Don’t underestimate the power of the ‘pour people’: Uncork the Forks

Our Lenn Thompson notes that tasting room pourers are frequently the public face of any winery. (Credit: David Benthal Photography)

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

Over the course of a midweek 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 as such:

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.

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.