What Really Goes Down in a Wine Tasting Room
MORE THAN a quarter million wine lovers visit Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville, Wash., each year. Quite a few of them take the free tour of the winery, one of the best-known in the country as well as the oldest and largest in Washington state. Some take the tour to learn a little bit about wine production, grape growing and the history of winemaking in Washington, while others do so for the free wine.
The tour is one of the most important features at Chateau Ste. Michelle, according toJoan Fennell, who is in charge of training new tasting-room hires, aka guest services representatives. A former high-school English teacher, she has worked part time at the chateau for over 16 years and is clearly passionate about the place and position.
Ms. Fennell is both admired and feared by her co-workers—admired for her dedication to the chateau and feared for the high standards she holds for her charges. Ms. Fennell has taken guest services reps off tour duty for “not knowing what they’re talking about, talking too fast or not interacting with guests,” she said.
There are currently 69 part-time guest services representatives, and about 30 more are added to their ranks each summer. Every one of them must take three days of training, and “everyone has to give a wine tour,” said Ms. Fennell.
I spent the larger part of a recent weekend with Ms. Fennell and other Chateau Ste. Michelle tasting-room personnel. Although I’ve visited countless tasting rooms all over the world, like most oenophiles, I’d never given much thought to what happens behind the scenes. Chateau Ste. Michelle seemed like a pretty good place to find out more.
The winery is the only one in Washington with a sizable piece of real estate (105 acres) on the western side of the state. Nearly all Washington vineyards—including those owned by Chateau Ste. Michelle—are located in the eastern part of the state, where it is so dry it’s almost arid. The west, where Woodinville is located, half an hour north of Seattle, is considered too rainy for growing grapes. This, by the way, is one of the tour talking points.
There are quite a few talking points in the three-page memo that all employees are expected to memorize, starting with the five tour objectives: “telling the Chateau St. Michelle story,” educating visitors about the state, creating “fond memories,” entertaining visitors and creating future “ambassadors” for the brand.
It’s important that tasting-room personnel do a good job because “we’re the only show in town,” Ms. Fennell said, meaning that because the winery is Woodinville’s largest and best-known, it may also be the only one visitors see. The town has other tasting rooms and wineries, but many are small operations run by the winemakers themselves.
While Chateau Ste. Michelle is the oldest winery in the state, “old” is a relative term. Even the actual French-style chateau of Chateau Ste. Michelle was built only four decades ago, when the winery’s name was officially changed to Chateau Ste. Michelle from Ste. Michelle Vintners (founded in 1967) The estate, however, dates back to the early 20th century, when it was part of Hollywood Farms, a large dairy operation founded byFrederick Stimson, a former lumber baron.
Every tour starts with a look at a photograph of the old farm, which was named “for the holly trees—not because of any association with Hollywood, California,” I learned from one tour guide.
That wasn’t an official talking point but Ms. Fennell likes guides to personalize the tour—as long as they keep the group moving along. Winery tours, each limited to 28 people, are offered on the half-hour. You can’t make reservations for the public tours; it’s first come, first served, and there can be a long wait on a busy day. Visitors may arrange a private tour for a fee.
While we trailed behind Daniel, a guide conducting his first tour, Ms. Fennell noted some particularly important facts every tour should include. She asks guides to mention several features of the bottling line, such as the recycled cardboard boxes and the “orbiter” that shoots nitrogen into each bottle. Vineyard names must be memorized, as well as their locations and soils. Did I know about the land-shaping Ice Age Missoula Floods? Ms. Fennell asked. A little, I replied. “It’s very important,” she said in a reproving tone.
Also noted on the tour are the chateau’s two partnerships, the first with German winemaker Ernst Loosen to create Eroica, and the second with the Antinori family of Tuscany to produce Col Solare wines. Additional points of interest include the Wall of Pride, where high-scoring wines are noted; and the Summer Concert Series, featuring musicians like Lyle Lovett and Sheryl Crow.
Ms. Fennell told me that although some employees were nervous when she showed up during their tours, she needed to make sure they recalled the finer details of the presentation. For example, Daniel forgot to explain to his group why guests didn’t rinse their glasses with water between tastings, even though the wines—a Chardonnay, Merlot and Muscat Canelli—alternated between white and red. “He should have explained [that] the water dilutes the wine and that our water is heavily chlorinated,” said Ms. Fennell. On the other hand, Daniel checked everyone’s ID before serving the wine (a legal requirement) and showed the group what the sweet wine looks like without the tint of Merlot in their glasses. This earned two words of praise from Ms. Fennell: “Good boy.”
By the end of the day I decided I wanted to lead a tour of my own. The winery visitors seemed to enjoy it so much, perhaps I could add to their appreciation of and interest in Washington wines—even if I didn’t remember to note the role of the orbiter. Before Ms. Fennell left for the day, I told her I’d like to give it a try and she made the arrangements with her colleague Mary Kae Lindsey, who would be there the next day.
Sunday was comparatively quiet; the Seahawks were playing at home in Seattle. Ms. Lindsey, who has a more relaxed view of the tours than Ms. Fennell, told me I should worry less about the talking points and concentrate on making it fun. For many visitors, it might be their very first winery visit. They want to learn a little—“give them a few tools,” as Ms. Lindsey put it—but mostly they want to have a good time and drink some wine.
My group was large, almost 30 people, and I was mindful of moving them along. I probably lingered too long over the black-and-white photos of the old farm, but I made up the time by breezing past the Wall of Fame. (Who wants to look at a bunch of numerical scores anyway?) Although I mentioned the difference in weather between eastern and western Washington state—the scant rainfall in the former—I forgot to talk about the Missoula Floods. On the other hand, I did remember to explain to my group why rinsing their glasses with water was a bad idea. The crowd seemed to enjoy the wines, and even asked me a few questions.
Had they been entertained, educated and turned into ambassadors for the brand? Only time, or Ms. Fennell, could tell.
Teague, L. (2015, October 8). What Really Goes Down in a Wine tasting Room. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved http://www.wsj.com/articles/what-really-goes-down-in-a-wine-tasting-room-1444316898