Behind the Bar

If you are a sports fan near my age, and I won’t tell you what that is, you might recall a sportswriter named George Plimpton. George felt that it wasn’t enough just to cover professional sports; if you really wanted to understand the game, you had to see it from the inside. So one season Plimpton trained with the Detroit Lions as a backup quarterback, and then wrote his most famous work, Paper Lion.

A few weeks ago my friend Mary Kay Alfaro, co-owner of Alfaro Family Vineyards, inquired if I would be interested in helping out for a couple hours in her tasting room. An image of Plimpton immediately came to mind, but without the danger of getting sacked by 300 pound linemen, so I agreed.

If you are a regular reader you know that I always treat the folks behind the bar with respect, but I had no idea of the difficulty until I tried it myself. Sure, I can wield a corkscrew, and I know the difference between a chardonnay and a pinot noir. But like a quarterback, the pour person has to keep track of everything that’s going on. We poured seven wines that day, in a specific order, so you have to remember who’s had what. You also keep track of who has paid for their tasting and who is in the wine club (they taste free).

Amidst the pouring, you get asked a lot of questions, ranging from detailed ones from veteran wine enthusiasts to basic ones like “why is white wine white and red wine red?” At what elevation is the wine grown? What is the sugar content when the grapes are picked? Who designs your labels? Can I try the Lindsay Paige again? What’s the discount on a case? Every question must be answered as patiently and accurately as possible; this isn’t a computer store or a car lot where you can just make stuff up.

Luckily, a more experienced “tasting room associate” was there to run the cash register; that might have pushed me over the edge. Like George Plimpton, I survived the experience, a little wiser and with some stories to tell. Mary Kay thanked me graciously and even offered to pay me. I was happy to return home with material for a column and a nearly full bottle of Garys’ (the one I’m opening in the photo), which was payment enough.