Don’t jump to conclusions when I tell you that I have visited hundreds of wine tasting rooms in the West over the last decade. Honestly, it was all in a day’s work.
In another life and location, it was part of my job to drop in on wineries all over Northern California and see what they had to offer. I was there to learn about the winery history, varietals, how the wines were made, what was served, whether or not there was a tasting room fee — and then comment on the visits.
It’s fair to say California — which has been at it longer than most other states — delivers an elevated tasting room experience: great wines, great venues and decent hospitality, as long as they are not too overcrowded. As I’ve traveled more in Oregon and Washington lately, I’ve noticed these regions are quickly catching up to that California standard — especially in the McMinnville area of Oregon and Walla Walla in Washington.
When I came to Idaho four years ago, I didn’t know anything about the quality of wine being produced here. I approached the scene with guarded expectations until my very first tasting adventure at the joint tasting room of Cinder/Telaya/Coiled, when they were still housed in the same Garden City location. I was delighted and optimistic after tasting through the menu of those wineries, and during subsequent trips out to Sunnyslope spots. But it occurred to me some Idaho wines were better than the tasting room experience where they were being served. Some, at the time, were not places where I wanted to linger.
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Turns out Idaho wineries were already making plans to upgrade. Over the past few years, there have been amazing developments at Koenig, Williamson, Telaya and Coiled. Big things are in store for Sawtooth and Ste. Chapelle, which are both owned by Precept now and use the same winemaker. The Snake River Winery tasting room and retail store in BoDo will close this month and move its tasting operation to the Sunnyslope area in Caldwell for a new project with Peaceful Belly Farm.
But these physical moves and makeovers are just the beginning.
At a tasting room training seminar for wineries put on by the Idaho Wine Commission last month, I witnessed a packed house lapping up excellent advice from a San Francisco-based master sommelier Tim Gaiser. The affable Gaiser had been hired to “secret shop” and taste at area wineries last year — then host a four-hour workshop for Idaho tasting room staffers.
Gaiser shared with the room the good, bad and a few unfortunate observations (such as blaringly loud music). Idaho patrons are treated well, the winery staffers are pleasant and engaged, and “the wines are very good.” But he pointed out that there is a big difference between pouring someone a glass of wine and actually pairing it with a dose of hospitality that will have them coming back.
Enhancing the tasting room experience can go a long way in enhancing sales, especially considering that many of the boutique-size wineries in Idaho make upwards of 80 percent of their sales in the tasting room. They sell to people just stopping by and people new to wine. They sell to their wine club members. And they make maximum profit that way because they don’t have to split profits with a retailer.
Gaiser emphasized some turnoffs — overperfumed or heavy-cologned wine servers, newly mopped floors, scented candles. All of these things diminish a patron’s ability to appreciate the “nose” of a wine, which is the basis of our ability to taste wine.
Glassware with a cut-edged lip allows the wine better distribution on the palate than a rounded rim. Smudged glasses distract from tasting while clean, glistening glasses project the classy vessel vintners want their wines to be associated with.
He shared the preferred temperature and order of pouring wines: sparkling, 45 to 50 degrees; whites, 50 to 55 degrees; reds, 65 degrees. Begin with older wines before current releases, whites before reds, unoaked whites before oaked whites, lighter red wines before richer and more tannic reds, sweet wines tasted last after dry wines.
I could have listened to Gaiser all day. As he instructed these tasting room staffers it occurred to me how many of his tips — and there were dozens more — could be applied to the home consumption of wine, and especially dinner parties.
If this kind of information appeals to you, check out Gaiser’s blog: timgaiser.com/blog. Or if you really want to geek out with some “somms,” check out winefolly.com and guildsomm.com — which is where all good sommeliers go to gab.