Confessions of a Wet Blanket

Pouring expensive tipples from behind a winery’s tasting room counter changes a person. To be more specific, it makes a person a big snob who is no fun at all. Not exactly a bartender – in fact, to be called a bartender is considered an insult – nor a sommelier, the attendant is paid peanuts to speak intelligently about the luxury product of vast, unsearchable mystery that is wine. In-n-Out Burger might pay better, but the wine tasting room attendant has the invaluable pleasure of merely appearing well-paid. Ha. Fooled you.

A couple from Texas visited the cellar door last week, immediately recognizable as Americans by the size of their friendly grins and the man’s cornea-burning bright white Court Classic tennis shoes, that wardrobe staple of the average 50+ year old man only available at Costco. An American myself, I was more than happy to serve them while talking about the motherland. I never “profile” people who come in to the tasting room by deducing their annual income and henceforth adjusting my investment of time and energy to make the sale. But from the sound of this couple’s cellar back home in Dallas, they were prime candidates to walk away with at least a case of our premium award-winning Marlborough wine.

I poured the first wine, a basic sauvignon blanc with passion fruit and pineapple notes that has never been known to offend anyone’s taste – nothing too stony, grassy, or harsh. The couple took their time swirling, sniffing, and listening to my practiced rhapsody on the character of the wine before them. After a few moments the woman lifted the glass and took a sip. Her face went from peaceful to horrified as she forced herself to swallow. “Ugh!” she yelped, “It’s really sweet!”

At this point I could have proceeded one of two ways. If I were in it for the money, with an income based on commission rather than the absolute bare minimum hourly wage, I could have simply agreed with her that the sauvignon blanc I’d poured was sweet and that I was horribly sorry; how, now that I knew her delicate palate, I would only pour dry wines for her and see how it went from there.

But I am not paid by commission, and perhaps I was a little cooked over the fact that I am expected to be a wine genius on the equivalent of eight measly US dollars per hour. I had also recently happened to see the rap sheet for this particular wine wherein the winemaker divulged that it was nearly bone dry with an undetectable-to-the-human-tongue 1.5 grams of residual sugar. More to the point, this woman was dead wrong, and I decided to help her gently in the right direction.

“Well ma’am,” I nudged, “it’s not actually sweet, but rather very fruit-forward. Most people confuse the fruitiness of a wine with sweetness. You’re not alone.”

This was the wrong way to proceed, obviously, from the looks of her giant, frightening Texas smile growing grotesquely tighter around the corners. “No,” she countered, rigidly, “that is definitely sweet. Too sweet for me. I only like dry wines. Haven’t you got anything drier than that?”

I gamely offered her the pinot noir, which has literally zero residual sugar, but she didn’t want a red wine because they are “too sweet.” (By now I was intrigued. Had she only ever had red wine at holy mass? Or in Lebanon?) After several more rejections of my suggestions, she opted for the late harvest Riesling, which was declared love at first sip. “Now that’s nice and fruity! And not too sweet, either,” she drawled. I bit my tongue and dutifully refrained from telling her that it contained a whopping 215 grams of residual sugar as she whipped out the Visa to purchase a case of the stuff to ship home to her sprawling cellar. Clearly the concept of a “late harvest” wine – wherein the grapes are left on the vine for an additional 6 weeks or so to ripen and grow sweeter for the makings of dessert wine – hadn’t quite hit home yet.

Now, here’s the thing: I didn’t use to care about this stuff. Just a few years ago, such reactions from customers wouldn’t have caused my skin to crawl. In fact, I might have gone so far as to agree with them, if for no other reason than just to have a good time. But somewhere along the path, my good-natured curiosity about the fermented juice of crushed grapes became a death-gripping, spellbinding, bare-behind-spanking fixation. I needed to know more. I needed to taste more. And the more I knew and tasted, the more I needed to know and taste.

The death knell for any remaining shred of normalcy came when I took an intensive weekend wine course in Los Angeles: two days, 65 wines from around the world, and one massive, terrifying final exam. That weekend marks the first time I’d ever tasted a premier cru red Burgundy, a German Kabinett Riesling or a Marlborough sauvignon blanc. After slurping California cabs and chardonnays like a zombie up until that point, the shock of flavors and aromas outside my usual repertoire was…well, shocking. Prunes, kerosene, strawberries, fresh cut grass, cinnamon, green apple, paraffin wax, vanilla, sweet tobacco, flint, straw and coconut were all living inside these wines, changing and growing with every day they remained in the bottle, with every minute they swam around in my glass.

I was a beast that weekend, devouring the textbook and savoring every moment of wine-nerdtastic ecstasy. I even showed up early for class, something I’d never done in my entire life. Come examination time, I was over-prepared and finished in 15 minutes of the 60 minutes allotted. I passed with distinction and ravenously enrolled for the advanced class. 3,000 flash cards and 12 torturous weeks of studying later, I also passed that exam, this time with merit.

But whereas the old adage that knowledge is power applies to most situations, with wine, it is purgatory. Friends stopped calling after the time I tried to explain French wine law over lunch. I was paraded at parties as “the expert” and squeezed for information and opinion, only to find myself rattling on about malolactic fermentation to some poor solitary soul looking for the nearest exit. Like one of Charles Xavier’s mutants, I looked into the mirror and asked my reflection in a shaky whisper, “What’s happening to me?”

That question has led me through vineyards, cellars, shops and festivals across the world to employment in this tasting room in Marlborough, New Zealand, where the best sauvignon blanc in the world is produced, hands down. This is white wine country, a fact with which I quickly realize many visitors are unacquainted. I chalk it up to globalization and the phenomenon of the internet that travelers walk in and assume we have a wine to suit their every whim. But we simply don’t. Due to climate and soil conditions, you just won’t find a muscular, inky shiraz or cabernet sauvignon in the Marlborough valley. It is, however, ideally suited for extravagantly fruity sauvignon blanc, Riesling, gewürztraminer and chardonnay. Most wineries also manage to offer a bit of cool-climate pinot noir, the saving grace for those who visit in pursuit of red wine. Otherwise, it is white, white, white.

A leathery-skinned Australian man sauntered into the tasting room and sidled up to the counter in such a way as to suggest he planned to remain there for a while. I pulled a tasting glass down from the rack and before I could so much as greet him, he demanded our biggest, darkest red wine. With an introduction like that, I couldn’t help but stereotype him as a Foster’s commercial or Crocodile Dundee.

“Well, sir, we have one very elegant pinot noir on offer, but I’m afraid the conditions in Marlborough just aren’t appropriate for producing deeply-colored red wines like yours in Australia.”

He sighed with what sounded like disgust through his teeth. Apparently “elegant” was not the correct word choice for selling him on the pinot. “Yeah, alright,” he muttered and pushed his glass forward. I poured and marveled at the rich velvety color, smelling it’s distinct aroma even from arm’s length. Crocodile Hunter tipped his head back and gulped the entire pour without so much as a sniff or a swirl. After a beat, his face turned sour, as though he had just drunk from the toilet. “Agh!” he gasped, “It’s like manure! How can you people drink this stuff?”

All of my training and fancy explanations were of no use in such a situation. I had to cut my losses and offer a lame “To each his own!” as he walked out the door, grimacing.

Interestingly, the bow-legged Aussie cowboy made a keen observation: good pinot noir smells like poo. That is one of its most distinct qualities, though the euphemism “earthy” is more generally employed when attempting to make a sale. (”Poo wine for you, sir?”) For me personally, the more barnyard in my pinot the better. I also like cat pee in my sauvignon blancs and gasoline in my Rieslings – and, I’ll have you know, I’m not alone. There is an enormous club of wine-lovers that has emerged from the shadows singing We want the funk, gotta have that funk. (In fact, a recent study of wine tasting notes across the world revealed that the most common descriptor is “funky.”) Despite whatever good company I may find myself in, though, a penchant for offensive odors in wine can hardly be described as sane.

Obviously, the winery doesn’t pay me to sell only the wines for which I have a personal fondness, but rather to sell all of the wines. There are one or two that I pour for customers but would never drink myself, so when Joe Wine-Taster asks what I think about it, I lie. “Mmmmm, a gewürztraminer that tastes like soap, mmmmmm – can’t get enough!” or ” Yes, I like sawdusty chardonnays too!” It is difficult not to sound like a parrot in these situations, saying the same thing about the same wine so many times each day. “[croaking] Raaaah! Floral and lychee! Raaah! Good with Asian food!”

My insanity would surely be further progressed if it weren’t for Jeanne with me in the tasting room. Jeanne is a woman in her late 50s who has dealt with thousands of customers over her several years here at the winery. She certainly knows her stuff, but doesn’t show off or get caught up in heated debates over the use of French vs. American oak. She simply pours the wine and announces the grape. “I used to talk about the wine,” she says, “but now I just can’t stand to hear myself say the spiel over and over again. Besides, no one cares. They just want the wine, not the trivia.”

Jeanne is one of many middle-aged women in Marlborough who form the veteran cellar door attendant community. I am but a loud and proud newbie sporting a good-sized chip on my shoulder, but women like Jeanne have been pouring since the first commercial tasting rooms sprouted up 25 years ago. They all know each other, having shuffled through employment in a handful of cellar doors; several are married to cellar hands and vineyard managers, and most have even worked in the vines at one time or another. They are hard-boiled, practical and a wealth of knowledge on the history of the Marlborough region. And by that I mean they are horrible, incorrigible gossips.

Though I have yet to see it with my own eyes, I am told that there is a blog written by a mole from within the Marlborough cellar door community reporting on only the pettiest and most trifling of goings-on in the valley. Jeanne, of course, is a faithful reader. She comes to work one day in an uncommon tizzy over the blog’s reference to her lack of punctuality in opening the tasting room each day. “I can ‘t believe someone is out there spying on me in the hopes of catching me arriving late!” she fumes. Apparently the blogger has also attacked Jeanne’s friend who works behind the counter at a different winery for wearing too much make-up and yet another friend for having an annoying laugh. I shudder to think what might possibly be written about me. Clearly, anyone who believes that technology is a civilizing force on the world has yet to read the Marlborough Cellar Door Community blog.

One day Jeanne was on her lunch break while I held down the fort. A cheerful couple in their late forties entered with three young boys and asked to do a full tasting. I pulled two glasses down for them and poured a beautiful salmon-colored sparkling rosé, smiling at the intent gaze of the boys’ eyes just above counter level. I explained to the parents that the distinct pigment of this rosé was a result of pinot noir grapes left to soak on their crushed skins for 24 hours. They took their glasses and the mother turned to face the boys.

“So this is a PINK wine because of CONTACT with GRAPE skins,” she said in a sing-songy, school-marmish voice. “Now, who wants the first sip?” And before I knew it, she was handing her glass to the youngest, only 8 years old. He held the stem of the glass rather than the tulip – betraying proficiency in correct tasting methods – and proceeded to chug its contents like Hawaiian Punch at halftime.

“Tasty!” he said, smacking his lips and handing the empty glass back to his mother who fake-scolded him for guzzling all the bubbly. “I’m sorry, miss,” she asked, “may we have another pour? My youngest seems to have misunderstood the nature of wine-tasting.”

For a split-second, I was completely lost. In the States, parents are frowned-upon for dragging their poor, bored children beyond the threshold of the tasting room, but in New Zealand, a minor’s consumption of alcohol is completely at the parents’ discretion. By law, though a tasting room attendant is not legally allowed to hand a glass of alcohol to anyone under 18 years of age, it is legal for a parent to hand their own glass of alcohol to a child in the attendant’s presence.

It took a moment for me to remember this. “Of course you may,” I deferred to the smiling mother and proceeded to pour more sparkling rosé in her glass. The other boys received their sips, and I assumed we were all done with the educational, pre-pubescent wine-tasting class. Good for them, I thought, I wish I’d had a head-start developing my palate at the tender age of eight!

I noticed that dad had long since enjoyed his rosé and was itching for round two. “Next up,” I rattled on, “is a sauvignon blanc, for which Marlborough is world-renowned.” I poured for mom, and to my surprise, she was once again handing her glass over to the 8-year-old. “Slowly this time, William.”

“Tasty!” he grinned, looking at another empty glass with slightly drooping eyes, perhaps already feeling the effects of the pink bubbly.

“William!” mother rebuked, this time allowing a bawdy chuckle to escape. I got an uneasy feeling as she looked imploringly in my direction to repeat the generous double-pour. Dad, I saw, had once again enjoyed the full contents of his own glass in no time without sharing a smidge.

Ten wines, ten “Tasty!”s, and thirty pours later, the kids were bombed. Mom and dad were none too fresh, either, their feeble attempts to explain the function of sulfites interrupted by arm farts and quotes from Spiderman 3. When the last drop of late harvest Riesling was finally slurped down, the parents thanked me for a “wonjurfel ejucashional essperience.” All five of them zig-zagged out the door into the parking lot and I overheard one of the boys ask which winery was next. I cringed at the sound of their engine starting.

Perhaps I cringed most because I saw in those whacko parents my own future as a whacko parent; so enraptured by the wine and the imparting of wine-appreciation that all discretion and/or logic goes swirling down the spittoon. Jeanne came back from her lunch break and I gave her all the gory details.

“So the children liked the wine, then?” she asked, after giggling a good bit.

But to this question I had no easy answer. Was it the wine or the booze that the children liked? The art or the alcohol?

And what about me? Am I making a bigger deal about the wine than it deserves? Is it really the nectar of the gods or simply the result of an inevitable chemical reaction? Is it a gift from above or merely a stronger strain of cough syrup?

In the end, I suspect, it’s probably a bit of both. Arguably the richest, wisest and most handsome man in history, King Solomon, wrote in Proverbs that “wine gladdens the heart.” As king, he had access to the finest wine available and his heart was surely gladdened by a number of fastidiously-crafted elixirs. I illogically picture him drinking a 1997 Brunello di Montalcino from an enormous crystal Riedel glass, savoring the dusty, rose-petal perfume and soft velvety texture from his balcony overlooking Jerusalem. Whose heart wouldn’t be glad with that? Practically speaking, though, he probably welcomed that 5:00 PM glass for more than just its garnet hue and soft tannins. It ain’t easy being king, after all.

To decant or not to decant? Which is the best Rioja to serve with paella? Was the screw cap wielded in the depths of hell or is it the savior of modern wine? There are infinitely more important questions to answer in life, but few that bring such limitless fascination and joy. So that is precisely what I decide to pursue in the tasting room: fascination and joy. Mrs. Dallas thinks the late harvest Riesling is dry. Mr. Australia only likes shiraz. Mommy Dearest lacks discretion and lets her child get tanked on the good stuff. So long as they’re engaged and happy, I suppose I’ve done my job.

Now pass the poo wine, already.

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