Houston, We Have A Problem, part 1

During the past several months of working in a Napa Valley tasting room, I’ve learned many things about what makes or breaks the wine-tasting experience. Most of the guests I’ve had the pleasure of serving have been friendly, interesting people from around the globe and from all walks of life. Those having the most fun and getting the most out of their visit to wine country were the folks who already knew most of what I’m about to share. And, as you might imagine, the folks who were heading for trouble, or already there, were the people who knew almost none of these things. Wine tasting, cruising the beautiful countryside, enjoying fine food and good company is not rocket science, but for some people it might as well be.  Almost anybody working in a winery’s tasting room can spot these failed aeronautical engineers from a mile away. Here are a few tips to help you earn your degree in rocketry.

1. Have Fun

Going to wineries is all about having fun, whether you are alone, with a significant other, or a group of friends. Be prepared to immerse yourself in the experience and expect to come away with a smile on your face. If you’re having  a Badluck Schleprock sort of day, stay home. Your friends will thank you. And so will the hosts at the winery.

2. Wineries are NOT Bars

You’d be surprised at how many people confuse tasting rooms with bars.  These are folks with alcohol on the brain, and more often than not, in the stomach. They’re also not very good at math. At many wineries, you’re paying anywhere from $15 to $30 for six to ten ounces of wine, some of which you might not enjoy.  At a bar, you can have 20 oz of alcohol for $5 or $6.  I’m no walking calculator, but which looks like the more affordable buzz to you? Do the math, and help us save our neck muscles. We get tired of shaking our heads in confused amazement.

3. Do Your Homework

To get the most bang for your buck and the time you’re spending, do a little reconnaissance. I don’t think you need to pore over logistics as if you were arranging a moon landing or an intercontinental troop movement, but choosing among the various types of wineries, understanding travel times and distances, and thinking about possible food stops will be a rewarding exercise once your oenophilic endeavors are in full swing. Fail to do even a little bit of this, with the thought that “we are wild and crazy guys” who just plan to wing it, and you’ll spend your day in a horror show that is guaranteed to go from bad to worse.

4.  Expect to Pay

The good old days of free tastings have gone the way of the dodo. And you’re a dodo if you don’t think wineries can act like Hoovers (the vacuum, not the president) on your wallet. There are still a few tasting rooms where the fees are low, and waived if you purchase any amount of wine, but they are few and far between. (Actually, there a number of them in the East Bay, close to one another, and generous in both pours and prices.) Expect the aforementioned $15-$30 and not much wine. And don’t expect the winery to do you any favors because you’re making the grand gesture of buying a single bottle of their lowest-priced blend. Unless you’re willing to walk out with a case of wine or drop more than $100 on some good bottles, you’re on the hook for the tasting, whether you think it was a good deal or not.  Recently, a visitor was peeved because I refused to comp her tasting. Her rationale for my doing so? Well, other wineries that day had, and, most importantly, she knew the mayor of the town we were in. Oh, of course. How silly of me. I should have known. Of course I’ll comp your tasting fee. NOT!

5. Fragrance Free

Other than a visibly intoxicated guest walking through the door, winery staffs hate nothing more than customers, male and female, who walk in smelling like they just bathed at a fragrance factory. You might think you have a light hand when it comes to the perfume, but you’re wrong. Period. Wineries are fragrance-free zones, where the only desired aromas are the ones that come from wine bottles. It’s pretty tough, almost impossible, to enjoy the various scents in your glass if the vanity case next to you is disturbing the air like Pepe Le Pew getting ready for a date.  So, if you think the rest of society can’t live without the bliss that comes from your gorgeous perfumes, you need to stay home and stink up your own house. Oh, and leave those oversized bangles and heavy bracelets at home, too. After you knock over the third glass, we’re gonna start losing our commitment to cheerful hospitality, and we might have to ask your smelly carcass to share its allure somewhere else.  Finally, spit out the gum. You look like a farm animal. And it screws up the taste of the wine you’re paying for.

6. Ego Free

If you’ve read some of the other Grape Belt pieces, you know of whom I speak. The Robert Parker wannabes and the folks who have seen way too many Gary Vaynerchuk videos. I can guarantee you that, nine times out of ten, the folks behind the tasting counter know their wines better than you do, and they aren’t that impressed with the labels you’re collecting, how much money you have, or your most recent dissertation on the soil changes in the Eastern Languedoc. It’s a tired act and it embarrasses your friends. A little humility goes a long way. And if you don’t behave, we’re gonna have our winemaker come out front to talk with you. Then we’ll see who’s Mr. Superstar Wine Expert. Wine tasting is not a contest of who’s got the bigger cork. It’s not about you. It’s about the wine.

I’ll be back tomorrow with six more essentials for enjoying your trip to the winery. In the meantime, if you have any tips on what works best or is good to remember when on the wine trail, I’d love to hear them.

** The opinions and views expressed in this piece are solely my own.

2 thoughts on “Houston, We Have A Problem, part 1

  1. Tom Riley

    Thanks, Eileen. I think ego and the desire to one-up the person next to you are two of the worst elements in the wine world. We’re all on the same team. People need to relax and have fun. It’s grape juice.

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