Tasting Room Confessions

A few years back, I visited a winery in southern Oregon and my host, an on-again, off-again wine industry veteran in his later years, was not happy to see me.  It was clear when I walked in the doors that I wasn’t welcome, but I didn’t care. This was the last winery at the end of an afternoon of tasting. My first several stops had been miserable, and I was determined that this last one would redeem the trip. Even as the older gentleman glared at me with a look that clearly said “I have other things to do,” I resolved to sit in his tasting room until something magical happened. Like it or not, this man and I were going to find a meaningful way to connect over our shared passion for wine.

He condescended to make small talk as he began pouring. As minutes passed, I watched his glare begin to melt. An opening, I thought to myself. I tasted some more, sincerely complimented him on his wines and then slowly started to ask him about his story.  We talked over the next hour or so about his experiences with wine, how he came to re-invent himself a few times and what wine meant to him and his family.  By the time the tasting was over, I felt exhilarated.  Not only had I found a way to connect with a man who clearly wanted nothing to do with me when we first met, but I learned so much about his life with wine and the passion and heartbreak that went into the wines I was now tasting. Not only had I overcome his initial iciness but, in doing so, had turned a potentially bad experience into a truly memorable one.

For me, wine is about the experience and, for most of us, there are few places to get a more hands-on experience than in a winery’s tasting room.  But tasting room experiences can be hit or miss, with most misses coming either through a poor set-up at the winery or through our own misguided expectations as consumers.  Thinking about all the things that can potentially go wrong when visiting a winery, I consulted people from both sides of the bar – wine tasters and those who pour for them – what makes for an ideal experience and what makes for a nightmare.

(Tasting room at Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma, CA – Buena Vista did not participate in the development of this story)

As consumers, my friends and I agreed on a few simple things we’re looking for from a wine tasting experience and the tasting room staff:

  • We want the winery staff to be nice to us and to accept us as a welcomed guest.  Make us feel, if not important, at least an integral part of your day and the work you do.
  • We want to learn.  Make sure your tasting room staff is well informed.  Require that they spend time with the winemaker and the wines.  Know the history of the winery and what makes you unique in the marketplace.  The wine world is confusing and we love to be led through it, so equip your staff with the knowledge they need to both represent you well and put their personal spin on your wine.
  • We want to feel the romance and passion of wine.  Get your staff excited about the opportunity to share your wines with the public.  Your jobs are enviable to those of us slogging away in the corporate world – let us live vicariously through you for the 15 minutes we’re there.  Passion can make up for a lot of shortcomings.
  • We want to actually taste the wine.  If you’re not charging a tasting fee, pour as small a sample as you want.  But, if you are charging for a taste, please put enough wine in the glass for us to capture the aromas and flavors.  There’s no joy in paying money to be served a sample so small it’s next to impossible to capture the wine’s essence.
  • And, please, drop the pretension and condescension.  People are smart and they will notice when you are speaking down to them.  In today’s society, it’s next to impossible to quickly identify who is willing to spend money on your product and who is not, so don’t make assumptions about us.  You may be sacrificing a potential lifetime customer.

In turn, wineries and tasting room staff pointed out a few things they would like the consumer to know:

  • We want guests to be nice to us.  This one goes both ways.  We’re human, just like you and want to interact.  But, it’s hard to do that when you come to our winery loaded with pretension and condescension of your own.  We’re smart enough to notice. And, when we do, your level of service will go down considerably.
  • We want you to have a good experience, but we have to work together to make that happen.    If you want us to be engaged, you need to engage with us.  Communication is two-way and we need your help.  If you hear something you want to know more about or have specific questions about our wines, please ask.
  • We love explorers.  Be open to new things and new types of wine when you come to the tasting room.  Going to wineries should be about experience and exploration and we’re here to guide you through that.  After all, you can’t find your next favorite wine if you’re only willing to taste the wine you already love.
  • We are not running a bar.  Groups too often look at tasting rooms as a place to get drunk, especially as the day goes on.  If you drink to excess, we will probably not engage with you as much as others; worst-case scenario, we will cut you off. That’s no fun for anyone.  We don’t like doing it, but your behavior can seriously interrupt our business. Also, pouring for anyone who seems intoxicated is illegal in a tasting room, just like in a bar.

Whatever side of the tasting room equation you fall on, keep these points in mind the next time you pay a visit.  Tasting room and winery visits are some of the most valuable and fun experiences in the wine world, so invest the effort to get the most out of it.

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RJ runs RJ’s Wine Blog and he is convinced that what the world needs is another opinion about wine…  http://www.rjswineblog.com/