Tales from the Tasting Room

By Posted on Aug 29 2009 | By


 “Hello, we’d like to do a tasting for two”.

Tasting RoomThus begins a ritual, repeated hundreds of times a day, in wineries across the Old Dominion.

And it is a line I have heard, in various reiterations, more often than I can recall. For the last six years, I have worked behind the tasting bars of three Virginia wineries. It’s been great fun. I have amassed a slew of memories, and perhaps some sage advice for folks headed out for a day of winery hopping.

My adventure in the wine industry began a few years after my retirement in 2001. After a career with a federal agency, the last fifteen representing my employer on Capitol Hill, I was ready for a change in workplace environment and lifestyle. OK, I admit it; I also needed a source of income for my growing green fee expenses.

My first employment in the industry did not land me the coveted job of greeting and pouring wines for guests. I started at the bottom of the barrel—literally. Responding to an ad in a local paper, I was hired as a “Cellar Assistant” at a moderately large winery, producing some 7,000 cases a year. Shortly after an introduction to the art of scrubbing floors and cleaning the inside of stainless steel tanks and oak barrels, I learned the trade title of my job was actually, “Cellar Rat”. I could not have been prouder. If only my former colleagues could see me now.

The first year of learning the wine business, literally from the cellar up, was what hooked me on my beloved second career. Understanding the world of wine is to drink from a bottomless cup. Today, in the United States, some 55,000 different bottlings are available daily across the country. Accumulating even a passing knowledge of the varietals, production techniques, and countries of origin—just from the local grocery store shelves–can be daunting. And attempting an in-depth understanding of wines worldwide is a life long endeavor. Ah, but the research is so much fun.

Farm  Mt VernonPerhaps the most interesting aspect of my job was my newfound interest in touring Virginia wineries. Visiting beautiful settings and tasting quality wines, added a rich dimension to my retirement years. My quest was on to learn as much as possible about our state’s wines and winemaking techniques, and sharing my discoveries with family and friends.

After nearly a year of seeing wine produced from a yeast’s eye view, I joined the staff of a winery closer to my home. Having earned my stripes in the cool cellar world of wine, I embraced the challenge of the tasting room. On my first day, I felt a bit rattled standing behind the bar and purporting to talk knowledgeably about the wines. I struggled to assure myself that I did, in fact, taste the honeysuckle and peach on the Viognier and the raspberry notes of the Cabernet Franc. I felt certain my guests would challenge me if I got a wine profile wrong. But, it did not take long to understand that the majority of wine lovers, both novice and educated, share some of this angst.

Drinking WineAmericans have not been raised to focus on flavors and aromas in their food and beverages. We eat and drink, and declare our experiences either good or bad. Nonetheless, unwrapping the mysteries in a glass of wine greatly enhances its enjoyment. When I realized this little secret, I was eager to share my revelation with as many folks as possible. The hallmark of a successful tasting room employee is knowledge, framed by enthusiasm. As you love, so will your guests love.

I have gathered many wonderful stories from my years of wine pouring. Perhaps one of the more touching came from a white haired gentleman who slowly drove into our parking lot on a chilly March weekday, about three years ago. He sat alone in his car for a good five minutes as I watched from the window, not a soul at the bar. Finally, he made his way inside. During an hour of convivial conversation, his story unfolded. But, let’s have him share his tale.

“Me name is Bedford,” he said, as he stood at the bar, tentatively taking a sip of Viognier. “I come from a town in England called Bedford. My daughter gave me a book for Christmas last year, called the Bedford Boys. I have never traveled outside of England, but I have come to visit Bedford, Virginia.”

War“Really? And why?” I asked. It seems the old gentleman had vivid memories of World War II and the crucial role our GI s played in the liberation of Europe. During the D-Day invasion at Normandy, a Virginia village earned the heart crushing distinction of losing 21 of their young men, nineteen of the boys being killed within minutes of the beach landing. Today, a memorial to the fallen patriots is located in Bedford.

This gentle Englishman had come to America to pay his respects to the town that had made the ultimate sacrifice. And his first stop, after leaving the airport, was to visit a Virginia winery. He did not fully understand what a tasting room was, but he was eager to learn more about a state that produced such valiant men. As he slowly drove away, I felt privileged to have been a small part of his journey of respect.

So, what might I offer, in the way of advice, to wine lover visiting a tasting room? First, don’t attempt to visit more than three wineries in a day. Relax. Take your time. Your understanding and appreciation of the wines will reveal themselves more fully, if you simply slow down. The old chestnut, “haste makes waste”, should become your three-word management plan for extracting maximum enjoyment from each winery you visit.

Take at least three or four cellar tours during the early months of your tasting odyssey. You will gain greater insight into how wine is produced, enriching your understanding of both the simplicity–and complexity–of winemaking. Availing yourself of free tours is an educational opportunity that will deepen your delight of the fruit of the vine.

Writing NotesMake observations on tasting note sheets so as to learn which wineries you have enjoyed visiting. A simple file kept at home will refresh you on the wines you found most delightful. It can also lead to a compilation of your “Top Ten” favorite establishments.

Another fun way to better understand Virginia wines is to drink them along side a bottle of the same varietal, from another state or country. Sound wasteful or over indulgent? Not at all. For instance, at home, open a bottle of Virginia Chardonnay and a bottle of California Chardonnay, and sip and compare both simultaneously. Then, use the rubber stopper and pump method to keep the remaining wines fresh for the next few days, and enjoy the experience over again. Comparing wines enhances your appreciation and knowledge of like varietals hailing from different wine producing regions.

Engage your fellow tasters during your tastings. Often, I have seen wonderful exchanges unfold as complete strangers begin a conversation about their mutual love of wine. And don’t be surprised if your newfound friends hail from distant states, or even overseas. Tasting room guests are drawn from points worldwide.

Ask questions freely. Your hosts will enjoy educating you in a variety of wine related subjects. And if they happen not to know the answer to a query, it should send them scurrying to get the information, and be ready the next time the subject comes up. I enjoy being stumped with a wine question. It presents an opportunity to grow my knowledge and be ready when the same question inevitably crops up.

IMG_0966Finally, if you find your love of all things wine increasing, consider seeking a job behind the tasting bar yourself. Many wineries are looking for part-time employees, especially on weekends and holidays, when the crowds swell. You are typically offered generous discounts on wine purchases, and will be in the company of fellow enophiles. And the best part is the infectious camaraderie you will experience among both the guests and employees. It makes for a most enjoyable work environment.

So it’s true. Life is, indeed, a party. And it’s being celebrated daily in tasting rooms across our state.


Published in the 2009 Harvest edition of the Virginia Wine Gazette.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES