I’ve seen some pretty interesting things during my time behind the tasting bar. A few years back, I published a column on tasting room etiquette. Here’s an update based on some of my more recent experiences, and a rehash of one rather memorable moment (see, Hands Off of the Bottle Buster).
No Butts On the Tasting Bar. The tasting bar is a surface that gets a lot of traffic and thus can play host to germs. Because of this, the bar is wiped down nightly with disinfectant. To ensure cleanliness, please don’t seat your small children—especially those in diapers, or your tiny dog for that matter—on the bar during your visit. If your kids need to sit down, I’m sure the tasting room staff can provide chairs. And if need be, please change their diapers before entering.
Excuse Me, But Did You Just…? “Barnyard” is a word used to describe the manure-like aroma that may occur in certain red wines due to a spoilage yeast called Brettanomyces, or “brett.” Barnyard can be pleasing to some and off-putting to others. Regardless, barnyard is a bouquet that belongs either in a wine or in a barnyard itself. Which leads to a not-so-pleasant topic: farts. Yes, it’s true. I had a customer who plopped her five-year-old daughter onto the tasting bar to adjust the kid’s stockings. The child proceeded to “let one go.” The mother just laughed and asked me if I “smelled it.” I kindly suggested that her daughter may need to use the restroom.
Bad Doggy. Many wineries are dog-friendly. And, I love animals (in fact, two of my regular customers have a pig that is leashed-trained and accompanies them on their visits to the tasting room). If Fido joins you on your tasting excursions, please see to it that the pooch has done its ‘business” beforehand. A male dog once peed on a barrel that had been standing upright. Fortunately, the barrel was empty. Nonetheless, we had to quickly wash down the area. I realize that you can’t always predict your dog’s potty times; just be cognizant of the fact that wineries are sensitive environments prone to contamination. And, “cleanliness is next to godliness.” In this case, the Dionysus kind.
Hands Off of the Bottle Buster. You know those old TV westerns where the guy in the saloon after having one too many shots grabs the whiskey bottle from the bar, swaggers involuntarily, and after hootin’ and a hollerin’, finds his balance long enough to raise the bottle to his lips and take a swig? I find that with more wine comes more courage.
During an extremely busy Passport event in which the tasting room (where I had been working at the time) was three rows deep in customers, I left a bottle of $50 Cabernet Sauvignon on the bar, just for a moment, to get glasses for some newly arrived guests. In that instant a buzzed, boisterous man (who was on a group limo tour of wineries) grabbed the bottle, stepped back into the crowd, raised the bottle over his head, and while pouring himself a generous glass a wine yelled, “Hey, does anyone want some wine!” I am not exaggerating. I was too shocked for words. However, I immediately retrieved the bottle and charged him for the glass of wine.
Not only were his actions brazen, they were also illegal and subject to fines (to both me and the winery) had someone been there from the state’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. If you want to see the bottle, simply ask and your server will happily give you an unopened one to look at.
Shame on You Potty Mouth. While I want customers to have fun, please refrain from using profanity. One afternoon, a bachelorette party descended on me. It was obvious from their glee that they had been to a number of wineries beforehand, as the decibels in the tasting room had increased greatly. I was okay with that, but what surprised me was their vulgar conversation—one loaded with expletives—about certain parts of the male anatomy. They were attractive young women, but their potty mouths had belied their beauty. Their profanity was also making customers uncomfortable, and understandably so. But rather than ask them to leave (they didn’t mean any harm and were just having fun), my colleague (a good-looking guy with oodles of charm) donned a winning smile, approached their table, and began engaging them in conversation about the wines. The girls welcomed his presence; the group’s decibels quickly dropped and the four-letter word, among others, ceased to exist. Regardless of sex, please curb your urge to swear or talk dirty during your visit.
Please Pass the Crackers. The last time I covered this topic, I focused on kids. This time I’d like to address adults. Wineries usually provide free crackers so that customers may cleanse their palates between tastes. Crackers are not a meal, so please don’t hoard the basket and start grazing. One time a customer had literally encircled a bowel of crackers with her arms, hovering her face just above the bowel as she leaned forward over the bar to talk, and proceed to munch. Not only were her actions unsanitary, she put me in the uncomfortable position of continually having to coax the basket away from her so that it could be shared with the other guests. Unless you call ahead to see if the winery offers snacks, it’s best to always bring food with you.
March on the Winery. I don’t mind having a packed tasting room. I also don’t mind serving large groups. However, if you have a group of 10 or so, please call ahead so that the winery can be prepared to accommodate you. Aside from the tasting fee, there typically is no extra charge for large groups (unless you are doing a tour), but some wineries do have a minimum bottle purchase for groups of a certain size.
Two-Minute Warning. If it’s a few minutes before closing time and the tasting room is empty, or appears to be wrapping up, consider asking the staff if there’s still time to taste. Even though the “close” sign hasn’t been turned around and the clock hasn’t struck “shut,” the staff may be getting ready to close for one reason or another. If not, some pourers may not mind staying a bit longer to accommodate you. Just ask. But remember: tasting rooms (unless set up otherwise) are not wine bars, and staff do have lives. So, if you linger too long after closing time, don’t be insulted if you are kindly coaxed to finish your tasting and/or to make your final purchases.
(Photo of Cynthia taken by Tom Keenan)