good thing). But I don’t know I’d call an individual glass of wine “consistent.”

So I asked him what he meant, and he said, “Well, with the other wines, the flavors were kind of all over the place, but this one is more consistent.” And I thought to myself, “You know, it’s not how I would phrase it, but I kind of see what he means.” That made me really happy: the guy wasn’t using language that I’d use, but he was talking about the wine, describing it, in a way that perhaps was beyond his usual comfort zone.

I had wanted to point out that the wine was more full-bodied, richer and more complex than the other wines—more multi-layered. But I didn’t want to step on his remark: I wanted to understand how what he meant by “consistent” might actually be the same thing I meant by “more complex.” So I told him, “I know! You’re exactly right. It is more consistent.”

Now, in a certain sense, that was not an entirely true statement, because, as I said, “consistent” is not an adjective I would use under those circumstances. But I thought I knew what he meant by it, and what he meant was the same thing I meant, which was the thing I was trying to point out that actually made it a better Zinfandel, which justified its higher price.

I wondered where to go from there (I’m basically winging it). I didn’t think he wanted a whole lot of blah blah technical non-sequitors from me. And, having done this only twice, I don’t really have what you can call a “tasting room approach” (if there is one). So I said, “Do you know, achieving that sort of consistency is one of the hardest things to do for the winemaker?” Since he knew what he meant by consistency (and it was clear he really liked the wine), I figured we could build on his understanding of it by me describing some of the steps that go into making a very good wine: the terroir of the vineyard, the age of the vines, controlling the yield, and so on. It’s not an accident that a wine is “consistent.” I could tell he was really into it by now. After a while, when he went away, he thanked me, with a big smile on his face. He had learned, not only that different wines made from the exact same grape variety can vary in quality, but why, and that is something he’ll carry with him for the rest of his life.

  1. Great job Steve. We in the tasting room often forget to really listen to our guests. By doing so you created a bridge that can be crossed by both parties at any time in the future or the present. Your guy will continue his wine “education” on his own now and he is likely to become a true wine lover.

  2. Patrick Frank says:

    Very interesting. I always admire folks who pour in tasting rooms, because they have no idea who may walk up, with what level of wine experience, what sort of wine needs, what depth of pocketbook, etc. The tasting room is an education site, where the pourers try to determine where a customer is at with all of those parameters (and others), and then they try to take that customer to the next level, whatever that might be. You did this too, Steve. Which is cool.

  3. redmond barry says:

    Maybe he meant harmony, with all of the pieces fitting together, and the beginning, middle and end in balance. This is not as common nowadays as one might suppose.

  4. Wow, what a fascinating take from a tasting… In not the same words, but slightly different, I have had this conversation before, and not infrequently. Always the best policy is to listen to what the taster says (assuming some knowledge and love of wine), and talk with him/them on their level. I have been to other tasting rooms where the pourers tried to overwhelm me with obscure and unimportant knowledge. Just the kind of thing to leave you cold…and from very good wineries, too. Often, a good listener can pick up on the interest of the taster, but realize their adjectival use is not what I would use to describe our wines. Until this article, I never gave it much thought, in that we do this many times during weekends… but never until just now did I realize what we were doing. It isn’t dumbing down, it is more a matter of getting on the same information plane of those tasting your wines. Clever idea of a wine scribe working the counter…not as a lecturer, but as a conversant. Well done, Steve, well done.

  5. Steve – loved this story and your ability to bring the knowledge home… without all the buzz words. KJ is lucky to have you.

  6. I find it best to tread lightly when the person says something about the wine that I don’t understand – and definitely avoid ego crushing at all costs. (They tend to end up in fewer sales.) A proposed question is one thing … “isn’t carbonic when you foot stomp grapes”? I’m happy to shed light. But if a dude is telling his poor girlfriend in uncomfortable stilettos – “Yeah, babe. Carbonic is how they make rose”… I’m less likely to comment. I’d rather preserve the overall experience than illuminate truth to all statements. Not that i’m not biting my tongue all the while! (BECAUSE I AM!) This is why I don’t push: Go to yelp, sort by negative reviews. Overwhelmingly, reviews are negative because the reviewer felt they were ignored entirely, or that the staff was rude. Not every taster is there to be educated. I don’t always want to know about the model of plane when I’m flying – I get it. If I’m concerned the patron may be offended, I just goooo with the flowww.

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