AKA Hitchcockian Wine Horror
Hospitality horrors are not hard to come by, especially in an environment such as a winery tasting room. As patrons assail the wineries, looking to have a good time and taste wines, the opportunities for disaster are endless. However, the stories usually revolve around an obnoxiously drunken patron, an accidental spittoon spill, or an uncomfortable interaction. This story, however, is about nature’s unique and sometimes ironic part in wine hospitality.
Aside from an occasional vineyard tour, the tasting room worker is generally spared the nuances of the natural ecosystem. Yet sometimes, nature “finds a way” from the vineyard and into the tasting room. And occasionally, it is a recreation of an iconic 1963 film.
Setting The Scene
A solitary tasting room stands in the sleepy, foggy town of Bodega Bay. Approximately 13 miles from the closest winery inland, this facility is one of the few tasting rooms along the California Coast and the only one within walking distance of the ocean in the North Bay. Truthfully, the location isn’t the most picturesque, separated from the waters by a road and a couple of electrical poles. The closest restaurant is a dinky hot dog shop with a large sign “HOT DOGS HERE.”
During the weekdays, the tasting room is quiet, only occasionally being visited by boisterous locals and fans of “The Birds” film, who have made their obligatory visit to the Potter School in the inland town of Bodega and are on their way to “The Birds Café.”
However, on the weekend, droves of city dwellers from nearby San Francisco and (slightly further) Sacramento descend upon the tasting room after their morning and afternoon trips to one of the many beautiful beaches and hiking trails. As a result, the tasting room becomes a veritable madhouse, pouring wine into goblet-size Pinot Noir glassware and loud, boisterous chatter amongst the happy and drunk patrons.
The First Act
Sometime at the beginning of May 2017, I became a temporary manager of this facility, relieving the current manager for a week-long vacation.
The forecast promised a windy, overcast week and a sunny-but-windy weekend. The wind wasn’t ideal for the tasting room patrons who preferred to sit outside. Therefore, the visitor turnout would be low, and there would be less work. Ideal conditions.
As the week began, my colleagues heard birds hanging out on the rooftop. These funny critters would make high pitch screams that occasionally caught our patrons off-guard. Later, we noticed these birds engage in aerial duels with various predatory birds. It was quite a sight, watching two small birds work in tandem to harass a raptor in midair.
Then it happened.
After putting out the cushions for daily patio tastings, a colleague came inside the tasting room with wide-open eyes. “One of the birds just hit me!” he exclaimed. He was holding the back of his head, feeling a minor discomfort. There was no blood, and the birds were too small to cause much damage. Yet there was now a sense of anxiety in the tasting room. The staff, fully aware of the situation, began to tread lightly around the outside patio and in the parking lot, hoping to avoid any aerial bombardment.
Although our tightly knit staff of three wine professionals was aware of the bird problem, we knew the customers would be in for a surprise. As the weekend approached, more and more people began feeling the wrath of the small black birds. A couple got chased off the patio as the birds would float a few feet above them and then go in for the dive. A few times, a bird would intentionally hit the sliding glass door leading to the patio as a warning that the area was off-limits.
Then the wind picked up. And the birds got more aggressive.
The blackbirds were no longer just interested in defending the patio. Instead, they took turns systematically bombarding anyone who would be walking through the parking lot to the tasting room. As the wind blew from the ocean, the customers would first get assailed by the gust. Then, if they weathered the storm long enough to proceed towards the tasting room, one of the two birds would come down on them with a vengeance. Once the guests managed to enter the tasting room, they were disgruntled and disheveled, with wind-blown hair, demanding that we do something about the pests.
Beware of the Birds
After one particularly nasty incident, when a person who got out of their car got hit by a gust of wind and then twice by the birds, something had to be done. A colleague suggested:
“We should put out a sign.”
There was no poster board, magic markers, just a printer and the most prominent font Word could put on the page. The sign said, “Beware of the Birds.” The bravest of us ran outside and taped it up. We also put up some caution tape. Unfortunately, the caution tape blew off with the first gust of wind, and the small paper sign was not apparent enough to head. So the birds continued to bombard. We joked that even if people had noticed the “Beware of The Birds” sign, they would have thought it a reference to the iconic Hitchcock movie filmed in the area. We stood at the bar, eyes fixated on the parking lot. When will the subsequent death from above come? And who will be the unfortunate victim to miss the small paper sign waving in the wind.
We assumed the birds had a nest in the bushes outside the patio. None of us were brave enough to look, fearing a million pecks. At one point, the husband of one of the associates (god bless his soul), a hardened Sonoma Coast naturalist, clad in a hockey helmet and covering himself with our patio chair cushions, ventured out to find the nest. The two aggressive blackbirds hovered over him, taking turns pecking at his head and back while the amused tasting room staffers and visitors held their breath. After inspecting the nest, he concluded it was best to leave it be. Moving the nest could disrupt the habitat and could kill the offspring. That ended the conversation. The wind died down, and the birds were not so aggressive the following week. It must have been the peak of their mating season, but none of us were bird experts.
The birds in question were Brewer’s Blackbirds, native to coastal shrublands. I am in no way a bird expert, but this is what I used to research them. While it is said they get along well with humans, the two in this story were just concerned parents. I am sure we can all relate.
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