Since California’s winery tasting rooms are regular touch points for consumers and producers, these spaces also serve as arenas for the collision of buyer and seller agendas. I am not witness to tasting room protocols much since my meetings with farmers and winemakers usually happen in vineyards, cellars, homes, and restaurants. I got a fresh dose, though, as last week’s early October visit to Northern California’s wine producing regions rendered itself like a giant mural of buses, limos, large tasting groups, and busy road traffic hopscotching tasting rooms and lunch stops.
As I criss crossed Sonoma’s various appellations and clustered wineries, winemakers were busy with the vintage’s time sensitive harvest work of receiving fruit, staring at fermenting musts, measuring pH levels, testing sugars, shuttling juice between steel, wood and concrete, controlling temperatures, scheduling pump overs and more. Truckloads of grapes moved between vineyards and wineries. There was controlled freneticism punching the air.
Out in the wood trimmed tasting rooms, it could have been the wintertime preceding bud break. Oblivious to the urgent work hiding behind the curtains, wine curious visitors poured into tasting rooms to weigh decisions about ordinary tasting fees, premium tastings, private tours, enhanced tastings, barrel tastings, club memberships, premium club memberships, corkscrews, olive oils, tee shirts and baseball caps. Somewhere in that decision tree, there was even a chance to drink a little wine.
A colleague of mine and I were researching party venues for an upcoming event we will host near Santa Rosa. In the name of research, we crossed into a handful of tasting rooms. As we drove around I felt the urge to check back in on a couple of Sonoma wine producers that I discovered in the mid ’80s, B.R. Cohn and Chateau St. Jean, when I spent a lot more time in Napa Valley and Sonoma County. Those were the days when tastings were gifts of the proud winemaker, winemaking pioneers were eager to share their work, and barns served as front of the house venues. There was a romanticism to these visits that helped reel me into wine culture and made for relaxed and compelling moments. I remember finding a first bottle of 1991 Chateau St. Jean Cinq Cepages at a Long Island wine shop for $20 and thinking it could compete with great vintages of Pichon LaLande. I still recall the sumptuous 1984 B.R. Cohn Olive Hill Cabernet I tasted at the winery and subsequently bought a case that I nursed over fifteen years for less than $300.
Similar to being transported in a time capsule, it’s impossible not to notice how things have changed. Even before stepping into a tasting room, you can read warnings to consumers on how to behave , lamentations of grumpy winemakers on why consumers wont leave more money at their winery, and general tasting room survival guides. At both Chateau St. Jean and B.R. Cohn I realized I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. Actually, I was mauled and appalled by the tasting room staff. While I respect salespeople’s agendas almost all the time, the heavy handedness at both these wineries was sadly offensive.
I walked into both places curious about wineries I once respected; I had not tasted bottles in at least a half dozen years. I was even happy to pay my $20-$30 to taste, just to catch up on things. At both spots, the wineries’ agenda was to make me a club member, extracting recurring revenue out of me every month, quarter, and year. Wait, I just want to taste current release of Cinq Cepages and Olive Hill! At Chateau St. Jean, the salesperson (who had yet to offer a taste) started pitching the price of a three vintage box of Cinq Cepages, and how much cheaper it would be if I became a member. In the five minutes I spent with him trying to learn what has become of the Cinq Cepages brand, he mentioned the wine club at least six or seven times. Merchandise discounts, wine discounts, member only releases, party invites, steady access to Cinq Cepages. I told him I never join wine clubs…they just were not for me, and he looked at me like I was a spotted whale. He persisted. When I turned so uncomfortable and tried to get out of his grasp, he looked down his nose at me, dismissively asking “you mean you are going to come to the home of Cinq Cepages and leave without buying bottles or joining the club?” You betcha, buddy. I can buy that wine anywhere I want back home on the east coast, and you just ruined my visit and any lasting impression I ever had of Chateau St. Jean.
At B.R. Cohn, we walked into the empty tasting room and stepped up to the bar and decided on a premium tasting so I could check out the latest B.R Cohn Olive Hill. The pourer was a gentleman in his mid sixties that was bragging to his coworker in front of us that his last customer offered him a sales job at his company. I quickly found out why. After being force fed the spiel on Bruce Cohn’s management of the Doobie Brothers that I first heard in the mid 80’s and then having the wines I have yet to taste described to me in minute flavor detail before I could ever form my own opinion, the pitch for the club rolled out. It never ended. We forced the ending, but not before he gave us the application for the club and signed his name on the bottom so that if we called it in or went online that we would be sure to give him credit for the sale. Hey, all I want is a glass of Olive Hill. Instead, I spent 15 minutes playing goalie to defend my wallet and right to not drink B.R. Cohn mediocrity every month.
Making and selling wine is not easy business. What business is? The permission to offend curious visitors at a winery, making them feel compelled to pledge a club for life or else, can not be granted. Maybe it was the odd juxtaposition of my relaxed time with old and new winemaker and farmer friends against these commercially vicious and touristically unappealing tasting rooms that has me so exacerbated. It pains me that thousands of people visiting in one weekend will never really get to know what the underbelly of California wine culture looks and smells like. Instead their experiences resemble buying trips to the premium shopping mall, compelled to take something home to commemorate the experience. It’s just so sad.
Coming up: The brighter sides and reasons to fall in love with Northern California Wine