There are a few different types of people who work in winery tasting rooms. There are students, looking for a straightforward part-time job between classes and during summers. There are teachers, who are easily able to transfer student management skills to drunk management skills for the summer. There are local early-twenty-somethings, unsure what they want to do with their lives and working multiple part-time jobs to make ends meet. There are retirees, looking for socialization. Then there are wine-industry wannabes, like me. You’ll occasionally find a winemaker, an owner, or a family member of an owner working in the tasting room, but not often. Tasting room server jobs don’t pay well, but it’s relatively easy job and the benefits are good: free wine and industry discounts at just about every winery across the country and a chance to learn more about wine…and human behavior.
A good server is polite, knowledgeable, and unflappable. A good server engages guests in conversation and makes them feel comfortable. Servers talk about the wine, how the wine is made, any other random wine facts that cross our minds. We don’t make guests feel intimidated. We ask whether they’ve visited the winery before and listen to their foggy remembrances of that drunk visit with the fraternity brothers back in ’99. We ask where guests are from and try to think of funny or interesting stories related to that place. We agree with everything they say without being too obvious about it. We congratulate guests on their anniversary, on their marriage, on their graduation, on their promotion. We take many, many pictures.
Some guests want to learn more about their servers. Some servers like to talk about themselves. I hate talking about myself. I cringe when asked, “Is this your full time job? What is your real job? What else do you do during the week? How did you learn so much about wine?” Sometimes I say that this is my real job. Sometimes I say that I’m a writer, but that tends to bring up too many other questions, like what I write and whether I’ve been published. Usually I just say that I wanted to learn more about the wine industry before deciding whether to go back to school and leave it at that.
One day, I was pouring wine for a middle-aged couple who looked like they were straight out of the 80s: fluffy hair, dated clothes, large aviator glasses. The woman was fairly drunk, the husband was driving and seemed to be pacing himself. After I’d poured the third of their six wines, the woman asked me a strange question.
“Are your parents educated?” she asked. “Because you speak very well.”
I’m working on my reactions — on keeping a straight face no matter the situation. Still, a strange look slipped through, and I laughed a little bit. “Why, yes, they are,” I replied.
One of my coworkers had overheard the question. She piped in, “she’s educated, she went to Cornell!”
“Oh no,” the woman sighed. “Do you have a lot of student debt?”
I stared at her for slightly too long. I wasn’t going to go into this with her. How I went to the state portion of the school as an in-state resident and thus paid a lower rate of tuition. How I worked multiple jobs throughout school to chip in. How my parents worked hard and sacrificed to put me through school. How I consolidated my loans right after graduation and got a kickass low interest rate. How it’s none of her business.
“Just a little, not too bad,” I finally responded in a breezy tone meant to discourage further discussion.
The husband gave me a strange look of sympathy. He gave his wife a look too, but she didn’t pay attention. It was a defeated look, anyway. He’d listened in on conversations like this before. He’d been on the receiving end of conversations like this for the past thirty years, probably. He shifted a little bit so he was standing slightly behind his wife and started glancing around the room, fully removing himself from the conversation. He’d learned that it was better to withdraw than to engage.
“Well,” the woman said, “it’s still early. You’re still young. You still have time.” I think she would have given me a hug or a pat on the head if the tasting bar hadn’t been between us.
It was only at this point that I realized that she was feeling sorry for me. I was being pitied! I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to know what she meant when she said that I still had time, but I didn’t want to ask. Something told me that I shouldn’t dig any deeper into this conversation, that I wouldn’t be able to continue to keep up a polite facade. I was working at a winery because I wanted to work at a winery. I was following my dreams. People who were following their dreams were supposed to be admired, not pitied, damn it! But something told me that this woman was not going to get it no matter how eloquently I explained it. I was suddenly flooded with appreciation for my mother. God, I thought, imagine having this woman for a mother. I decided that I pitied her right back.
While these thoughts swirled through my head, I poured the last sample. I spent a little extra time explaining the wine and winemaking process, using my big words.
“Do you have compliment cards?” the woman asked at the end of the tasting. “I’d like to fill out a compliment card for you.”
“We don’t have compliment cards, but thank you very much. I appreciate your compliment.”
“But I want to compliment you!” I imagined she stamped her foot a little at this point but I couldn’t tell for sure.
“Thank you, you’re complimenting me right now, and I appreciate it.” I’m smiling as sweetly as I know how.
“Well, you really should have compliment cards. You did a great job. You’re really good at this.”
“Thanks again,” I say, biting the insides of my cheeks to keep my smile from slipping. When you’re working in a customer service position, you’ve just got to hold your tongue and let comments roll off you. It’s great training.
But as a customer, you have options. Verbal tips are great, but the best compliments are tips for your server and wine purchases. Online reviews or follow-up emails after the visit are great too, if you really feel you’ve received exceptional service. Working as a tasting room server has taught me never to pity someone working in a “non-career” position. They work extra hard to make you happy and comfortable, and only they know why.