Diary of a Wine Volunteer

New Jersey wine has certainly been in the news this year.  From the passage of the Wine Shipping Bill to the Judgement of Princeton to a recent visit by Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno to Tomasello Winery in Hammonton, this is the industry to watch right now in New Jersey!

And so I wondered, “What’s it like to work at a winery for a day?”  Well, my husband and I got the chance to find out at Sharrott Winery’s annual Harvest Festival just a few weekends ago.  Here’s a sneak peak into what goes on behind the scenes:

11:00 am – We arrive at the winery ready to work.  We are given maroon t-shirts with yellow writing that says, “We Work for Wine.”  Guess I won’t be wearing that to back-to-school night!  Eileen Sharrott, wife of owner Larry Sharrott, enlists me in moving chairs onto the patio for the outdoor seating.  Everyone is looking for winery employee Arden Amos, who has the schedule for the day, but she is running around making sure that the vendors are ready to go.

I gulp down a cup of tea that I brought with me and join the crew inside for a quick slice of pizza.  So far I’ve received a t-shirt and lunch – not bad!

11:30 am – We get our assignments.  I will be at the tasting table (yes!) while my husband will be working the back bar.  I’m given a glass and told to try the wine now, so I will know what to say when the customers start arriving.  I also have a tasting cheat sheet, just in case I forget anything.  There are 20 wines on the list, and I’ve had most of them before, so I just spend a few minutes practicing my pouring technique.  Some of the bottles have measured pouring spouts, so they are easy.  I have to count to three as I pour the other bottles – I think I can handle this.

The back bar is a different story.  My husband will be responsible for chilling bottles so customers can purchase and consume them on the premises.  He will grab bottles for purchase, open them, and restock as necessary.  It can get pretty hectic back there, so he will have to keep on his toes!

12 noon – The festival begins.  Customers trickle in, and we start the day.  I’m paired with Nina, a sommelier from a local liquor store.  She is so knowledgeable about the wines, so I spend some time picking her brain about food/wine pairings. Customers slowly approach us.  I let her take the lead and join in when I’m feeling comfortable.  So far, this is fun!

1:00 pm – Wow, this place is packed!  People are waiting three deep to do a tasting, but I can only serve a few people at a time.  I am hitting my stride, though.  I ask customers if they prefer dry wines or sweet ones.  I make recommendations based on their answers.  Some people want to taste the entire list, so I take them through it, one by one.  It’s funny, some people want to talk and others just want to drink and leave.  There are people of all ages here to enjoy the wine – there is no stereotypical taster.  It is certainly eye-opening how many people want to know more about New Jersey wine.

2:00 pm – Nina has to leave for a family party, so my husband joins me at the tasting table.  This will be interesting.  We make a great team, encouraging tasters to step out of their comfort zone and try something new.  What’s the worst that can happen?  You don’t like it?  Then spit it out!

So far we have gone through several bottles of the sweet wines plus a bottle of Merlot and Cabernet Franc.  I just can’t seem to interest people in the dry white wines.  But I keep trying and do convert a few tasters to the dry side.

3:00 pm – I turn around from my spot at the tasting table and realize that the festival grounds are full of families enjoying the live music.  I have to be honest, I didn’t even hear the band until now.  I pour a taste of Vidal Blanc (for strength) which gets a few laughs from my customers.  It’s not bad when you are encouraged to drink on the job!

3:20 pm – Jackie and Steve approach the table.  They are a forty-something couple who have been to another winery before coming here.  They’ve been to Sharrott before, but it’s been a while.  “Well,” I say, “let’s get started.”

The crowd has thinned out, so I’m able to give Jackie and Steve a nicely-paced tasting.  We have a lot in common; she is a teacher (like me), and she and Steve enjoy touring wineries on the weekends.  I take them through the dry whites (which they like) and move onto the dry reds.  I have to pull my Merlot out of the sunlight as it’s warmed too much.  My husband takes over and gives them the tour of the sweet wines, including the newly-released blueberry and cranberry.  This couple prefers dry wines, but they find a few new favorites among the cold, sweet ones.  It’s really been a pleasure talking with them!

4:00 pm – There are a few people who keep coming back for just one more taste.  We have been warned about them, and smile as we encourage them to purchase a glass or bottle to consume on the grounds.  We really can’t turn anyone away, but we do make our pours smaller for these tasters.

Most of the guests are scattered about the patio and lawn; they have cold wine buckets with half-filled bottles.  I can smell the barbecue from the vendor on the premises and am reminded that it’s been ages since I had anything to eat.  Another volunteer brings over some funnel cake fries to share – thank goodness!  This will hold me until the 5 pm closing.

4:40 pm – We’ve reduced the tasting table down from three stations to one, consolidated opened bottles of wine, and have started to do a little clean up.  People are buying their last bottles of wine (mostly to-go), and the band is beginning to pack up.

My husband and I each pour a half-glass of Summer Sangria, Sharrott’s sweet red wine with citrus, and toast the day.

5:00 pm – We close down the tent, pack up the boxes, and let the winery employees take over.  Owner Larry Sharrott thanks us personally for our help, giving my husband a little advice about wine making, as we walk into the tasting room together.  For working the festival today, we each receive a 30% discount card on a future purchase and a free bottle of wine.  I choose the Barrel Reserve Chardonnay, a full-bodied, smooth white with a round oaky finish.  My husband gets the Merlot, medium-bodied and fruity with a smooth finish.

The day has been a whirlwind of sights and sounds.  What sticks with me most is the enthusiasm people have for local wines.  They are eager to try these New Jersey wines and to share them with their friends.  It’s fun to watch peoples’ faces change with surprise and delight as they discover the quality being produced right down the road. And I’m impressed with the accessibility of these wines – there are people of all ages, races, and yes, even from outside New Jersey, who travel to taste and enjoy what our wineries have to offer.  I did not meet one stuffy person today.  That willingness to educate and share is what keeps the New Jersey Wine industry growing and thriving.

To become a volunteer at Sharrott Winery, please visit their website or tasting room for more information.  There are volunteer opportunities at wineries across the state; visit your local winery to find out more.

Shattott Winery
370 South Egg Harbor Road

Blue Anchor, NJ 08037

Jennifer Malme is a full-time mother, sometime substitute teacher, avid locavore, and enthusiastic supporter of New Jersey wines. Her lifestyle blog, Down-Home South Jersey, explores ways to live simply and eat well in and around Cumberland County. When she is not blogging, she enjoys cooking, touring local wineries, and reading. She has never met a cheese that she doesn’t like, and she especially enjoys finding new, authentic ethnic restaurants in her area. Jennifer lives in Vineland with her husband, teenage son, and very smart Siamese cat.