Friday, April 26, 2013

They came; they were charged a tasting fee. They didn't like it, but they will be back.

On a recent visit to a nearby winery, a change in personnel resulted in a few customer service glitches. Because of this, I will withhold the name of this winery and only write about my experience. Unlike previous winery visits, where I would visit a winery as a novice wine taster, I approached this winery as an aspiring researcher. My goal was to fine tune a few skills in information gathering and to practice video taping. Although I was able to get a few good clips of footage, the experience of being on the inside of the operations of this particular winery were troubling.

The initial idea of this blog was to experience wine tasting on the other side of the tasting bar as an African American woman with several years of wine server experience.  It is obvious to anyone who frequents tasting rooms that people of color are rarely if ever seen working in tasting rooms. Having visited more than 245 wineries, I have only witnessed three African Americans working  as wine servers within the last year. Since that time, none of these individuals currently work in the tasting rooms where I observed them. With the recent exception of people of Asian descent, I have not seen any other easily identifiable peoples of other racial groups serving wine. I am not saying that they do not exist; there are more than 3400 wineries in California*.  I am only writing from personal observation.

On a recent visit to the aforementioned winery, I noticed that the tasting room had several new people working. I was pleased to see that two of the new people were of Asian decent. This was very positive as I am well aware that American wines, particularly California wines,  are fast becoming popular in China. Several wineries have recently forged strategic alliances with large Chinese companies to provide them with some of the best California wines. Having firsthand experience with a winery that is actively forging alliances, California wines will be prominently consumed on major airlines and enjoyed in the best restaurants in China.

Entering the winery, it was difficult not to notice that the atmosphere seemed heavy, and everyone in attendance seemed anxious. Unlike before, where this tasting room felt warm and inviting, the tension among those working was almost smothering. Incidentally, I only returned to do more research due to receiving a complaint from an associate that I had referred to this winery. When I entered the tasting room, those who were familiar with me were cordial. The two new people though, were suspicious, aloof and watched...yes, I said watched, every move that I made. Of the two, the person behind the tasting bar never acknowledged me, never offered wine and seemed to be frozen in place. The other repeatedly looked up from working at the computer to ear hustle every word spoken between the manager and myself. Perhaps being a new employees, there was some nervousness. However, observing from an adjacent corner of the shared tasting room, it was obvious that this person was more cordial to other customers...who were not people of color. Perhaps they were familiar with the people observed, but after 20 minutes and several waves of customers, this was most likely not the case.

The media has parodied the relationships between Asian business owners and African American's in movies such as Friday, and Don't be a Menace (to south central while drinking your juice in the hood).
Produced, and gleaned from personal experiences, by African American actors Shawn and Marlon Wayans, the films depict Asian business owners as being rude, suspicious and confrontational towards African American patrons. Having seen both films, I can acknowledge that the depictions were a bit over the top. However, in the past, I have a few personal experiences with these type of behaviors, thus, I do not believe that I was being overly sensitive to the treatment received from the new hires.

 To further understand this experience, I spoke on the condition of anonymity to someone who was familiar with the winery and who expressed concerns about the new hires. The racial identity of the new employees was not a concern of this person; it was their age. Both appeared to be in their early twenties, and that working hours for long term employees were being reduced to accommodate the new hires. With several years of experience in wine sales, customer service and hospitality, it appeared to this person that the more mature wine servers were being squeezed out in favor of younger employees.They also indicated that the new hires had no experience in wine sales that they were aware of, and little in the way of customer service.

Additional validation for a lack of customer service, came with a complaint from a group of people that I referred to the facility that this winery is located in. The group of people was comprised of African American's visiting from Sacramento and New Jersey. They reported to me that as they walked past the tasting room of this winery, they were accosted by a employee who lead them into the tasting room to taste wine. They were seated, and served cheese and crackers. After sampling most of the wines on the tasting list, they were coldly informed that they owed $20.00. This caught them off guard. Had they been informed that there would be a tasting fee beforehand,  they indicated that they may have elected to not visit this particular winery. However, after protesting the fee, they were still willing to buy wine. They paid the fee and bought a bottle of wine. (At some wineries, tasting fees are waived if a bottle is purchased. In this case, it was not)

In hindsight, one of the people in the group informed me that they felt that the person was probably new, but also added that they did not see anyone else paying a tasting fee. This annoyed them, as they had never wine tasted before and did not know that tasting fees are becoming a standard protocol. However, as they visited a few other tasting rooms nearby, they were informed before being served that there would be a tasting fee. (note: the group was not familiar with wine club member protocol; tasting fees  are usually waived. It is possible that some of the people observed not being charged a tasting fee may have been wine club members of the winery being visited) It should also be mentioned that at no time were any members of this group offered the opportunity to join a wine club. They all agreed that no one at any of the wineries engaged them in conversations or educated them about wine. By their observations, none of the tasting rooms were overly busy or  appeared to be understaffed.

Fortunately, this experience did not deter the group from considering a follow up visit to this and other nearby wineries. As first time wine tasters, the experience was eye opening, but not discouraging. Additionally,  one of the members of the group stated that their behavior was exuberant and loud and that perhaps the wine servers that they encountered on this day may not have had experience in dealing with these behaviors. It should also be mentioned that their complaints were brought to the attention of the winery manager who promptly offered a complimentary bottle of wine to be forwarded to the group.

Good save manager X!

Until next time,


*2010 statistics found here: