Stalked and Mauled in Sonoma Tasting Rooms

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.

Sonoma tasting roomOut 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 wineryand 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.

wine tasting roomI 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

  • Karen N Caruso

    Wow Adam – that is a real shame and as you said, very sad. As a frequent visitor to the Napa Valley, I have to say that I rarely experience what you described.

  • Timothy Whalen

    Beautifully written commentary. The sad part is that these pushy sales persons are driven by ownership that puts quantity of sale above quality of experience. I see this everywhere now. This is a great commentary on ownership anonymity. Might as well be at McDonalds asking if you want to supersize that.

  • http://drinkinsider.com Drink Insider

    Good article, as always, adam. I guess I rarely run into this side of Sonoma… by staying with the smaller producers. But, it’s there. I’d like to see wineries get more creative with the ways they engage and try to sell, rather than more pushy.

  • Audio Video Design

    Ha! I enjoyed this blog immensely. The good old days are gone in Napa and Sonoma. The real estate is just too expensive to have fun. And in general, only a tiny fraction of people visiting wineries are true connoisseurs. The majority are just out to have their definition of a nice day which almost always includes shopping. In the case of wine tours, it’s shopping with a buzz. As you know, Adam, ya gotta seek out the little places where there’s one or two people or even a family wearing a lot of hats and doing it for a pittance because they love the craft and the product. Brad

  • Andrew Witter

    As I know you know, this touched a nerve with me. Sad, sad story, but an explanation of what certain wineries now strive to achieve. Both, at one time, we’re two of my favorites, but that was when Sonoma was still, somewhat, undiscovered. Wait on to hear the bright side.

  • TJ Weyer

    Michele and I are heading out this Friday for our annual trip to Sonoma. Fortunately, we don’t run into what you did as often; which is why we love going to Sonoma. Certainly we get asked to join wine clubs (and we do belong to 2) but the overall experience has been far less unnerving than what you encountered. I hope that continues this trip…

  • Corinne Gail

    Sorry for your experience. After visiting the region a few years ago, I understand how you felt. It is sad that some have chosen those tactics, tacky at best.

  • awjapko

    Clearly the two examples I ran into are not 100% representative of the ways wineries face the public. Suggestions for more selective visits and for new ways to ask for the business that do not feel as creepy or overbearing make sense. I just think about the 50 or so people I saw in Chateau St. Jean and feel really bad for them.

  • Steve Heimoff

    That’s really sad. I would imagine the staff is only doing what they’re told to do, so you can’t really blame them.