Tasting Room Etiquette, Part 3—The Tasting Room Table Has Turned

Me behind the tasting bar at SCMV_fall 2013_cropped_a

In my first two installments on tasting room etiquette, One and Two, I wrote about customer do’s and don’ts. Well, etiquette goes both ways. This post is for tasting room hosts, although anyone can benefit.

Take Your Stinkin’ Paws Off Me You Damn Dirty Ape! gorilla public domainOkay, calm down. This is a famous line from the original 1968 movie Planet of the Apes. Actor Charlton Heston plays U.S. astronaut Taylor (aka Bright Eyes) who forcefully speaks up when being yanked from a suspended net by a gorilla. I don’t think that tasting room hosts are damn, dirty apes. They are very nice people who work very hard, often for minimal compensation. By this analogy I mean, please don’t grab my glass away from me to pour my wine, unless absolutely necessary. If you can’t reach it, I’ll bring it closer to you. Proper wine service requires that hosts pour the wine without touching the glass. 

Lip Service 101. My glass is for my lips only, not for the neck of the wine bottle. In other words, please don’t let the neck touch the lip of the glass when pouring. Doing so can spread germs. Think about it: Your hands and fingers touch the neck of the bottle when removing the foil and cork, or when handling bottles in general. If your hands are not clean—and they should be—you could transfer germs to the bottle, and ultimately the glass. When the neck touches one glass, it touches them all.

cork public domainThis One Just Blows My Cork. Now and then wine will dribble down the neck of the bottle after being poured. It takes skill to avoid this, whether using pour spouts or not, so that’s what towels are for. Nonetheless, don’t use the lip of the glass to scrape off excess wine. I bit my tongue the first time this happened to me. My tasting room host said that she was “helping out her son for the day…and didn’t know much about wine.” After each pour, she scraped. So, before each new pour, I turned my glass around to a virgin position on the bowl, as well as wiped down the rim of the bowl with a napkin. I didn’t want to create a possible awkward moment by pointing out her faux pas, and thus let it go. I will never be silent again. If a bit of wine dribbles down the neck of bottle, wipe it off with a towel until you become proficient at pouring. (Note to wineries: Please don’t put inexperienced hosts behind the bar, unless they are in training and are under the supervision of an experienced professional.)

Please Don’t Keep Me Waiting. Tasting rooms can get very busy. I get that. But it’s up to the tasting room manager to staff appropriately. Even so, regardless of how many hosts are working on any given day, it’s important that they acknowledge customers when they walk in, at least within the first five seconds. If you can’t serve new guests right away, greet them and let them know that you’ll be with them shortly. Most customers will understand. They just want to know that they are welcomed. I once waited 30 seconds (Yes, I watched the clock) before being greeted. While this was unacceptable, I “tested” the staff by continuing to wait. Some staffers looked at me but no one verbally or physically acknowledged me. So I left and they lost a potential sale.

Pushy, Pushy. Sometimes customers visit a tasting room because they are interested in a pushingspecific varietal and don’t want to do the entire flight. I once had a host INSIST that I try the winery’s chocolate sparkling wine. Really? I hate judging a wine without trying it, but I just couldn’t take this seriously. I kindly declined, but she kept INSISTING. She also INSISTED that I try the sparkling with chocolate and pushed a plate of bittersweet my way. I wanted to tell her to “get off my back,” but just couldn’t squash her enthusiasm for the product. Furthermore, my friends—with their morbid curiosity—tried the “pairing” just to indulge our host. So, I caved. The sparkling was god awful. I spit it in the dump bucket—I just couldn’t get myself to swallow it. And, I ate the chocolate only to mask that nasty flavor residing on my palate. The host asked me what I thought, her doe eyes beaming with anticipation. To avoid being brutally honest, I simply told her that I’m just not a fan of off-dry wine and thanked her for her hospitality.

Lesson here: Respect the customers’ wishes. But, if you want to further engage them in conversation, politely ask what it is about the varietal they are denying that they don’t like. If your wine doesn’t match their preconceived notion, then you could give them more information and maybe they’ll change their mind and try the wine. If not, let it go. 

wine wordSpeak the Lingo. One of my biggest pet peeves is being served by hosts who have not been properly trained in some of the basics. I understand that it will take someone new to the wine industry to get up to speed. But, if you can’t speak the basic wine lingo, get a wine dictionary—there’s tons of wine-related resource books on the market. Case in point: A sweet, yet ill-informed, host at a tasting room I visited told me that the winery had a new winemaker who changed the “recipe” of the wines. Winemakers don’t use recipes; winemakers have winemaking “styles.” Simple examples: Oaky, buttery Chardonnay versus stainless-steel fermented Chardonnay. This time I spoke up by politely correcting her. She just giggled. Whatever.

This Wine Smells Like Man’s Best Friend! Wine education is a life-long process, so I wet dog public domaindon’t expect tasting room personnel to get bogged down in the minutia of it all, unless I ask. I do, however, expect them to know when a wine is corked. Corked wine is a flaw (wine flaws differ from faults) and is caused by cork taint. One chief cause of this is the presence of the chemical compounds 2,4,6-trichloransiole, or TCA.

TCA production is a complicated process. In general, TCA is produced when airborne fungi come in contact with the cork and transferred to the wine. Corked aromas include dank, moldy basement; wet dog; and wet newspaper. Sometimes the presence of TCA is extremely subtle; other times it smacks you in the face. Some people have higher thresholds than others when it comes to recognizing TCA. If you detect the slightest bit of an off aroma, get a second opinion from one of your tasting room colleagues. If you are working alone, play it safe and just open another bottle and leave the suspect wine for the winemaker to inspect.

Wine pouring 101: Before you open the tasting room, test the wines by looking at the color, smelling the wines, tasting them, and spitting them out.

only you public domainOh, It’s Only You. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been “snubbed” by tasting room staff after learning that I’m industry. Most wineries will comp tasting room fees for industry colleagues. This practice isn’t law, it’s just a courtesy. Not all wineries partake, and that’s okay. But if yours does, please treat me with the same respect you’d treat a non-industry customer. Us industry folk can be one of your best ambassadors—if we like your wines and, more important, your hospitality. Bear with me please as an example is in order.

Of all the responses I’ve received over the years, this one—so far—takes the cake: I approached the register of a winery whose tasting room was designed to charge the tasting fee first before handing customers their glass and advancing them to the tasting bar. I approached the register, was greeted fairly quickly, and asked if I had “checked in.” I looked around to make sure that I wasn’t at a hotel, having never been asked this question before at a tasting room. Then the host (who by the way was the tasting room manager) asked me if I was a wine club member. Now that’s a legitimate question because wine club members taste for free. I said “no” and asked if they “take industry” (industry-speak for “comp the fee”). Here was her response (and this is no exaggeration): She curled her upper lip and donned a frown before saying “oh” in a tone of disappointment.

Ok, so you can imagine my inference. She may have just as well said: “Oh, it’s an industry person who wants to taste for free and has no intention of buying wine.” I mean what am I? Chopped liver? No, I’m a customer—and a wine ambassador—remember?

My gut reaction was to jokingly say, “Sorry to disappoint you.” But once again (as in etiquette #3 above), I curbed the urge to verbally purge. (I really need to work on this.) Anyway, she finally said, “Yes, we comp industry, but only with a business card.” I kindly gave her my card and after taking notice, she changed her tune and praised the heck out of our Pinot Noirs. I may not have spoken up but our wines sure did. Touché!

P.S. In case you are wondering, I didn’t buy any wine—not because I’m a freeloading industry person. I didn’t buy wine because 1) the price-quality relationship of was not equal (that’s a topic for a future post). And 2) even more important, the hospitality, with the exception of one individual, was subpar.

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