Our terrible experience at a nameless Livermore winery

I hate slamming wineries on the Internet. I really do. But our first tasting in Livermore was, without a doubt, the worst wine tasting experience we’ve had in the entirety of the Appellation Trail project.

Every time we go out tasting, Mike and I wonder whether the tasting room experience affects our palates. Our experience at this Livermore winery suggests it does, and it certainly affects our likelihood to buy. While I won’t name the winery in question, I think it’s worthwhile to detail the factors that made this our ultimate terrible tasting experience.

Anatomy Of a Terrible Tasting Experience

From the outset, it seemed like the tasting room associate who served us (let’s call him Grump) really wished we were somewhere else. Grump seemed to wish he was somewhere else, too, rather than pouring wine. Grump treated the few other customers in the tasting room with equal dislike, so at least we know it wasn’t just us. The other tasting room staffers we saw seemed to share the same malaise, save for one associate who was working a bachelorette party on the patio.

I understand when a staffer is curt because they are slammed, but when we started tasting there were four tasting associates and only two couples in the large tasting room, which is a one-to-one ratio of staff and clients. The staff, however, more often than not had their backs turned or adopted a 20-yard stare and wouldn’t make eye contact with customers. When a third couple came in another staffer reluctantly poured for them; the other two staffers continued to ignore the customers.

Early on in our tasting Grump poured Mike’s wine and took the bottle away before Mike had the chance to take notes. We politely said, “Excuse me, sir.” He looked at us but when we began to ask if we could see the bottle he simply turned and walked away, ignoring us. We said “Excuse me,” again, trying to get Grump’s attention.

It is unlikely that the issue was that we were too quiet. Anyone who knows me can tell you: I’m not quiet. I have one of those voices that is politely described as “carrying.” I grew up in a loud family and one of my biggest problems in life is bringing my volume of speech down to normal human levels. Mike spent years in theater and knows how to make his unamplified voice heard over large distances.

Other staffers also clearly heard us – they looked up and made eye contact, then shrugged and looked away. When the couple tasting next to us prompted Grump, pointing out that we had a question (probably because they were tired of our ever-louder “Excuse me!”s) Grump looked over and gave us an annoyed “wait a minute” gesture with an attitude that clearly conveyed the extra message “You are not a prority.” When he brought the bottle back for us to look at, he treated it as if it was a burden and he was doing us a special favor.

Grump did converse with the couple tasting next to us, but what started as his diatribe about how people don’t know how to swirl wine properly became, out of the blue and apropos of nothing, a monolog forcefully expressing his political views. It was clear from their evident discomfort and lack of eye contact that the couple either didn’t agree with Grump’s politics, or perhaps they just didn’t enjoy being bombarded with politics when they were out trying to relax and enjoy themselves. Though we could read their body language loud and clear, Grump didn’t seem to notice, and it looked to me like he lost a sale out of it.

I took many notes on the wines I tasted, but I feel that any write-up I would do of the wines would not be giving them a fair shake. I felt so unwelcome that I think it literally left a bad taste in my mouth; all of the wines tasted flavorless and bland to me. Mike felt the wines were agreeable but not memorable, but his most emphatic tasting note is “DID NOT FEEL WELCOME.” Given the attitude in the tasting room he says it’s unlikely he will be giving them another try. We both agree that our experience was overshadowed by the generally unfriendly air of the tasting room. It felt very much like an impersonal corporate entity providing poor customer service because the employees have no stake in the company mission, and the executives and managers have failed to set appropriate expectations for the staff.

Tasting Rooms, Beware

If someone has a negative experience like we did, they might post it on Yelp – or they might just tell all their friends coming to your area to stay away. I plan to send an email to the winery in question because I think it’s only fair, but I don’t foresee myself going back and I have no desire to ever buy their wine.

If you can’t afford to hire a secret shopper, find a friend or relative that’s not known to your tasting room staff and send them in to do a covert wine tasting operation. You might be surprised, and not in a good way, by what you find.

Our progress: Two months, 16 appellations. Wait, WHAT?

When we first conceived this project back in November and December, we originally thought we’d visit 20 wine appellations. Then we decided to stretch ourselves and try for 40. We added a clause stating that “we can only count Monterey County appellations if it’s December and we’re desperate” because, frankly, we thought we’d need it.

As of February 28, to our surprise, we discovered we’re already 40% of the way there.

If we’d really done our research, we probably wouldn’t have been so surprised. There are easily over 60 AVAs within a five-hour drive of Monterey, and that’s not even including the AVAs within Monterey County! It seems that everywhere there’s a bit of land in California, someone is planting vineyards, and someone else is demanding that the wine region be split into ever-smaller appellations.

A key trip in reaching this total was our visit to Lodi. We actually expected to rack up more AVAs in Lodi than we did. In 2006, the Alcohol Trade and Tax Bureau approved seven sub-appellations for Lodi. However, much to my surprise (and possibly Mike’s), most wineries seem to be sticking with the overarching Lodi AVA for now.

We’re not going to get cocky just yet. We may not be able to visit any wineries in March at all, as I’m on the road for a couple of conferences — and, unfortunately, have not been able to add any wine-tasting trips onto the end of those excursions. But now the question becomes: if we achieve our goal with months to spare, what do we do next? See how many appellations we can achieve? Pick one appellation and try to drink every wine within it? Switch to beer?

We’re going on a Southern Central Coast wine road trip! Got any tips?

It’s time for our first — but hopefully not last — wine road trip!

On our upcoming wine road trip we will be visiting:

  • Paso Robles. Paso was our first stop on our very first vacation together, all those years ago. Our visit to Paso gave us the first inkling that our relationship would actually be a threesome: me, Mike, and wine.
  • The wine country around San Luis Obispo (Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande Valley).
  • Santa Maria wineries. We know nothing about these other than that they’re on the Wine Country This Week map.
  • Santa Rita Hills and Santa Ynez Valley, around Solvang, Buellton and Los Olivos. These were the wine areas that were heavily featured in that I’m-mystified-at-its-popularity film, Sideways.

Clearly, this will be one epic wine-tasting road trip!

However, we’re going in blind to this adventure. Once we get south of Paso, our familiarity with what the region has to offer extends solely to the Firestone Walker Brewery in Buellton and the exits off the 101 that have In ‘n Outs. (For the record: Cathedral Oaks exit at Goleta, South Bradley Road at Santa Maria, San Anselmo Road at Atascadero.) And we’re sure that Paso has changed as well; it’s been over a year since the two of us have been there together.

Have you been? Do you live there? Do you make wine there? Do you love the area? Where should we go? What should we taste? Give us your recommendations!

Got a Long Island winery recommendation for us?

We’re going wine tasting on Long Island! We’ll soon be taking a trip to New York City and have decided to work in a wine-tasting jaunt with friends.

There’s many tasting options on Long Island. As far as I can tell from the handy Long Island Wine Country site, there are four wineries in the Hamptons AVA on the south fork, and about a bajillion in the North Fork of Long Island AVA, which is about where the appellation name says it is.

The last time I was wine-tasting on Long Island was in 1999. I remember that I went to Channing Daughters and Wölffer Estate. If I remember rightly, I bought jam made from wine grapes at Channing Daughters and a bottle of verjus at Wölffer Estate. Verjus is the unfermented juice of the grape, and boy, was my boyfriend at the time furious when he learned I’d bought something with no alcohol in it! I was overawed by the whole wine-tasting experience.

Those wineries still look intriguing (Channing Daughters especially). I’d like to see what they’re like eleven years on and see if I’m as intimidated now as I was then. But I’m also well aware that it’s nearly an hour drive from these wineries to the wineries on the North Fork. It just doesn’t seem fair to make my companions sit in the car that long just to satisfy my curiosity.

So, valued readers, have you gone tasting at Long Island’s North Fork wineries? Which ones do you recommend?