Don’t Underestimate the Power of the “Pour People”

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People who talk and write about wine — myself included— often focus on soils, growing seasons, weather, disease pressure and harvest timing. We talk and write about winemaker decisions concerning fermentation vessels or yeast strains or barrel aging. But a couple recent experiences at tasting rooms here on Long Island reminded me of the unsung heroes of any winery — the people pouring the wines in the tasting room.

Over the course of a mid-week jaunt on the North Fork, my wife, friends and I visited a handful of tasting rooms — some regular favorites, some that we hadn’t visited in a long time.

At one tasting room, which I’m choosing not to identify by name, we had an exchange with the young lady behind the tasting bar that I will summarize and paraphrase this way:

We walked in and she asked us if we’d been there before. I like this question because it helps tell the person behind the tasting bar how much information he or she needs to convey. In other words, don’t give me the full spiel if we’re regulars. We said “no” and she proceeded to tell us how the tastings and glasses worked. Some of us ordered glasses. Others ordered flights to taste. She poured them and then pushed them across the bar without a word.

My wife, a teacher who worked in a couple different tasting rooms back before we had kids, asked “What can you tell us about the wines?” A fair question and I think an important one. I keep using the term “bar” but I’m merely describing the physical piece of furniture. Tasting rooms aren’t bars in the watering hole sense. Tasting rooms are about offering the opportunity to taste and learn about your wines and your winery. It’s, at least in part, an educational setting. Or at least it should be.

The young lady’s response actually inspired this column, because it disappointed me in such a profound way. She said, not without just a bit of surprise and derision “What do you want to know?” With some prodding she finally relented, offering some cursory information about the wines — saying that they were dry and steel-fermented.

I stepped in and explained a couple of the techniques involved in a couple of the wines that I won’t identify here because they might give away where we were.

The wines were terrific by the way. We all thought so. But we all were also put off by the tasting room employee’s indifferent attitude.

You may think that my expectations are too high and you could be right. There are certainly tasting rooms on the North Fork that do operate as bars rather than actual tasting rooms, and I guess I’d expect this sort of experience at those places. Only the tasting room in question isn’t one of those places. This was a quality producer in the top tier of local wineries. I expect more and I think I’m right to do so.

Just about anyone can pour wine from a bottle into a glass, but pouring in a tasting room is so much more than that. It’s people management. It’s time management. It’s being a wine educator. It’s empathy. It’s confidence and self-awareness too.

Part of what made our bad experience that day seem even worse is the fact that we had the complete opposite experience at our next stop. The young man there was working alone, in what ended up being a packed tasting room, and yet he made everyone seem like they were the only people there. I watched as he hustled in between groups but slowed down once he arrived at each. He was friendly and answered questions about the wines. It was impressive to watch, really. I emailed the general manager the next day to say so too. I also emailed the winemaker at the first stop, first telling him how much I enjoyed the wines, but also tipping him off to the experience that lagged behind more than a bit.

Both appreciated the feedback, I think.

These tasting room folks often refer to themselves as “the pour people,” which I’ve always assumed was at least in part a joke about the money they make in these jobs, but I honestly don’t know how much most of them make per hour. But the good ones? They should be making more. And wineries should do anything they can to hold onto them. They are the public face of the winery and have a definite impact on sales too. My group bought a lot more wine where we had a good experience than where we didn’t.

A version of this story first appeared in The Suffolk Times/northforker

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About Author

Lenn Thompson, a proud Pittsburgh, PA native, moved to Long Island more than a decade ago and quickly fell in love with the region’s dynamic and emerging wine community. A digital and content marketing and community professional by day, he founded NewYorkCorkReport.com in early 2004 to share his passion for the wines, beers and spirits of New York State. Since then, the site has become the premier source for independent New York wine commentary, reviews and news. Formerly the editor of the Long Island Wine Gazette, a contributor to Edible Brooklyn, wine columnist for Hamptons.com and regional editor for Appellation America covering the Long Island and Hudson River Valley regions, Lenn contributes to Edible East End, Palate Press, Patch and is the wine columnist for Dan’s Papers in the Hamptons. Lenn is also on the board of directors for Drink Local Wine, and is the creator and founder of TasteCamp, a yearly regional wine immersion event for writers and bloggers. An admitted riesling and cabernet franc fanatic, he’s intensely passionate about eating drinking local and the many local wine regions of America. Lenn lives in Miller Place, NY with his wife Nena, son Jackson, daughter Anna and their dog, Casey Lemieux Thompson.

3 Comments

  1. great article Lenn and an important message for all wineries. your tasting room staff can make, or break someone’s experience. i know when i worked behind the “bar”, i loved the opportunity to educate the customer on our wines and welcomed all questions from those interested enough to ask. i needed no prodding to talk about each wine i poured and though i didn’t go into “spec sheet” hyperbole, i provided them with enough information to spark more interest if it was within them! the pay for those who “pour” is mostly “poor” and i agree with you when you say that winery owners should reward those who do more than just “pour”, since it is those individuals who keep them from being “poorer”! keep up the great work!

  2. Wow. So… let’s get this straight. You want winery workers who are in a PT job where they have to deal with surly, half-intoxicated people in surging crowds, most of whom don’t give a shit about the wine and just want to get a little drunker… you want the people pouring this wine to give every single person who comes traipsing into the winery the little level of special service that you, with your heightened sense of taste and privilege, feel ought to be the norm? Okay, gotcha.
    Tell you what. Bring us back to days when tasting wine at a winery was about tasting wine and not about bridesmaids getting hammered, and maybe you’ll have your little insulated experience. In the meantime, get your head out of the cloud of preciousness that clearly follows you wherever you go.
    What an awful, clueless thing to do, to email a winery to complain about a pourer who didn’t treat you badly, but simply didn’t give you the “experience” you felt you were due as self-important connoisseur.
    You have no idea what that poor girl may have just dealt with before you came in…she may have been rattled by some loathsomely nasty drunk customers, or she may simply have been tired, or whatever. It doesn’t matter. She gave you decent service, you got to taste some wine, she told you what she knew, and I guarantee you the winery is selling plenty of wine without people like you pretending you had a “bad experience” because you didn’t get treated like Robert Parker or Karen MacNeil.

    • Randy,

      I’m sorry that you are making so many assumptions about me and missed the point entirely. Ask anyone who has tasted with me — I never expect (or even want) to be treated any differently than any other tasting room visitor.

      Further, this wasn’t a winery that caters to “bridesmaids getting hammered.” This was a winery that IS about the wine. And we were there on a slow Wednesday afternoon, not a chaotic Saturday.

      Lastly, the winemaker from said winery saw me post pictures of the wines on Instagram and asked how our visit was. I was honest with him. He thanked me for it.

      No need to be a troll here. You shouldn’t make so many assumptions.

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