There is so much to learn from a single night of tending bar. On a recent Saturday, I was one of several bartenders for a charity fundraiser in Rochester. It was a farm-to-table event put together by the fine folks at Breathe Yoga, and it featured local food and all Finger Lakes wines.
I recruited the wine donations, then tended bar myself. Here's what I learned.
1. People like red wine, and Finger Lakes reds are plenty passable for the masses
I divided the red wines into two main groups: lighter-bodied reds (mostly pinot noir) and bigger-bodied reds. Pinot was popular, but many consumers just wanted something dark. The surprise smash hit of the night was Keuka Spring Vineyards' 2010 Miller's Cove Red, which poured the darkest color of the many wines we featured. It was gone quickly. Only once did someone taste a Finger Lakes red and decide they didn't want it. These were, for the most part, not discerning customers; they just wanted a standard red. This is not typically a regional strength, but it says something about the quality of the winemaking when consumers are almost uniformly satisfied.
2. People know variety much more than anything else
Actual conversation with a guy who appeared to be around 40:
Him: I'd love a zinfandel.
Me: These are all Finger Lakes wines, and these producers don't specialize in reds quite that style.
Him: Oh, gotcha. Then I'll take a malbec.
I don't bring this up to poke fun. I think this is a symptom of the pernicious by-the-glass lists that plague this country. So many restaurants serve a shiraz, or a zin, or a merlot. No other information for the customer needed.
3. Many casual consumers still assume that riesling means "sweet"
Over and over, when I mentioned there was plenty of good riesling, people would say, "Okay, but do you have anything that isn't quite so sweet?"
This opened up a nice window for conversation and education. But I was surprised that riesling still carries a training-wheels stigma for some consumers.
4. Man, do people drink a lot of freaking chardonnay
5. Those who want to be educated make up a small percentage of consumers, but they're thirsty for knowledge
Most people just wanted a glass of wine, and it hardly mattered what we were pouring. But those that wanted to learn really wanted to learn. They were interested in vintage variation, which grapes worked well locally, which producers were strongest, etc. There are opportunities with this crowd, and I hope the wine industry continues to cultivate their passion.