Faux Pas Among the Wine Tasting

I made my way to the table where Kirk and Judy were sitting, and where Donna was milling. Each place setting held a crescent of six half-filled glasses arrayed on placemats with numbered circles.

“Looks like we’re doing some serious tasting,” I said to Donna as we settled into our chairs.

She glanced around and said, “Well, if we are, I’ll be missing out.”

She was right. Her place setting held only five pours. I looked to the empty place next to me.

“Here, I’ll get one of these glasses for you,” I said.

As I leaned over my place setting, I felt the flap of my leather jacket knock over a glass and suddenly the elegant tabletop had the look of a murder scene. I glanced up to see the shocked expressions of Kirk and Judy.

“Ooops. I guess that wasn’t the best idea.”

“That was why I didn’t want to reach for it,” muttered Donna.

A few minutes later, all attention was mercifully lifted from my faux pas and turned to Henry Walker, who stood tapping a wine glass with a butter knife. The clanging sound turned the room’s steady din into a gentle murmur.

“The aim for tonight’s tasting is to compare our wine with other cabernets.” Walker’s voice boomed with a resonance that befitted the room’s oversized accoutrements. “What I want you to note is each wine’s structure, balance and oak treatment, and in a moment you’ll tell us which ones you liked best, and why. Oh, and extra points for identifying our wine.”

My table mates went to work, swirling wine number one and checking its color against the tablecloths. Some sniffed with one nostril, some with eyes closed. A guy at the next table plugged his ear while nosing, his eyes blinking a Morse Code of recognition. Gulps were taken, air was sucked, and lips were smacked. A few tasters took pen to paper. I did the same, but when it came time to form a sense of what was in my mouth, I finished dry. They all tasted good to me.

[Tweet theme=”basic-full”]”A guy at the next table plugged his ear while nosing, his eyes blinking a Morse Code of recognition.”[/Tweet]

Once Walker’s table finished sampling the flight, he was back on his feet, calling on tables like a game show host.

“Table number one, what did you think of our first pour?”

Heads shook, snickers escaped and a swarthy fellow spoke up. “We think the fruit would be more inviting if it wasn’t fermented on a basement floor.”

A wave of laughter rolled across the room and the man high fived his cohorts.

“Table number two?”

A large grey-haired man stood and said, “Well, Henry. We were just wondering if you picked this wine out of Safeway’s bargain basket.”

A roar of scornful glee went up as the employees swooned with superior pride.

“Table number three?” This was my table.

“Henry, this wine not only lacks balance,” offered Kirk, with handsome confidence. “Its flavor profile is tilting more toward manure than fruit.”

When the snickers died down, I realized this was not just a wine tasting; it was an oenological cutting contest. How could I compete? I still didn’t know sweet oak from toasted, or French oak from American. Nor could I always discern what kind of fruit was being imparted. All I could do was latch onto wines with odd flavors and cling to them for sensorial support.

When Walker asked for a show of hands in favor of wine number two, I was the only person to put a hand up. Suddenly I was back in fifth grade giving an answer that I wasn’t sure was right, but giving it anyway to exert myself into the discussion. The crowd around me howled.

The smartass at the next table yelled, “Get a job,” and I vowed to never again volunteer a wine opinion.

In the Twilight Zone of Wine Jobs

Our lunch hours came and went without a hint of tourists. The estate felt eerily quiet as I sat in the bright courtyard eating my sandwich and studying the Black Madrone Bible. At one point, the marketing manager and Tom Cruise look-alike Kirk came out to chat with me. But other than him, Hilda, and Karen, I saw no human life to justify my employment. This was the Twilight Zone of wine jobs.

The afternoon felt like a weekend. I’d never been good at being idle and this place was already making me crazy. At the point where Karen and I had already wrapped two cupboards full of logo glasses, we heard voices: loud, rambunctious chatter echoing off the covered entryway and projecting excitement. We hurried to the door just as a group of seven twenty-something guys and gals strolled through the deep shade of the passageway. As they sauntered toward Karen and me, I saw Hilda charging out her door with big eyes that screamed: The people! The people!

I was so relieved that somebody had shown up: this monotony was killing me.

While Karen ushered the group inside, Hilda said, “This is the most people we’ve seen since we moved in.”

“I guess I got here just in time,” I said.

As we stood in the doorway, Kirk rounded the corner at a quick pace, wide-eyed.

“What’s going on?” he asked, peering through the shop’s windows. “Do we actually have customers?”

I took my place behind the bar, working beside Karen for the first time. The group was midway through their pours of the Alexander Valley. I got caught up in their conversations about wine, driving, and the back road speed limits, until one man suddenly hushed his posse into a twittering silence.

“I’m getting a feeling,” he intoned, with closed eyes and fingers on temples. “I have this sense – a premonition, if you will – that there is a very special person we must find here today.”

Kirk and Hilda stepped closer.

“Yes, it is a very, very special person. A woman, she is blonde and very attractive. And her name, her name… Mari.” His eyes opened in feigned beneficence. “Yes, Mari. We must find Mari.”

Everybody gaped at me and screamed with abandon, including Hilda and Kirk. I laughed so hard I had to squeeze my legs tight to stop from peeing my pants.

Finally, psychic guy confessed. “Your friend at the last winery told us to come here. Um, what was the name of the place?”

“Dubey,” someone said.

“That’s it, DuBey lady. She sent us.”

So, it was Rebecca who had told them I was here. On my first day on the job, my new best girlfriend sent me a bouquet of human flowers. What a gal.

When I phoned DuBey later, Rebecca laughed.

“I just thought it would be funny to freak you out on your first day,” she said. “And I knew these people would brighten up the place.”

This experience gave me a warm rush of acceptance knowing I’d just impressed my new bosses with the ability and connections to bring people into an as-yet undiscovered winery. But my sense of satisfaction did not end there. I felt the love of a new best friend who evidently had my back. I also had the admiration of the hemp community who wrote rave emails about what I was doing with HempWorld. I’d realized a new level of understanding with my daughter, who had found her groove with a circle of friends from her new school. And I had gained a way to balance my creative life with my wine life.

At this point, there was only one thing missing.

At the end of that first day at Black Madrone, I had spent almost all of my wages on two bottles of Alexander Valley Cabernet. That night, I drank one of them with my fellow wine slut, Rebecca. My preference would have been to drink it with my landlord, and use it as bait to seduce him, before he left next month for a summer in Costa Rica. By the time he returns, we will have moved out of this cottage. He must have known he might never see me again, but apparently that did not make him want to see me now.

I was becoming increasingly lonely and the thought occurred to me: maybe I should become a lesbian and date Rebecca.

Daydreaming in a Dead Tasting Room

Mouthfeel confessions of a wine slut

December found me in a new tasting room in the middle of the mighty Alexander Valley, where cabernet is king. After I was laid off from Rafferty Cellars, Rebecca got me this job at DuBey Vineyards as occasional weekend relief. Now, it was I who needed relief from the mind-numbing boredom of this dead tasting room. On a busy day, we might sell about ten bottles. Nobody else worked on the weekends, and during the few times the winemaker showed up to check something I thought I was hearing ghosts.

A flock of starlings flew past the winery as I sat gazing across the vineyards of Alexander Valley, their shape expanding and contracting like the contours of my heart. In that moment, they were my only friends and I really wished some customers would come along to distract me.

Gazing around the room, I thought of the owner Dr. Herbert DuBey, a well-known oncologist at the University of San Francisco Medical Center. He bought the land back in the mid-1980s, probably as a tax shelter, and became a gentleman farmer. Then, he constructed what amounts to an industrial shed to house the winery. The building’s façade is so sterile I imagined it repelled more tourists than it attracted. The corrugated metal siding made the place look like a hardware store and the tasting room like a doublewide trailer. Even I wouldn’t have visited myself there.

Finally, I saw customers drive in and my daydreams drove out. I could hear people entering the winery downstairs and dawdling on the self-guided tour before finally stepping upstairs. I was so impatient for company, I wanted to run out to the catwalk and drag them in.

“Hi there,” they called, from the doorway. “How are you?”

“Great,” I replied. “Now that you’re here.”

They were older, he more than she, and in fit shape. She was small and blond and wearing blue contact lenses. He was tall and lanky. And they both wore designer sweat suits.

“Has it been very busy today?” the woman asked.

“Well, you’re my first customers, if that’s any indication.”

“Oh really? I’m glad we stopped, then. We’ve driven by so many times.”

She looked around the plain, functional room, as if searching her mind for something nice to say. Her partner stood, hands clasped behind his back, examining the wine awards like they were his doctor’s credentials.

“You have such… such a… beautiful view. Oh look, Charley. We can see Mt. St. Helena.”

I wanted to kiss her for accentuating the positive and I envisioned them purchasing more than a token bottle. When they’d meandered to the bar, I poured the sauvignon blanc.

[Tweet theme=”basic-full”]“Yes, the clone is Rued, but it’s not really impolite. Just shy bearing.” Mouthfeelbook.com[/Tweet]

They liked it, but they weren’t raving. Over the Sonoma County Chardonnay, I said, “We also make a chardonnay made from the famous Rued Clone.’

“Did you say rude?”

“Yes, the clone is Rued, but it’s not really impolite. Just shy bearing.”

They snickered at that, so I continued.
“Unfortunately, we’re not pouring the Rued Chardonnay, since they only made about 200 cases. But, it is well-priced at eighteen bucks, especially since it drinks like a thirty-dollar chard.”

“We’ll take two bottles,” the man blurted.

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.



“Fruit forward.”

“Soft tannins.”

“Tight in the mouth”

“Great structure.”

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