|The view from the dining car on the Napa Valley Wine Train|
Who was wrong? It's easy to jump to conclusions, as most of the Internet already has, but to paraphrase Bill James, I wasn't there, and you weren't there either.
It is worth noting that this incident is a problem that most wineries face at tasting rooms: different expectations of what the wine tasting experience should be.
One of the ejected women, Lisa Johnson, perfectly encapsulated the dilemma in this snippet (with an apparent misspelling) from the San Francisco Chronicle story that went viral:
According to Johnson, one of the women in the same car told the group “this isn’t a bar.”There you have two women on the Wine Train, one of whom (Johnson) thinks drinking wine is an occasion to be celebrated. It's a party by definition. And the other (unnamed) thinks drinking wine is a different activity from drinking beer or vodka tonics. It's an act of reflective appreciation.
“And we though (sic), um, yes it is,” Johnson said.
Before I go too far into this, I want to point out -- dangerously for my own rep on social media -- that the divide between these two groups may not be so much about race as about gender.
Men can be horrible when they drink wine -- dangerous, abusive drunk men were the reason our ancestors passed Prohibition -- but they're generally more private about it. When I hear about women enjoying Napa Valley as Johnson and her friends were, I don't think about race; I think about bachelorette parties.
As with any stereotype, of course, that's wrong more often than not. It wasn't a group of quietly obnoxious men who told Johnson and her friends to be quiet; it was a woman. Aw geez, I knew I should have stayed away from this topic. Well, I've already stepped in it, let's carry on.
This is the problem: people who think wine is a party don't care who else is in the room, and don't acknowledge that others might not want to party. It's a party! You came to a winery, you came to party. If you want to be quiet, you should buy a bottle of wine and take it back to your room. The rest of us are here to have fun!
People who think wine is for quiet reflection don't want to be in that party. They want that party moved outside, away from them. The partiers don't see these groups as mutually exclusive, but for quiet people, they certainly are.
Spend any time around wineries and you realize there are plenty of people in both camps -- and that the "partier" camp gets more crowded the more wine is consumed. But a wine business that ignores quiet people is going to cost itself a lot of money. Many of the biggest spenders on wine are not loud partiers.
If a party can be anywhere that wine is, wineries don't have to make special concessions for partiers. The challenge for wineries, and for the Wine Train, is to placate the quiet crowd.
This is what's behind many of the restrictions in visiting Napa Valley wineries. If you see a sign that says "no limos," it's mostly to prevent bachelorette parties. When groups are kept small, tastings are seated and are guided by a staff employee, it's to keep the affair as serious as drinking booze can be. This isn't the way partiers like to experience wine, but wineries have discovered it's the most effective well to sell wine.
I'm a quiet guy myself, not a fan of parties, but the quiet-party divide philosophically is a big reason I prefer drinking to tasting. Professionally, I appreciate hushed voices -- silence is even better -- when I'm trying to describe the aromas of a particular Zinfandel. But that's work; it's not fun. On my own time, I'd rather drink wine and talk about baseball or Mr. Robot.
But if I walked into a restaurant -- the Wine Train is as much a restaurant as a bar -- and a group of 12 women wearing identical t-shirts was yakking it up, I would not want to be in the same room with them. They're entitled to their fun; I wouldn't ask the restaurant to kick them out. But given a choice, I'd go somewhere else.
Let's focus on those identical t-shirts for a moment. That the loud partiers were wearing them was widely reported but nobody has really written about the implication. If people are wearing identical t-shirts, they're telling the world, "We're having a party. And it's our party, not your party." It doesn't matter if it's a softball team or a book club: you are not joining their group.
Now let's talk about racism. Would that group of women have been kicked off the train if they were white? Maybe, but I'm not alone in thinking probably not. That's the reason the Internet has done what the Internet does best, rush to judgment of outrage and file a bunch of lemming-like one-star Yelp reviews. Take action, Internet warriors!
That said, it is ironic that the women called for the Wine Train employees to undergo sensitivity training. This is a group of women that was completely insensitive to what the people sitting in the train car with them were saying. Maybe they need training too?
It was a culture clash, and perhaps race and gender were involved, but they didn't have to be; it would still have been a wine culture clash.
You had the clash of different types of wine appreciation in a situation where nobody could easily walk away, as Wine Train tickets, including meal, must be purchased in advance. The choice the Wine Train staff made became a PR nightmare. They'd be a lot better off if the group of women was more racially mixed, but no matter what they decided, it was a bad choice, because if they had let the women stay raucous after repeated complaints from other customers, those customers would also have been upset.
Wineries face this kind of dilemma all the time. It occurred to me this morning that they must handle it better than the Wine Train did or we would have read about it by now.