Part of it is the fact that I’ve been writing for a long time and I’m used to doing interviews and research solo. Furthermore, I genuinely enjoy going on adventures by myself. But I’ve also had some incredible experiences tasting alone: it’s often easier to get into a conversation with the winemaker, I can spend as much time as I want on each wine, and I’ve often been lucky enough to get goodies like barrel samples and personal tours.
I’ll never forget the time I showed up at Heart & Hands Wine Company on Cayuga Lake on a day when they weren’t even open: Tom Higgins dropped everything to give me a personalized tasting, some barrel samples, and over an hour of fascinating wine talk. Even if the wine hadn’t been delicious (it was) I would’ve left the winery with a good impression.
In fact, I’ve never once been made to feel awkward or out of place because I’m a single taster. I didn’t realize this might be a New York thing until I came to South Africa.
Since my roommates and I usually don’t have the same days off work, I typically find myself going wine tasting alone here in Stellenbosch. With an incredible wealth of fantastic wine farms within a few minutes of my house, I’m not about to skip a chance to go tasting just because I don’t have a buddy. But a visit to Guardian Peak Wines over the weekend confirmed my suspicion that people around here just don’t know what to make of a single woman out by herself for a day of wine tasting.
I walked into the not-so-crowded tasting room, approached the bar and asked for a tasting. “For how many?” smiled the perky server behind the counter. “Just one – I’ll just stand at the bar,” I said cheerfully. Her face fell. “Just you? Ok…you can go have a seat on that couch and someone will be with you shortly.”
It’s common in South African tasting rooms for guests to sit down at a table or outside while the server brings each wine over. This feels pretty awkward if you’re a single taster, so I always opt for the bar, but at the server’s insistence I grabbed a chair.
When after fifteen minutes I still didn’t even have a glass, I went back to the bar. “I’ll just stand here,” I said, “so it’s easier for you.” My server, a rather unfriendly young man who was constantly looking over my shoulder at his other customers, insisted I go and sit down – apparently the bar was not an option. When I finally did get my wines, he seemed to be rushing through each wine description, hurrying away before I could ask any questions. I wasn't excited enough about any of the wines I tasted to forgive them for the unfriendly vibe, and I left without a purchase.
Normally my tasting room experiences aren’t nearly that frustrating, but almost everywhere I’ve been the employees have seemed shocked, confused or even sympathetic about the fact that I’m tasting by myself. Once the novelty of my single status wears off I normally get good service, and I have a great time chatting with the other tasters. But the great conversations about wine that I’ve had with winemakers and owners in New York wineries just don’t happen in the South African tasting rooms I’ve visited – servers generally have a basic familiarity with each wine but neither the interest in nor the ability to discuss the why: why was the wine oaked for as long as it was? Why did this farm choose to plant the grapes it did? Losing this crucial aspect of tasting makes the solo endeavor less enriching.
Why the difference in attitudes? Most of the wine farms in Stellenbosch are larger and more established than many of my favorite New York wineries, so it’s perhaps unrealistic to expect the winemakers to be hanging out ready to answer questions. Service in general is minimalistic – many of the servers are young students who aren’t expected to be intimately familiar with each wine. Plus, for as long as I’ve been here I have never once seen another single taster in a tasting room, so I think it throws servers for a loop. Above is a photo of the one person I’ve seen in a Stellenbosch tasting room alone: the guitarist at Ernie Els.
There’s a cultural issue, too. South Africa has one of the world’s highest crime rates, so you simply don’t often see people, especially women, going out alone. Due to lingering patriarchal attitudes, women don’t do many things alone, period – I’ve been asked why I don’t have a boyfriend more times than I can count. “We’ll have to get you one now-now!” is the standard response, the word duplication indicating an unmistakable level of urgency. I’ve often been told that I shouldn’t be “wandering about” alone, and the idea that I’d actually choose to go off wine tasting by myself is just plain unsettling.
Whatever the reason for the difference in attitude, I’ve found that traveling often teaches you just as much about where you come from as where you’re visiting. Though I’m having a wonderful time drinking the amazing wines of Stellenbosch, I have come to appreciate the down-to-earth New York tasting room atmosphere and New York winery employees’ friendly, open-minded attitude toward single tasters. Just like guests with small children, disabled guests, and guests with dietary restrictions, single tasters need to be accommodated and treated with respect – after all, they might be wine bloggers!