They are often the face of the winery. Think of the tasting room associates like the bank tellers who can make or break the tone of customer service and yet have one of the more precarious jobs within the business.
Tasting room associates need to be informed about the products they sell. They also have to sit through training to receive a Mandatory Alcohol Server Training permit and a county health food handler’s permit.
Nick Velluzzi, executive director of institutional effectiveness at Walla Walla Community College, points out there are over 600 jobs, including tasting room employment, in the area of labor that wouldn’t exist without the Walla Walla wine industry. And these numbers do not include the employment in vineyard management and crews as well as hospitality employment — restaurants and lodging.
Sharyl Clark Dill
Forgeron Cellars was founded in 2001, and if you have been a repeat visitor since 2005, chances are great Sharyl Clark Dill poured you a glass of wine.
Born and raised in Walla Walla, Sharyl graduated from Walla Walla High School in 1966 and from Walla Walla Community College’s nurses program in 1968. She worked for Providence St. Mary Medical Center for 15 years and was later employed at Garrison Middle School for 32 years.
Sharyl and her groom, Mike Dill, will soon be celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. They have two grown, married children, a daughter and a son. There are also two granddaughters, two grandsons, and a great-granddaughter and great-grandson.
In 2005, Sharyl was on a quest looking for a change and something enjoyable to do on the weekends. She had friends employed at Forgeron Cellars who convinced Sharyl she needed to work there, and these friends convinced Anne Hull, tasting room manager, that she needed to hire Sharyl. Long after the friends “hit the road,” Sharyl remains steady.
When she isn’t pouring wine for the masses, there is always, as Sharyl points out, “KP duty” (the military term for kitchen patrol) which includes washing racks of wineglasses. Other tasks include shelving stock, preparing wine shipments, giving winery tours, making reservations for customers at area restaurants as requested, and even tidying up the bathroom when needed.
Sharyl is always learning something new about the wine world and enjoys sharing her wine knowledge with others — and, as a native of Walla Walla, she gets a lot of questions about the Walla Walla area and its history. As Sharyl says, “You have to be part diplomat in this job.”
There are more than bottles of wine coming out of the Main Street tasting room of Sinclair Estate Vineyards. There’s also the sound of music on weekends and special events featuring local and regional musicians.
Alex Heiser is the face of Sinclair Estate Vineyards from Monday to Friday, as well as a familiar face in the Walla Walla Valley. He has lived in Walla Walla since the age of 2, growing up with seven siblings, including Alex’s twin sister, Allison Heiser Peck. In fact, working in the wine industry runs in the Heiser family, with Allison as sales manager for Cadaretta Winery, along with sister Greta Heiser also employed at Cadaretta. Sister Dominie Heiser is the wine club manager for Dunham Cellars, and brother Josh Heiser is co-founder of O’Donnell Lane LLC, specializing in marketing and communications for the wine industry.
Alex graduated from Walla Walla High School in 1984 and continued his education at Whitworth University in Spokane, receiving a degree in teaching. He returned to Walla Walla to teach, and on one summer vacation, Alex found himself in Alaska working at a fishing resort. Alex continued to travel between home and Alaska from 1997 to 2010, and when he landed back home he found employment in the wine industry.
In 2010, he began a new journey at the Institute for Enology and Viticulture at Walla Walla Community College and graduated with a two-year degree. In 2014, Alex joined the Sinclair Estate Vineyard team.
As winery manager, there is no downtime in Alex’s job description. Customer service is a priority. Customer service includes pouring wine while informing the visitors about the wine and the sources of the vineyards and answering tourist questions about Walla Walla. In between visitors, there is cleaning to do from the top of the chandeliers to the floors. There are wine shipments to prepare, inventory to manage and a point-of-sale system to update. He also manages the wine club list, mailing lists, website, events and social media.
Alex believes he needs to model the behavior that he expects from his staff. In other words, “Stay busy!”
Kontos Cellars is known not only for its wine but for its indoor and outdoor patio events on Second Avenue. Live music, pop-up dinners with local chefs, comedy nights, and hosting private and corporate functions keeps Brianna Kirshner busy as events manager when she isn’t in the tasting room three days a week pouring wine.
Brianna moved to Walla Walla in December 2012 from Scottsdale, Ariz., where she was born and raised. She is the mother of a 22-year-old son and a 7-year-old daughter. Her former husband had a job opportunity in Walla Walla, so Brianna left Arizona behind. Before her life in Walla Walla, she was employed in medical offices (dermatology and plastic surgery) for almost 10 years. Her wine career started in Arizona while working for a wine distribution company just before her move to Walla Walla.
Once here, Brianna embraced her new community, meeting new people, building relationships, and visiting the area’s wineries. After Brianna became a single mother, she started working weekends in the tasting room at Kontos Cellars while her daughter was spending time with her father.
When she isn’t wearing her “events manager” cap, Brianna’s tasting room duties keep her busy with pouring guests through the Kontos Cellars lineup of wines and sharing stories about the winery and the Kontos family. Between guests there is always maintaining glassware, dusting, cleaning bathrooms, sweeping and mopping floors and ordering supplies. The housekeeping never stops.
As Brianna points out, the Walla Walla wine industry is a close-knit group of people who are supportive of each other, therefore this shared enthusiasm reflects back to the visitors to Walla Walla.
Advice from tasting-room pros to get the most from your Walla Walla wine experience.
Sharyl Clark Dill, Forgeron Cellars:
I always encourage guests to limit their tasting room visits to no more than five or six in a given day. Start your day with a hearty breakfast and then pace yourself. Too much wine will “fry” your taste buds, leaving you unable to appreciate the wine nuances by the end of the day. Turn your phones off when visiting a tasting room. If you must be on the phone, take it outdoors. There’s nothing more disruptive to the tasting room experience than a visitor talking on his or her phone. People don’t want to hear about your business and personal lives. Oh, and not to mention the visitors drench themselves in perfume, leaving the strong fragrance interfering with the aromas of the wine — oh, and that goes for you too, Romeo and your aftershave.
Alex Heiser, Sinclair Estate Vineyards:
Never, never, ever bring an open bottle of wine from one winery into another winery. Not to mention expecting the tasting room staff to pour it for you. This is against the law as per the Washington State Liquor Board, as bonded wineries are only allowed to sell and serve the wines they produce.
Brianna Kirshner, Kontos Cellars:
First and foremost, I recommend doing research before your visit. Walla Walla offers many events that could enhance a visit. (Editor’s note: Online places to check include the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, Visit Walla Walla, Walla Walla Downtown Foundation, and Nightlife Walla Walla.) Book early! Book your hotel rooms and restaurant reservations early.
Understand the winery laws and preferences regarding children and pets. Don’t smoke before entering a tasting room, as nonsmokers are sensitive, making it difficult to smell past the cigarette smoke. Use your “inside voices.” With the consumption of alcohol, voices get loud and carry throughout tasting room spaces. Most visitors want to visit with the tasting room staff, learning about the wines and the winery.
Be respectful when sharing your opinion of the wine. There’s no need to make vulgar “ugh” sounds while dramatically dumping the wine in the spit bucket. Frankly, it’s rude. Tasting room associates understand everyone has a different palette, which is the beauty of wine. There is something for everyone out there!