Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Loud people in wineries or Wine Trains: A socially dangerous dilemma

The view from the dining car on the Napa Valley Wine Train
I probably shouldn't touch the story of the Napa Valley Wine Train kicking off a group of black women last week after staff warned them about making too much noise.

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.”

“And we though (sic), um, yes it is,” Johnson said.
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.

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.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.


  1. I'm with you on this. I also asked myself why the LA Times and other publications did not interview anyone else on the Wine Train besides the group that got kicked off and employees of the train. It would be nice to hear from the complainers and get both sides of the story.
    Lisa Mattson

  2. Lisa: They may have had a hard time reaching anyone, because this story was reported after the fact and no reporters were on the scene at the time.

    What I would have done, were I reporting it for a newspaper, would be to ask the Wine Train to put me in touch with some of the other passengers, as they would have had contact info. That may or may not work: the Wine Train might refuse to help, or other passengers might not want to talk.

    If you were one of the other passengers who complained, would you step forward now, now that the Internet is foaming with outrage? As a reporter, I'd like to talk to one of those passengers. But I don't think they're lining up to call the LA Times.

  3. Yeah, but they wouldn't have kicked a group of obnoxious white women off.

  4. I realize you disagree, but I've seen plenty of obnoxious bachelorette parties being tolerated in tasting rooms, as opposed to being asked to leave.

  5. Justin: You might need to read a little more closely. That said, there is a big difference between a tasting room and the Wine Train. A tasting room is bigger and the experience is rarely paid for in advance. When that is the case, each group usually gets a private room.

  6. A Wine Train spokesperson just reported that they kick an average of one group per month off the train--all walks of life.

  7. Well, let me make the offer here, in the highly unlikely chance any of the other passengers is reading this, to tell your side of the story. I will grant anonymity to you if you desire if you can provide proof that you were on that train.

  8. Perhaps The Wine Train should decide what it wants to be? Is it a fine dining experience or a train ride through wine country? Can't be all things for everyone - that is a disaster waiting to happen. A policy of 5 or less in a group might have helped in this situation. Just like what happens to kids in a swimming pool - people tend to get loud in a group. Additionally, no one has made note of the fact that the photo images used in the press show the train populated with "elder" passengers - if that is a typical day on the train, then yes, a large group of any demographic, race, gender could prove to be a disconnect.

    Lee Hodo

  9. Lee: I wonder if the lack of group seating helped bring this to pass. I recall one story saying the Sistahs on the Reading Edge were not quite seated together and were across the aisle from each other.

  10. Could be - bottom line, I think it was a case of racism and bad administration. Perhaps wine business hospitality could use some sensitivity training on the difference between fun & folderol and drunkenness. Having a rap as an industry that takes itself too seriously is an albatross we've yet to shake.

  11. Racism may have played a part in this, Blake. However, anyone who has traveled regularly on trains knows how sensitive riders get about noise -- any kind of noise -- intruding on their space. Train cars have a way of effecting the human psyche that way. Note, for instance, the perpetual wars on communter trains on the East Coast -- particularly "quiet" cars, where cellphone usage is banned (but nearly impossible to enforce). Race, of course, has nothing to do with this. On trains,, people just go crazy when forces to listen to unwanted conversation.

    I have never been on the Napa Valley Wine Train, but I suspect that clashes between groups are not uncommon. The presence of wine, party atmospheres, and large parties per se, after all, add up to recipe for disaster, and this was a very, very large book club. If anything, I chalk this up to the stupidity of the Wine Train management: just like in restaurants, you do *not* want to place very large parties right next to small parties in a small space.

    This is why, in the restaurant business, we have private rooms -- large parties bring in a lot of money, and so you want to give them the space to have their normal amount of fun. It's simply looney to seat parties of 2 right next to parties of 20 or 25 intent on enjoying wine and conversations (in this case, conversation about books, for Pete's sake!).

    But evidently -- I suspect for economic reasons -- the Napa Valley Wne Train management and/or ownership doesn't seem to be made up of especially deep, or practical, thinkers. The fact that this involved an African-American group made have driven the sensitivity factor up a little higher. It certainly increased the blowback. All around, a totally avoidable, and stupidly handled, event.

  12. Randy: I don't want to overstate the racism angle, for two reasons: 1) pretty much everybody else has that covered, and 2) I don't condone the Sistahs for ignoring requests to pipe down. That's simple discourtesy.

    But that said, most people are rushing to label the Wine Train staff as racist, but in fact, I suspect that there may have been greater racism on the part of the other passengers. Would they have been as upset if the inconsiderate loudmouths were white? I suspect they would have been more likely to grumble and bear it.

    It still would have been avoidable with, as you say, better planning and use of space by the Wine Train.

  13. I've been on the Wine Train a few times, (including once with a group of 30 for dinner) and I work in the wine industry. The Wine Train is not a bar, nor is it public transportation, it is a wine country experience. It tends to attract an older crowd, mostly tourists from all over the country (and world) and I would venture to say those who take the train are there for 3 reasons; to experience a beautifully restored train that is elegant and harkens back to a more gentile time; to enjoy the wines and beauty of Napa Valley without driving; and if dining, to enjoy a nice meal. You are captive for two hours in a small space. In a tasting room, if a group is boisterous, others can leave, or the loud group can leave or go outside. Not the case here. I wasn't there on this trip, but I think any group should be sensitive to their neighbors. If others were bothered by their noise, tone it down, it's common courtesy. If you want to be raucous, go to a bar where everyone else is raucous and expecting it. Did the Wine Train handle it perfectly? Probably not. Perhaps they could have moved people around to give the noisy group more privacy. Perhaps they could have not paraded them through 6 train cars, and not called the police. But if a group is not meeting the general mood of the environment and upsetting others, who's at fault? All I can say is I sure don't want to be on the train if and when these ladies come back with their 50 friends to use their comp tickets.

  14. So many words of wisdom by people who weren't there. It's like reviewing wine based on the label.

  15. Rather than alluding to the Los Angeles Times (August 25, 2015) coverage, let's excerpt it:

    “Woman Kicked Off Napa Wine Train Says Still Humiliated Despite Apology”


    A member of book club made up largely of black women said Tuesday afternoon that they still feel humiliated even after the Napa Valley Wine Train issued a fuller apology Tuesday for kicking them off the train for reportedly being loud.

    . . .

    “The Napa Valley Wine Train was 100% wrong in its handling of this issue,” [chief executive, Anthony] Giaccio said in a statement. “We accept full responsibility for our failures and for the chain of events that led to this regrettable treatment of our guests.”

    The business, he said, was insensitive to the women.

    . . .

    Train officials refunded the women’s tickets, and have since invited the women, their family and friends to fill a train car. . . .

    . . .

    The book club doesn’t plan on taking up the Giaccio’s offer to ride the train again, she [Lisa Renee Johnson, a member of the Sistahs on the Reading Edge Book Club] said.

    . . .

    The women’s story came as Slate published the account of a Latina who said she and her friends, mostly Latino UC Berkeley graduates, were threatened to be kicked off a train after a noise complaint. That woman, Norma Ruiz, told Slate she also believes that the action was racially based.

    . . .

    Incidents such as the one Saturday occur about once a month, he [train spokesman Sam Singer] said. Most of the passengers who are removed from the train, he said, are white.

    Singer said the company could have handled the book club’s situation differently and that there was a breakdown in communication from the beginning.

    When booking the trip, the women told wine train workers they would be enjoying each other’s company and “we may be loud,” he said.

    From that point, he said, the workers should have taken measures to accommodate the women and seat them in an area of the train where they could enjoy the trip.

  16. “Ripped from the headlines . . .”

    From the Napa Valley Register
    (August 31, 2015, Section and Page Unknown):

    “Women Forced Off Wine Train Retain Lawyer for Possible Settlement or [Law-]Suit”