Drinking In the SceneJul 01, 2023 09:00AM ● By Terence Lane
It’s July, and the grapes along Seneca Lake are soldiering on toward the sweetening phase of verasion, while the lake itself is now serviceable without an atmospheric diving suit. Many visitors have returned to their summer nests while others check in to hotels, campsites, Airbnbs, and, for those seeking that special middle-ground between tent and house, yurts. For veterans of the region, the appeal is easy to understand—watersports, waterfalls, Mennonite produce, craft breweries, and, my personal favorite, Finger Lakes wine.
Whether it’s a bracingly bright Riesling or a dry and dusty Cabernet Franc, I’m never at a loss for words to express my enthusiasm. Bringing visitors into the Finger Lakes wine conversation is always a special moment, especially when I detect a sense of curiosity and an eagerness to learn. I recently spoke with area winery staff on the subject of tasting room hospitality; the challenges, the etiquette, and how customers can get the most out of their winery visits.
Kelly Van Scoyk, wine club and office manager at Barnstormer Winery in Rock Stream, believes that the greatest challenge in the tasting room is meeting the myriad customer expectations.
“Some guests are looking for a lot of education,” Kelly says. “Some just want to drink and have a good time. You really have to read the room. Everyone wants something different.”
At Toast Winery, owners Jayne and Mike Gibbs always appreciate a customer’s sense of enthusiasm.
“The engagement of the taster is the biggest challenge of all, and it’s our job to respond to the interests of the guests,” says Jayne. “Bottom line, a great tasting experience is difficult to deliver with an unengaged customer and not all customers are looking to engage.”
Many wineries have been forced to cap group sizes and eliminate tour bus appointments. Bachelorette parties and large groups are an enormous task for smaller winery staff and often take away from the experience of other customers.
“We want everyone to enjoy their time,” says Kelly. “More people equals more noise, so trying not to disrupt other experiences can be challenging with larger groups.”
For the best experiences, plan to travel in numbers of four or less. This helps to ensure a positive, insightful visit. If you have the availability and are seeking greater engagement with the winery team, weekday visits will be rewarded by quieter tasting rooms, relaxed staff, and more time to mingle. The crowd surges of the weekend can make longer, leisurely tastings more difficult.
Wineries are more open now than before to options besides tastings. With outside seating and beautiful lawns, guests can enjoy a glass of wine independently and absorb the bucolic splendor of the vineyards. A single glass of great Chardonnay, for instance, can be illuminating and demonstrative of the winemaker’s overall aesthetic. Is the bouquet redolent of new French oak, or is the oak more restrained, or not present at all? In that sense, one thoughtful glass can speak volumes about what you might expect from the rest of the portfolio. Gabriella Larosa, tasting room manager at Standing Stone Winery in Hector, spoke to this point.
“I try my best to ensure every guest is happy and gets what they came in for,” Gabriella says. “It would help tremendously if guests are open to options. If we can’t get them in for a tasting, they always have the option to enjoy a bottle or a glass.”
Not all tasting rooms are created equal, and tasting formats are customized to the capabilities of each. Higher volume spaces will often provide pre-selected flights for the ease of service, while others will allow guests to select their own choices.
“I believe in offering guests the option to choose their wines,” continues Gabriella. “This approach empowers them to personalize their tasting experience, catering to their preferences and allowing them to explore wines that suit their individual tastes.”
The you-pick formatting is popular in the Finger Lakes, something I myself have appreciated, but it can also be limiting as it restricts you to what’s familiar and stymies learning. Both preset and choose-your-own menus have their pros and cons. At the end of the day, being respectful of the formatting at each winery makes everyone’s time easier. Elizabeth Stamp, partner and manager of Lakewood Vineyards, makes a case for the preset tasting format.
“For the customer, it ensures the wines are presented in the ideal order,” she says. “Guests have fewer decisions to make and our team can be comfortable with the selections we are pouring because there is consistency. From a management standpoint, we can set the flights to help manage inventory. Featured wines sell more quickly.”
The whole foundation of a wine tasting was built on learning and discovery, not about tasting what you know that you already like. When you sit down to a flight of wine, you are agreeing to have a new experience, granting yourself permission to find something you never even knew that you loved.
Allow yourself to do this.
Even if there’s something on the flight you don’t think you’ll like, try it again. Styles are different everywhere and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been impressed by a wine I’d previously written-off because I was willing to give it a chance from a different producer, a different region.
That’s one of my favorite things about wine. It’s constantly catching me unawares, and challenging my expectations and understanding. That’s why it’s fun. Year in and year out, wine always has a fresh story to tell if you’re willing to listen.