Excuse me, you said Barbera d’ … what!?

It’s my tenth Barrel Tasting Weekend and I’m standing in the Preston Winery tasting room with eight of my friends …

While Preston does not participate in the event weekend, that doesn’t matter to us. We’ll stop anyway; we want to know what’s new.

In general, the participants in this northern Sonoma springtime event limit groups to eight or less on busy weekends. Preston has put this same limit on its tasting room, especially on weekends like this one. That obviously poses a challenge to us but we always expose ourselves as a group of respectful, loyal, inquisitive fans, and communicate that we appreciate the resistance to the large obnoxious crowds. We understand the eigth-person-limit to be a way to control drunk-fest buses and limos, not discourage groups of responsible, curious, and dare I say, money-spending individuals. A few of us are even Preston wine club members

Preston is a working farm and sells their own olive oils, vinegars and other sustainable products, all of which we buy on a regular basis. They also provide an excellent space for picnicking, which we use and appreciate, always purchasing a bottle or two to enjoy while we are there.

… So I am at the bar. My friend and I have a glass each and are doing side-by-sides: a Mourvedre in one glass and their GSM (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre) in the other. Intrigued by the marked dissimilarity between the two wines, I ask the lady helping us, “Is there any significant difference in the way these two wines are produced? Besides of course that one is a blend and the other is just Mourvedre?”

She looks at me blankly and says, “Well the difference is that this one has Grenache and Syrah in it and the other one doesn’t.”

I think to myself that okay maybe she is too busy to pay attention to my question but look around and see that really not many people are seeking her attention. So I ask it in another way, “Yes, I realize that but, for example, perhaps the Mourvedre in this wine is aged for 9 months in neutral oak barrels whereas in the single varietal wine, it might be aged for 18 months in 50% new barrels, or something like that?”

She repeats, “This one is a blend and this one isn’t,” and walks away.

Well okay then.

So on we go, through a couple more of the wines and arrive at the Barbera. As an on-again/off-again fan of their Barbera for years—I’ve driven way out of my way before to buy it from them—I am always ready and hopeful to try each new vintage. I don’t always love it but I usually do. We sip the wine and immediately I feel a saline character in the finish; certainly it is a wine with high acid despite its concentration of ripe fruit. Since I am in relax-mode with my friends and not carefully selecting from my polished set of somm-vocabulary, I simply blurt out, “Huh, it’s kind of salty.”

My friend and I discuss it. “Yeah what is that?” he asks. I explain that Barbera is a grape with a naturally high acidity.

So I ask the lady, “Would you say this vintage of Barbera is particularly different from your others?” I just don’t remember the wine striking me before with such a dichotomized ripeness versus astringency.

She pauses, and condescendingly declares, “No. We always make our Barbera like this. We create it in the lighter Barbera d’Alba style, as opposed to the heavier Piedmont or Barbera d’Asti styles.”

What. Just. Happened?

None of that makes any sense.

But instead of reacting—in a micro-second I realize I have little control of myself—the rational voice in my head says, “Marci. Step away from the bar.”

She said that? She literally, said that to me. And not only did she say that to me, which I normally wouldn’t hold against anyone, she said it to me like I was the most demanding, irritating, senseless customer she had hosted all month and I had asked the most asinine question I could have ever asked. I was just asking a logical question, and it is her job to answer, and answer in a civilized way. I worked for three years in a high-volume tasting room. I know what you are supposed to do.

Normally I am not here to bad-mouth anyone but this, to me, is a serious problem.

1. A tasting room employee’s job is, at the very least, to provide wine, information, and some level of entertainment to his or her guests.
2. Everyone has a bad day but it is never right to take it out on customers.
3. Do not condescend the customer. Not only because it is disrespectful, but you never know who you are talking to. And she certainly did not know to whom she was talking.

I never went back to the bar, although I really toyed with the idea a couple of times. I knew I might get myself in trouble given her attitude and my irritation with it. It would have ended up a battle of egos, and while I knew I was right, I couldn’t trust myself to act maturely. When it comes to Piemonte, I get emotional. Piemonte goes deep in my heart and has made me who I am today. It’s a place I know, respect, treasure, and defend. If you mess with it, you mess with me.

I keep going over the situation in my head, knowing full well I could have handled it better. One of my biggest pet peeves is people shoot their mouths off without knowing what they are talking about. But that is clearly my own issue, one I own, and one I will work on. But my issue has nothing to do with her attitude and how she treated her customers that day.

My question to you is, how would you have handled this?

The Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.
The Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

† Alba and Asti are towns within the region of Piedmont (Piemonte in Italian). There are 20 regions in Italy. Barbera d’Alba is essentially Barbera from the land near Alba. It has DOC status. Barbera d’Asti is Barbera from the area surrounding Asti. It can achieve a higher classification: DOCG. Typically Barbera d’Asti has a little more finesse, whereas Barbera d’Alba has a lusher texture and more fruit. However, these days Barberas from the best producers and best sites from both regions can achieve the same levels of complexity, elegance, fruit concentration, and age-worthiness. There are other Barberas from other zones in Piemonte that achieve great quality and show large potential. But for the sake of simplicity, I won’t go into those. There is a Barbera Piemonte DOC term as well, but that is usually used to refer to simple, drink-it-now Barberas from outer, less distinct locales.

8 thoughts on “Excuse me, you said Barbera d’ … what!?

  1. Marcela, I had to smile when I read your post. We visited Preston about 3 years ago and had the exact same experience. I had done my research, we were interested in the winery, asked appropriate questions. Tasting room staff couldn’t wait to pour and get us out of there. We’ll never go back. The one wine I did buy was their Barbera…

  2. Wow. That sounds like a training and knowledge issue. I’m surprised she didn’t pick up on the types of questions you were asking and either meet you at the same level or admit she didn’t know.
    I think walking away was the best thing you could do.

  3. I think you handled it perfectly by stepping away from the bar. There was no way you’d have gotten through to someone who was clearly just having a bad day. Plus, I’m guessing your facial expression and body language gave her some indication that she didn’t know what she was talking about. 😉

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