Audrey Vaughn’s “What I Learned Working at a Winery”

This article was written by senior mathematics major Audrey Vaughn.

“Is that black cherry I taste?” The customer asks from across the bar, wine glass still held in midair. His face is hopeful and imploring, like a contestant on the “Price is Right” bidding on an at-home Jacuzzi. I want to tell him that this is not a game show, and there is no right answer. Black cherry is not an ingredient of the wine, but who am I to tell him whether or not the wine reminds him personally of the taste of black cherries? If he thinks he tastes black cherries, then there is a pretty good chance that the wine does in fact taste like black cherries to him.

Each wine has its own characteristic taste based on a myriad different factors of its upbringing, but that taste is open to subjectivity and bias. One man’s black cherry might be another’s strawberry jam. I don’t say this, though. Instead I answer him honestly, if not somewhat vaguely: “It could be. A lot of people get a rich, berry taste on that wine.” He smiles and nods knowingly at his partner, pleased.

When I first started working in the winery, I assumed everyone tasted wine in relatively the same way. You go out, drink nice wine, learn something new, chat with friendly winery staff, maybe buy a couple bottles –– how complicated could it be? However, I soon learned that the experience of even such a simple and enjoyable activity as wine tasting can vary greatly person to person. Bachelorette parties tend not to care about the details of wine. They come to feel fabulous and indulgent and couldn’t care less about the fermentation process. In contrast, wine enthusiasts here to fill their cellars approach the tasting room with an almost chore-like determination. They spit their wine to keep their mind cleared and prefer winemaker notes to idle chit-chat. Although both types of customers walked through the same winery doors, they are here for very different reasons, and I’ve learned to recognize these differences.

I’ve become more flexible; I adjust to the vibe and interests of the customers. I don’t talk maceration time with the giggling couple eating out on the patio. I let the quiet at-home winemaker take notes by herself at the end of the bar. I no longer assume each customer is the same or that their experiences are universal. Instead, I’ve learned to care about why each specific person has come to the tasting room on that day. I try to put myself in the customer’s shoes to feel what he is feeling so that I can help him find what he is looking for. Noticing his quirks and interests, I can tailor the experience to the customer and maybe even learn a little bit more about how he sees the world.

Overall, my time in the tasting room has changed the way I work with people. Whether it’s in an academic or social situation, I’ve become more aware of the effects expectations and personalities have on how we perceive our various experiences. Instead of wondering why someone doesn’t agree with me, I’ve found myself wondering what his story is and how it’s led him to this viewpoint. I now try to acknowledge our different experiences and perceptions in order to find a middle ground where we can both converse. I’ve learned that it isn’t fruitful to seek what an experience should be, and to instead appreciate its ambiguity and fluidity. After all, the nuances of life, like those of a glass of nice wine, taste differently to different people.