Tasting rooms are the dive bars of wine country. From flashing crown-donning birthday girls to UC Davis biochemists and local news anchors, you can expect to find a wide variety of individuals there. Even the Pope might walk in for a sip. Whether in “rustic” reclaimed barns complete with crystal chandeliers, or exquisitely modern hilltop estates, the stories of locals and booze-hunting tourists abound in California wine country. Like sitcom dive bars, tasting rooms offer glimpses into the mysteries of the wine industry, human nature, and the reality that everyone wants free stuff.
For example, one sunny October day in the life of this writer, a large group of happy Minnesotans descended upon the Turley Wine Cellars tasting room ready to continue an afternoon of vinous fun. After proudly announcing that ours was their fifth tasting of the day, an entire autumn display of apples disappeared. Ruddy-cheeked and happier than puppies off-leash, they announced their discovery of “The best palate cleanser ever! Why don’t all wineries give out apples?” Shocked, I simply smiled and nodded as they waltzed back to the party bus, half-eaten apples in hand.
And tipsy, hungry Midwestern tourists are only the beginning.
At a tasting room on Napa’s historic Silverado Trail, Certified Sommelier Christy Todd learned that the customer isn’t always right:
“I had a woman who was probably in her early 70s come in with a friend. They each chose our $20 tasting menu. While I was helping them, the woman told me that she would like to get some of our ‘2 for 1 coupons.’ I expressed confusion about her request, as I was unaware that we had any. She then explained that we keep a ‘box of coupons’ under the tasting counter and she wanted me to get the box. I told her there was no box under the counter. She insisted I look for it, so I made a demonstrable effort to look under our counters, and I opened some cupboard doors. She saw me doing this. I told her once again that there was no box. She said she had come in several times and that we keep 2 for 1 coupons for other wineries in a box. She asked if I could look ‘in the back.’ I couldn’t leave to do this and I explained that to her. She then turned to her friend and said, “I know they have the box.” She wouldn’t let it go, and asked me if I could talk to someone about ‘the box.’ I explained that I was the only person there and didn’t have anyone to talk to about ‘the box.’ As I continued to pour from the tasting menu for her, she talked about ‘the box’ to her friend the entire time. She had no real interest in our wines, she just came in for coupons that I didn’t have!”
Sometimes, barrel tasting with the likes of NASA astronauts, or slugging down spectacular, rare, “unicorn” wines actually happens, as Emily Bell of Au Bon Climat discovered in Santa Barbara:
“Working in the ABC tasting room in Santa Barbara means working for legendary winemaker Jim Clendenen, an experience that has been more than I ever expected. For our holiday party, Jim brought a shipment of single-vineyard 2005 Pinot Noirs from his personal collection–not just for the party but to share with us! 2005 was one of his favorite vintages to work with the grape, and it was so cool to hear his stories about literally creating each of those wines.”
While diamonds in the rough like Clendenen exist, not all winemakers are what they appear. Certified Sommelier Christopher Walsh discovered this shockingly common discrepancy over the popular tasting room topic of industry discounts, a near-universal perk in wine sales:
“I was in Berkeley, and this guy came in the tasting room and quickly informed me that he was ‘industry,’ and asked about our industry discount. Naturally I asked him what he did in the wine business and he happily announced he was a winemaker, but didn’t say where he worked. He did seem proud, however, to hand me a home-printed business card made from two pieces of regular printer paper glued together, with the original address crossed out with a handwritten correction. Obviously his ‘winery’ had recently relocated. While I applaud your home winemaking endeavors, it’s not really the purpose of an industry discount.”
Sometimes things go wrong, as Donkey and Goat owner/winemaker Tracey Brandt knows: “A young hipster couple walks in to the tasting room one day. As they’re approaching the bar, they turn to have a look around, and immediately see the bathroom door wide open with 3-year-old Lily bent over, butt cheeks facing them and ready to be wiped, bellowing, ‘Mommy, I pooped!'”
Have you seen humanity at its best in a winery tasting room? Share your story!