Tasting Room Virgin No More

Paralyzed by my insecurities, I listened to Hank’s banter.  I was reminding myself to breathe when another group of four ambled into the room. The sight of them left me unable to articulate, “Four for tasting?” much less lift a bottle. Luckily, Walter was there and I watched the big guy lead them through the whites and into the pinot noirs with a deft touch. Then the phone rang and Walter ducked back to the office, leaving me behind the bar along with Hank. Just him and me facing eight early-morning tasters.

“May we try the zin, please?” The man from Walter’s group finally broke my stupor. It was my call to action.

“Sure,” I replied, though I was completely unsure of myself. I stepped to the wine line and grabbed the closest bottle, but – oops – it was the cabernet. I reached for the next one, but it was the merlot. How embarrassing. The labels were facing the front and the bottles all looked the same from behind. I spun a third one around and found the elusive zinfandel. On my way toward the amused customers, I uncorked it with an exasperated flourish.

The man laughed. “Don’t you just hate the way Bordeaux bottles all look alike?”

By then my hand was shaking, and in my first attempt to pour wine I dribbled it on the counter. I made a mental note to work on my aim.

After murmuring, “Thanks,” the man’s wife asked, “Have you worked at Rafferty’s for very long?”

“Yeah, a long time. Let’s see, it’s been…about one-and-a-half hours.”

The couples laughed like a Letterman audience, and Hank peered over his shoulder to determine the source of their hilarity. Me. I made the people laugh. Not that I was especially funny; they were just easily amused. And their amusement boosted my lagging confidence.

Working behind a tasting room bar, I discovered, is like being on stage: the comedian clowning for the audience. And, the drunker winos got, the funnier I sounded. Soon, I forgot my insecurities and fell into a regular bartending groove.

[Tweet theme=”basic-full”]Working behind a tasting room bar is like being on stage. The drunker winos got, the funnier I sounded – Mari Kane, Mouthfeelbook.com[/Tweet]


“Merlot? Here you go. Want some cab? I’ll call you one. Late Harvest? Time for dessert.”

At the end of their tasting, the couples ordered a half case of the zin and a half case of the reserve chardonnay. This was the first wine sale of my life, and it felt good. Both the cash register and credit card machine were co-operative, and I managed to complete the transaction without error before sending the group on their jolly way.

Then, another gang of tasters gathered around my corner and proceeded to make demands for wine. Every other group that followed did the same until greeting, pouring, talking, and selling became so easy for me, I might have done it for years.

From behind the bar, I studied people as they performed the curious ritual of wine tasting.

First, a visual assessment is made by holding the glass to the light and naming a color. The more obscure the hue, the more impressed the companions. Swirling wine offers the chance to show off one’s advanced motor development, either by twirling the glass aloft or gyrating it flat on the counter.

Then, noses are sunk deep into the glass where circulating fumes send olfactory information to the brain. The first sip is taken and the funny faces begin. Some will suck air through puckered lips and emit the kind of slurping sounds children are told not to make at the table. Others chew like they have a hunk of beef jerky stuck in their teeth. There are gurgling sounds. Heads roll and eyes study the ceiling. The product is usually swallowed, rarely spat. Lips are smacked.

Finally, the pronouncements come, haltingly or torrential.

“Buttery.”

“Jammy.”

“Fruit forward.”

“Soft tannins.”

“Tight in the mouth”

“Great structure.”

Hearing these words applied to wine made me want to dive for the dictionary.

Waiting for Walter

Walter was a trim sexagenarian with high cheekbones and enough broken blood vessels to suggest rouge. In his beige trousers and bright green polo shirt, he looked like he belonged on a golf course instead of a winery.

“I see you’ve met Hank already. Most days it’s just the two of us, but it looks like we’re going to need some help, especially on weekends. You can work weekends, right?”

“Oh, yeah. That’s fine.” I offered him my photography-heavy résumé and as he read it, I scanned the room. The walls were covered with old wine posters. Bright, richly printed images of Rafferty Pinot Noir and Russian River Zinfandel mixed well with Harvest Fair art, but clashed with the bland state-issued posters about employee rights.

A tall counter ran along one side of the office. Scotch-taped to the wall above it was a line of wine-themed cartoons. Walter and I stood at the counter. He reviewed my résumé and I tried to keep my eyes off the comics.

“So, you’re a photographer, huh?” Gazing over his granny glasses, he said, “Why do you want to work in a winery?”

I was prepared for this question.

“Well, the work I did for Wine Spectator taught me a lot about wine, so I’d like to put that experience to use.”

Just then, hairy Hank poked his head through the doorway. “Um, Walter, would you help me out here, please?”

“I’ll be right back,” Walter said. He rolled his eyes and shook his head.

Waiting for Walter allowed me to wander the office, reading wine cartoons. I almost laughed out loud at the one where the waiter says to the customer, “It’s a full-bodied wine with hints of acrimony, partisanship, and moral outrage.”

Eventually, Hank’s people bought something and left, and he took over Walter’s group so Walter could get back to me. He pushed through the door, his face the color of nouveau beaujolais, and testily resumed his position.

“Sorry ‘bout that,” he muttered. “Hank doesn’t like to handle more than one group at a time.”

“It’s okay.”

Walter stared at the paper, gathering his thoughts. “You see, this job requires dealing with the public, the kind of people who have had a bit to drink by the time they see us. And I’m looking at your résumé and don’t see much retail sales or wait service that relates to this sort of position.”

He kind of had me there. Prior to going broke running two businesses, my previous employment had been as a photographer in a passport photo shop across from the Immigration and Naturalization office in downtown San Francisco. I got very good at dealing with the suits who came in for executive portraits. Like the time around 1984 when Tom Hanks came in for a sitting. Actually, my assistant dragged him from the cafe next door where he was visiting his relatives. After I cranked through a half roll of 2 1/4 frames on the mighty Mamiya camera, Hanks said, “Hey, I get paid hundreds of dollars for this!”

I said to Tom Hanks, “Really? So do I.” That shut him up long enough to shoot a couple more frames before he fled.

“Actually,” I said to Walter, “I dealt with the public every day at the photo shop I managed for two years. Also, being a self-employed photographer made me a pretty good salesperson.”

I was on the verge of offering to shoot bottles when Hank reappeared, hankering – as it were – for Walter’s attention. “Uh, Walter. I need your help at the bar.” The request was accompanied by a slight, passive-aggressive tilt of his furry head.

Walter reacted as though “I need your help at the bar” was his most-hated phrase. Through gritted teeth he muttered, “I’ll be right back,” and scurried off. I felt like I was hanging out with an old married couple.

Visions of Vinicultural Grandeur

We laughed at our own pretentiousness even though we were indeed on a mission, as students of Wine Marketing 101, to observe patterns of consumption and purchasing at one of Sonoma County’s oldest wineries.

But we could barely hear each other in the swirling vortex of descriptors and hokum in which we stood, where everybody around us was a critic.

“I’m getting dried raisins.”

“I get warm plywood.”

“I’m getting wet, hot asphalt, but in a good way.”

[Tweet theme=”basic-full”]“I’m getting wet, hot asphalt, but in a good way.”- Mari Kane, Mouthfeelbook.com[/Tweet]

“Are those tartrates in your glass, or just floaters?”

After flagging down the cute bartender, Greg said, “What do you gals want to start with — the zin?” He raised one satanic eyebrow and leered. “They have five different bottlings, ya’ know.”

Rebecca looked at me and laughed, “Oh sure, why not? It’s all part of our research, right?”

Squeezed on both sides, we huddled in the two-person space as if under an umbrella and began our analysis of the Sonoma County and Russian River Zinfandels. We then proceeded through the Reserve, the Westside Vineyard and the Rocky Range Zins. By the time we arrived at the Late Harvest, my brain was floating.

“May I have some water, please,” I asked, sliding my glass toward the bartender. Once rehydrated, I nosed my pour of the boozy dessert wine and gazed around the room.

Alcohol fumes stung my nostrils as I watched a customer trying to sell wine to another guy. Raspberry jamminess coated my tongue while a group of retirees conspired to split a case for the quantity discount. My chest blazed from the heat as I saw the bartender high fiving a bunch of guys in ball caps.

Through my alcoholic mist, I admired the way he interacted with the crowd, and I imagined how I would look behind the counter, pouring wine. With my hair pulled back and my shirtsleeves rolled up, I’d be the picture of rustic hospitality. My banter would be witty, yet informative, and occasionally I’d tell customers things they didn’t already know. Quick with the bottle and never, ever spilling, I would entice people with the wine and inspire them to take home cases of it. Canny but beneficent, and always the consumer advocate, I would be worshipped like a tasting room goddess dispensing…

“Hey, Mari. Ya’ wanna’ go look for the head?” Rebecca said.

Instantly, I came back to myself, a broke, unemployed single mom of a pre-adolescent girl, gripped with visions of literary and vinicultural grandeur. The dream tasted inviting, and left a warm, appealing finish.

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