Confessions of a Wine Tour Driver

The liquid gold is what it’s all about. Driving a bus with a tour company makes you realize it all comes down to the gold. What is the goal of each winemaker in the Valley? What is the goal of each client on your tours, from the humble tourists to the pole dancers and rock stars? What is the goal of each wine drinker around the world?

It’s the liquid gold, baby.

It’s the explosion of fruit, terrior and depth. Drink it slowly and it’s cherry and chocolate and a little thyme, drink it quickly and it’s oak and tannins and plum. It reminds you of your first bottle of good wine bought as an adult for that dinner party where the food, wine and company were perfect. That special bottle shared on the camping trip where you fell in love.

Should good wine only be enjoyed on special occasions? Not a chance. In life, and especially in the Valley of the Moon, every day is a special occasion. Carpe Diem.

8 a.m. You wake up dreaming of the gold. In two hours you’ll be preparing for your day herding strangers through the Sonoma Valley. A lackey who cruises tourists from winery A to winery B. Luckily, the company you work for is owned by a friend who maintains the philosophy that he hires personalities, not drivers. Most tours take you to the winery, drop you off and wait an hour for you to return, so they can repeat he process.

You, though, go in to the tasting rooms. You know the winemakers, you know the tasting room people and you are an active part of the tour. The clients start out as complete strangers — Bob and Angie from Texas, Aughi and Mugbhami from India, Jean and Mark from L.A., Don and Melanie from Detroit — but by the end of the tour they’ve exchanged emails and promised to be Facebook besties forever. The more wine tasted, the faster the friendship.

The search for the liquid gold has led them to the promised land and their lives will soon be just that much better. Connecting with your fellow humans is what this life thing is all about.

People come from all over the world to your little Valley to see the sights, eat amazing food, drink amazing wines and create memories. Your job is to teach them about the land and its history, the nuances in climate and terrior, and all the funky adjectives people use to explain the taste of wine. Graphite? Leather? Seriously?

Mostly, you tell them to just drink the damn wine and learn what they like.

If the pretentious, somehow always good-looking tasting room guy says, “this is really the wine you should like…” Walk away. The wine you should like is the wine you like. Simple. Trust your palate. Learn about and develop your palate; if you like cherries and chocolate and a hint of thyme in your Cab, then that’s the gold for you. A good tasting room guide explains the wines then lets Bob from Texas and Aghi from India decide if it’s the best Sauvignon Blanc they’ve ever had. You used to give a speech titled, “Why Robert Parker is full of crap,” but you changed it into “Trust your palate.” It offends fewer people.

You remember the tour where a good old boy pulled you aside mid-tour and said, “I think we need a little less talkin’ and a little mo drinkin.” Always respect the wishes of the clients.

11 a.m. Welcome aboard.

A tour is like a mixed case of wine — you never know what you’re going to get. Most folks are happy, most are optimistic, and all are curious about what they’re in for. They’ve read the TripAdvisor and Yelp reviews, but who knows what could happen in the next six hours? You had one tour with four people from Ohio who decided they would rather go to the beach than taste wine; you spent the day at Salmon Creek and had a ball.

You have some incredible memories like the bachelorette party from L.A. that pole-danced using the bus stanchions all the way from Calistoga to San Francisco; the Detroit rock stars who drank martinis between wineries; the couple from Arizona who propositioned every other couple on the bus; and the fertilizer salesmen from the Central Valley who were kicked out of a winery for talking about the importance of pesticides.

The bus is like Vegas, what happens on the bus stays on the bus, until, of course, you write about it.

There are always a few home run experiences in the Sonoma Valley that make for an amazing tour. Walking through Will Bucklin’s dry farmed vineyard and tasting his incredible reds while standing in his barn is a home run. Meeting Lorenzo Petroni at his epic winery/pile of rocks and helping him pick vegetables for the evening dinner rush at his North Beach Restaurant was a home run (Rest in Peace, Lorenzo). Having Chris Loxton point out why Cab grapes grow better on the ridge across from his Kenwood winery and why port grows well on his property is a home run. Punching down grapes during harvest with Peter Wellington is a home run.

Great experiences and great wines make a great tour. Meet the winemakers, learn the process, understand how the magic happens and search for the gold. Gearing the tour toward the interests of the customers is vital. Bachelorette parties go to different wineries than corporate charters. Somebody loves Italian reds, you go to Muscardini Cellars. For fruity Viogniers, steer to Chateau St. Jean. Loved the movie “Bottle Shock,” go see the boxing ring at Kunde. Wanna learn about custom crushing: Tin Barn. Group getting wined out? Off to Jack London Village for chocolate or the Olive Press for olive oil tasting. People getting too loaded or not clicking together? Head to the Plaza and suggest the wobbly ones take a break and watch the ducks while the others head over and taste outdoors at Roche or one of the other 25 tasting rooms.

Today it’s a simple schedule. Valley of the Moon, Petroni, Loxton, Paradise Ridge and Kunde. Small wineries, large wineries, great wineries, great people, great experiences.  The group has already started bonding as Bob discovers that he and Aghi both love the Valley of the Moon Sauvignon Blanc.

You throw in a few comments when the conversation stalls and remove yourself when you see that the folks are connecting. One of the most important aspects of your job is knowing when to let the group alone. Sure you have something to say about everything, but often people just want to be left alone to discover and make friends on their own. This filter is important.

We have home run experiences at Petroni and Loxton then while at Paradise, Annette in the tasting room tells me that Jean, Mark and Melanie seem about done for the day. One of the signs of a great tasting room person is how she can make suggestions like this to people while not being offensive. “Have some water” rather than, “You’re cut off,” can be the difference between happy drunk clients and angry drunk clients.

You make an alternative suggestion for the last winery visit then ask if anyone is driving home after the tour or has any pending dinner reservations. This gets people thinking about their sobriety and what’s next. A tour that ends with you cleaning vomit from the back of the bus is not a tour you want to lead.

You head to Moondance in Jack London Village where you walk the wined out threesome around, pointing out Jim Shere’s office where he holds therapy sessions in a funky old grape-harvesting tower. You suggest they take a tour of the Jack London museum then look for a nice book at the community library, check out wine country chocolates, and maybe relax in a shady spot by the river.

The rest head into Moondance to continue their search for the liquid gold. Priscilla and David serve not only excellent wines but also unpretentious conversation about anything from vine management to corvettes. An hour later you’re all heading back to the hotels and everyone is laughing and singing.

You rate tours by how much wine is purchased (about two cases total, big winner: Paradise Ridge ’07 Elevation Cab, followed by the ‘09 Petroni Cab) and how much laughter you hear coming from the back of the bus on the way home. The clients have connected, digits have been exchanged, and life is good.

The search for the liquid gold continues.


Comments are closed.