First Person: A Good Vintage

I was almost fired from a restaurant job for being too shy. Now I pour wine at a vineyard, and you’d have a hard time shutting me up.

By: Kathleen Stoner

“I learned why ‘steely’ is a good thing in a Sauvignon and ‘thin’ is not,” the author says. Photograph by Scott Suchman.

The winery doors are flung open, and afternoon sunlight pours through the windows onto golden wood floors. Outside, the arbors are heavy with misty grapes. I’m at the tasting bar, pouring an oaky Chardonnay for a couple who don’t look old enough to drink. They’re celebrating their sixth anniversary, they tell me as they ask me to snap their photo.

I always thought it would be fun to work in a tasting room but assumed my introversion ran too deep. Thirtysome years ago, at 17, I was so shy that I almost got fired from a waitressing job for not being friendly enough. After that, I abandoned such work.

I changed my mind when I briefly dated another introvert who’d worked in a winery—a man so dull that he couldn’t keep up his end of a conversation for all the Champagne in France. If he could pour tastings, I could too.

Last summer I volunteered for a monthly weekend shift at Fox Meadow Winery in Linden, Virginia. There was a lot to take in the first day—bits of information caromed around my brain like pinballs. Was it the Syrah that had berry flavors? Or the Cabernet Franc? Did the horseradish cheese or the apricot Stilton go with the Pinot Gris?

The regular employees recited their spiels flawlessly. Dan, one of the owners, talked about Portuguese grape varietals, French oak barrels, and the dangers of vine fungus. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I didn’t know what to say at first, either. Give it time. You’ll develop your own little talk.”

I paid attention to Dan and the other baristas. I studied the list of talking points for new employees. I went to the library and borrowed wine books. Soon I learned the meanings of the terms “brix,” “bouquet,” and “bung” and why “steely” is a good thing in a Sauvignon and “thin” is not.

The more I learn and the more tastings I pour, the more easily the chatter seems to come. I’ve mastered the cash register and the unfamiliar bottle openers. Anything that’s on my mind disappears under the weight of immediate demands. Who still needs to have a bottle opened? And, hey, whose kid is that over at the gift table playing mumblety-peg with the souvenir corkscrews? I live in the moment, and there’s no time to be self-conscious.

Somehow the person who was nearly fired all those years ago for being too shy has become a schmoozing wine barista. I still occasionally feel like a bottled-up 17-year-old. But since that waitress job, inside me has grown a well-rounded extrovert who comes out when the occasion demands it. She displays subtle undertones and just a hint of sweetness—at the peak of her maturity, a good vintage.

This article first appeared in the April 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.

For more photographs by Scott Suchman, click here.