Tales from the tasting room
The experience of a Yamhill Valley wine tasting goes far beyond the carefully crafted vintage in the glass. Great wine goes a long way to a great tasting, but the bulk of the experience is crafted not by the winemaker, but by the wine’s server — the tasting room manager.
The person who runs the tasting room is the winery’s most direct link between the people producing wine and the people who consume it. Thus, not only does the manager need a passion for wine, but a passion for people as well.
“It’s the people, talking to people from all over the world," explains Kate Crowe, tasting room manager at Bethel Heights Vineyard south of Amity. “For me, it’s that interaction with the people, getting to learn about where they’re from, who they are, what their likes are in terms of wine and things like that.”
Crowe grew up next to the winery, and her interest in wine combined with her proximity to the vineyard afforded her quite the opportunity in 1995, when she was hired to run the winery’s small tasting room.
“The family was looking for someone to step in and handle the tasting room on weekends. As many of the wineries did back then, they hired neighbors and friends. I happened to be available, so I stepped into that role, and I’ve gotten to grow with them,” Crowe said. “People are often surprised that I stuck with it that long. It’s a wonderful industry to be in and I’ve gotten to grow up with it. It’s been fun.”
Most come from farther away than down the block; Crowe estimates that a sizable portion of local tasting room staffs are from other states. Kevin MacDormand, now tasting room manager at Willamette Valley Vineyards’ McMinnville location, moved all the way from Florida to escape the burnout of the restaurant business.
“My background is in restaurants and hotels, where I had quite a bit of experience in putting together wine lists,” he said. “I had wanted to move to Oregon, specifically to be in the wine industry.”
Some traveled even farther. Jacques Rendu, direct sales manager for Coeur de Terre Vineyards outside McMinnville, was born in the original wine country — France.
“I grew up around wine, and I am really attached to that notion of sharing a good wine, sharing an experience and making sure others get confidence and enjoy it, Rendu said. “Everyone wants to be a wine maker, but a lot of people are shying away from the tasting room because it’s hard; you are constantly dealing with customers.”
That customer connection is what drives each of these tasting room heads.
“It’s all about hospitality. It’s about customer service,” MacDormand said. “It’s not always about the product you’re selling; it’s about the people and the stories behind the product.”
Though MacDormand says he spends about three-fourths of his time with guests, there’s a lot more to the job then pouring wine and chatting with people.
“There’s a lot of mundane details: processing paperwork and managing staff and payroll,” he said. “I do the social media aspect of the tasting room, I handle a lot of the advertizing.”
Sometimes those behind-the-scenes duties are much more then administrative.
“Being a very small operation, there’s lots of things that people don’t realize a tasting manager does, like cleaning the bathrooms in the morning,” Crowe explains. “I do a lot of packing. Cleaning, sweeping, dead-heading flowers on the deck; there’s lots of things people might not think of as tasting manager duties. People think it’s a glamorous job.” “I may have to mop my floor because there’s no cleaning service coming to the winery. I may have to wash the dishes. There may be an event coming. I may have to water the plants,” Rendu adds. “It doesn’t quite stop. You can’t predict how the day is.”
Rendu explains that you also can’t anticipate the people who come in. Coeur de Terre’s tasting room is located at the far end of a mile-long gravel road southwest of McMinnville and midway up the imposing hill on which the vineyard sits. So when Rendu saw a pair of bicyclists walk in, he was a little surprised.
“They rode their bikes all the way up to the tasting room, up our gravel road. They were on their way to the coast,” he said. “We talked and they decided to buy a bottle of wine. They sent me a picture of the food, of them with their kids, and they said ‘That wine was fabulous.’”
“On the other end,” Rendu continued, “I had a customer who had a very important business customer, and he wanted a pinot noir recommendation. They were from California, and he wanted to show them a great Oregon pinot noir. He went on my recommendation, it was on the phone. He emailed me and said ‘I think they really liked the wine. They were so impressed.’ The funny thing is; I received a call two weeks later, and it was these people who were impressed by the wine. These experiences, they’re kind of little, but it’s fabulous. It’s these personal connections you established.”
Tasting room managers make those connections not somply with their customers, but with one another. There are a seemingly boundless number of wineries and vineyards in the area, but the community of people that run them is fairly close knit. Crowe explained that, a decade ago, tasting room managers in Oregon started a professional network amongst themselves.
“It was new, it was innovative, California had nothing like it,” she said. However, “with all of our busy schedules, sometimes it was really hard to get meetings together.” The old network was replaced by the Industry Tasting Collective, which includes tasting room employees at all levels who meet at a rotating host winery each Thursday morning.
“It’s always fun to be able to exchange stories,” MacDormand said.
The mutual familiarity among tasting room staff isn’t just for fun — it’s also good for business. MacDormand said that he will frequently guide his guests to other tasting rooms in the area, and those facilities will return the favor. Thus the flow of customers moves from winery to winery, leading to more of the kinds of experiences and stories that tasting room managers are looking for — as well as more sales.
“I think it’s a really cooperative environment here with the tasting rooms in McMinnville,” MacDormand said.