The Cellar Door

Culture

Cellar Door Hospitality: a Tasting Room Associate tale

Written by Simone Popov · 8 min read >

Just a note before we start. The ideas expressed here are my personal beliefs and opinions and aren’t necessarily factual…

Anthony Bourdain gave the world a glimpse into the grimy world of the kitchen life in his tell-all, “Kitchen Confidential.” The “Somm” movie skimmed the surface of what it is like to take on the monumentally challenging “Master Sommelier” exam. I, too, desire to give a peek at an industry with which I am all too familiar. With five years of tasting room “service” under my belt in roles such as “Tasting Room Host,” “Wine Educator,” “Hospitality Associate”, and “Tasting Room Lead”, it is one of the only subjects in wine where I hold any expertise.
 “Cellar Door Sales,” a term invented by the British and adopted by the rest of the world; except for the US, much like the metric system, is a way of selling wine and building a brand image that has grown in popularity and influence. Yet, this sales concept without any middlemen, right to the visiting consumer, is still very much a “New World” concept, and we in the Napa-and in lesser part, Sonoma-Valley, have pioneered.

But, what is the life of the lowly tasting room associate? Is it as bacchanalian and relaxed as the world outside imagines it to be? Do we drink wine in the morning, spend our days talking terroir, and our evenings slurping down oysters and Champagne in the wonderous bars and restaurants that the rest of the world only gets to frequent on holidays?

Stick around to find out…

The Hospitality Professional

Contrary to popular belief, tasting room staff are “Professionals“. That implies that we do not drink wine in the mornings. We certainly have to taste the wine to ensure that the samples we are about to pour to the onrushing onslaught of visitors represent the quality of wine made at the property, but that doesn’t mean we drink it. Instead, we quickly slosh the wine in our mouth, like morning mouthwash, making sure that there aren’t any apparent flaws, and we spit the wine out. There is not much time to appreciate the wine or even get drunk. There are many other things to do to prepare for the guests. The morning wine tasting is- in most cases- an exercise in quality control that is not at all enjoyable.

A true hospitality professional is attractive, well-groomed, and personable. They can deliver stirring monologues, fake personal interest, and be quick with a witty-yet-charming response.  

All-in-all, they… we are actors.

 It is a shame that Napa Valley is nearly 400 miles from Hollywood, or some of the best tasting room associates would be lighting up the big screen.

Take notes, Tinseltown execs.

The tasting room professional acts as a storyteller, waiter, and wine educator hybrid. Please note that the list is in order, and wine education is last on this list. That is because it is the least important. If the tasting room professional can tell a riveting story and is attentive enough to your needs, you will walk away blissfully ignorant of any critical information about the vineyard or winery. Still, you would have parted with your hard-earned cash anyway. That is just part of the trade.

The Morning Routine

Indeed, working at a stunning vineyard can’t all be that bad. But, just like the Parisians who drive by the Eifel Tower every day as part of their commute, the novelty of whichever Chateau is lost within the first few months. A winery job is at least a year for most of us, and we have seen so many fucking vineyards we are sick of it.

Usually, the first few hours in the morning, before the gates open, are the best hours. You show up between 9 am and 12 pm  (which is pretty nice), have a coffee, catch up with your associates (if you have them, in some smaller tasting rooms, you’re working solo), and get ready for the day.

Day readiness means your first set of wines is opened and tasted. It means every menu is laid out for the customers to indicate where they should be standing or sitting—all the comfortable cushions. Shading umbrellas, fireplaces, and any other accouterments for the comfort of your visitors have to be ready to go. We check and double-check the scheduled tasting and tour schedule, make sure we know our assignment, and run through- in our head- the stories of every part of the property, all the wines, and anything else that may be required for the presentation. Like boy scouts, we are prepared for anything the day will throw our way. And, of course, lots of things can go wrong.

The Day-to-Day

No matter what, the day will still manage to surprise and astound. Such is the nature of any hospitality role, and a tasting room associate is no exception. Nonsensical questions and odd requests will bombard us. We will run out of clean glasses. We will run out of cheese for the oh-so-important pairing platters. It’s common to encounter some overprivileged asshole who thinks the world revolves around them or the know-it-all who already knows everything about the wine and the history and will treat it as a slight if we try to do our job and tell our story. We’ll encounter large groups, bachelor/bachelorette parties, birthday celebrations, post-wake celebrations of someone’s life, etc.

Everyone who shows up to the tasting room will have a different expectation of their experience. Some will want to talk to you for hours, and some will want to drink and enjoy themselves. As tasting room servers/ actors, we will need to learn how to read people to be successful. Customers will test us, goad us, proposition us- for extra wine, amongst other things. Every customer wants a pound of flesh, and we are there to give it to them. The wine is just an intermediary. Whether you are hosting a private party for an extensive tour of the winery or cycling through a bar full of tasting patrons, the goal is always clear:

  1. Concisely deliver a riveting story of the wine
  2. Engage personally with the guest
  3. Execute the pitch to maximize wine sales and wine club conversions.  

The last goal is the most important. I will discuss it further down.

The Monotony, the Repetition

Think of a tasting room associate as a guide on an attraction like Disney’s Jungle Cruise. The winery’s history, winemaking processes, and terroir (soil, temperature, and everything in the vineyard) are integrated into a script that doesn’t frequently change. The visitor might feel like they are getting a fresh perspective. Still, the tasting room associate is only going through the motions and making sure they are hitting on the core bullet points to ensure that the story comes across in its entirety.

The story most likely has been engineered in a marketing think-tank-type lab by the winery execs and failed San Francisco marketers now working for the winery. The messaging crafted will most likely be about family, history, soils, and their near-mystical effects on the wine in your glass. Just know that if the tasting room associate could talk about what they wanted to talk about, your time would be more enjoyable. Yet, the bullet points have to be hit, and the sales pitch delivered. A good tasting room professional walks on a tightrope during their delivery of the story, all the required components, while also sharing fun personal anecdotes to break the ice and establish an emotional connection. Classic sales maneuver.

 From the salesman’s perspective, it is easy for the pitch to become repetitive. The wines usually only change a number (2020 Chardonnay to 2021), but the winemaking remains the same. Finally, boredom sets in, and it is time to head for the door. There is an incredibly high turnover in the tasting room biz, and this is why.

The ABCs (Always Be Closing’s) of Cellar Door

Some tasting rooms opt to call their staff “Wine Educators.” That’s bullshit. The investment into a state-of-the-art tasting room seems ridiculous business-wise if the goal is to do a public service and educate about wine. Associates spin their tales however they please and talk about wine as much as they want, but in the end, they MUST CLOSE. Closing may be as simple as getting your email- undoubtedly for a relentless digital campaign to get your money- or as complicated as a Wine Club, an agreement you sign that binds you to a certain amount of wines shipped to your door.

Whatever the goal is, it is essential to understand that the whole sublime experience you have just received with your host was a transaction. At the very least, you will walk out of the tasting room $20-60 poorer because that is the tasting fee. Maybe you can offset those fees with a wine purchase. Perhaps you can cancel all the immediate expenses by joining the Club (you’ll still pay later. You always have to pay…). You plan to return to Napa next year; wouldn’t it be nice to do so as a VIP? A good tasting room associate can make your expense feel like a benefit to you. You have done well enough to be able to go to a tasting in the Wine Country, and you deserve to splurge! The ability to close a sale or convert a wine club separates tasting room professionals from amateurs and those who live comfortably from those just scraping by.

The Perks

Before I spoil the image of a hospitality tradesman entirely, I would be remiss to mention that there are plenty of benefits to working in a winery’s tasting room. It is certainly more pleasant to work in a rustic-chic tasting room than- let’s say- on the floor of a sterile-looking, faux-futuristic neon-magenta cell phone dealership. (You know the one).

I speak from experience, of course.

The pay is always fair (sometimes even more than fair), and there is typically a very enticing, often uncapped commission structure. A successful winery salesperson can have a comfortable and financially lucrative career, and even a less-appt tasting room staffer can live way above their means. But who cares about the boring salary talk when there are so many more exciting perks to talk about

Free wine

Wine is not a rare commodity for the tasting room associate. Even the most esteemed wineries with the most expensive wines will give away bottles of wine every single day. Usually, the wineries will get rid of open bottles after 1-2 days. So who gets those wines? The tasting room associate, of course. The massive caveat to this perk is that you may become overwhelmed by all the wine offered or get tired of drinking the same X amount of wines produced by the winery. Usually, by the second month of employment, I rarely take open bottles because I have to pour them out at home.

Hefty discounts on bottles, merch, and tastings

Aside from the opened bottles to take home, there is also a hefty discount on unopened wine bottles. The value varies from winery to winery, but a  30-50% discount for wines and merch from your employer’s winery is commonplace (with outliers, of course. Some wines at my last hospitality job were not discounted at all, and you had to pay the total price). The discounts are not limited to your winery, as nearly all wineries (at least in California) honor trade tastings and discounts. It’s a cool communal equation, where you can go and taste wines for free at other wineries, get trade discounts, trade wines with other tasting room associates, and generally live a life of a wine country bon-vivant.

Event passes

Depending on the winery, there may be opportunities to attend fun and exciting events. But unfortunately, most of the tasting room associates are working on those events. Still, there are opportunities aplenty to expand personal worldview, meet interesting people, and go to places unknown as a part of a team working dinner parties, festivals, and other winery-related events.

Not to mention additional monetary/ wine perks at the end of the event.

Living in the Wine Country

Most tasting room hosts don’t live like kings but don’t live too terribly either. Although the salary is meager, the tips and commissions make up the difference. So while Napa and Sonoma rental prices are ludicrous, there are still reasonable areas and relatively affordable places to rent. Plus, living among the best wineries and restaurants is a perk…

Tip Your Fucking Host

I hate to say this, but tipping the tasting room associate is not optional. Many wineries don’t encourage gratuity. They follow French customs, where tipping is not customary.

The tasting room associate is your storyteller, bartender, guide, and- for however long your tasting experience lasts- your friend. A good host makes a personal connection and makes you feel better than when you first walked in. They deserve a few bucks thrown their way.

But not always.

 Here are the general gratuity rules in a tasting room:

  1. If the associate is absent, rude, or provides bad service, do not tip them.
  2. You don’t have to tip them if you sign up for a wine club. They get commissions on the Club. However, you can still tip them if you feel they deserve it and have done a great job. Also usually Wine Club commissions get heavily taxed, so a tip is still a greatly appreciated kindness.
  3. If there is no tip line, do not use that as an excuse not to tip. Have some cash. A smaller cash tip is better than a card tip because the tasting room associate doesn’t report cash tips. Legally they should, but that’s irrelevant to the discussion.
  4. Don’t justify your reason if you plan not to tip. Ten times out of ten, it is an awkward conversation that doesn’t help anyone…
  5. A tour or a private tasting means a bigger tip. The host spends extended periods with you, seeing to your every need. If they were doing faster, more impersonal bar-like tastings, they would have the possibility to make more money. Instead, they are with you. Be kind and tip.

I am even mentioning this because, for some reason, there isn’t a tipping culture in the tasting room environment. We know to tip our waiters, but not our tasting room hosts. The waiters have a far less significant role and interact far less with the customer. So give your tasting room host some love and a crisp $20 while you are at it. You are in Napa, so ball out.

And That Concludes The Tasting. Thank you for your visit

Check out some more stories from the life and culture of wine.

To find the a tasting room job (or any wine job) check out Winejobs.com

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