Jillian Flanagan never imagined she would end up in the wine industry.
She had a history of working in the restaurant business, but wasn’t particularly enjoying her roles when she visited Mackinaw Trail Winery a couple of years ago and walked out with an application. She’s now the tasting room manager and event coordinator at the winery’s Petoskey location, and she hasn’t looked back.
“I happened to be at the right place at the right time,” she says. “Now that I’m in this industry, I really don’t want to leave.
“There’s always so much to learn, and it’s always growing and changing.”
Her story is not unusual among Michigan winery tasting room staff. Many started out working in other industries only to develop a zeal for local wines and the people who love them.
“I get to talk about something I’m passionate (about) all day long,” says Heather Durham, tasting room manager at Rove Estate in Traverse City. “I mean, it’s the perfect job.”
On the Front Lines
As the faces of the wineries where they work, tasting room reps spend most of their time interacting with customers, but they also do a lot of work behind the scenes.
Before the first customer even walks in, tasting room staff members will have already cleaned the facilities, tended to administrative tasks, checked stock and prepped wines — along with foods, in some cases — that will be served that day.
For Monica Fischer, a tasting room associate at Fieldstone Winery in Rochester, a morning shift typically involves bottling, corking and labeling wine. She even works on designing custom labels.
“That part gives you a little bit more creative freedom,” she says.
When wine tasters start coming in as the day progresses, tasting room staff members switch to customer service mode. Connecting with the people who walk through the door is a particularly rewarding part of the job, says Tom Nixon, owner of Modern Craft Wine, who is based out of the original Au Gres tasting room.
“When customers come in, you can really spend that one-on-one time with them,” he says. “(They’re) not just a $5 prospect coming through the door. These are people. We treat them like people, and we get to know them, know where they come from and know their lives, and we help them find wines that mix into their lifestyle.”
Making guests feel welcome and comfortable is an important part of any tasting room rep’s job, and that can involve dispelling preconceived notions about wine and answering questions to make sure the experience isn’t intimidating.
“My job is not to tell you how to drink wine or how to do anything,” Fischer says. “My job is to make sure you have a good experience. And I want to help you find a wine that you enjoy. I don’t really like pouring a glass of wine unless I know you really love the wine.”
Recommendations Made, Questions Answered
Making recommendations is another huge part of the job — and it can be a fun challenge when customers aren’t sure what to try or are having a hard time finding something they like.
“It’s really rewarding and it’s almost like a challenge or a puzzle just trying to figure out their taste because everyone has a different palate, like you’ll pick up on different notes and flavors,” Fischer says.
Finding the perfect wine for a customer starts with asking questions.
“A lot of the time, I’ll start off by asking them — if they’ve had wine before — what kind of wines they like, or if they have a favorite brand or a specific kind of grape that they like,” Flanagan says.
Tasting room reps encourage customers to ask their own questions too, to get the most out of their experience.
“Asking questions is amazing,” says Anna Schnell, tasting room manager at Dablon Winery and Vineyards in Baroda. “If you want to call and ask any questions before your reservation, I definitely would recommend it. When we’re in here, ask as many questions as you like.”