A recurring vision: A lone rider pitched against the wind, canted low over the shoulder of his horse for warmth, his woolen coat soaked through with rain coming in on the horizontal. The trees lining the post road move wildly, in
a Pentecostal dance in the frozen wind, trunks firing off like gunshot in the distance. The rider’s breath whirlsabove him like a phantom and hoof-borne mud squelches under him. His world has compacted to a scattershot, almost kaleidoscopic series of sensations, all senses attuned but sight. The full moon is a week past, and the new moon is a guttering candle hidden behind torn clouds. He cannot see anything and cannot stop where there is nothing. The rider has been riding all day, starting the journey, confident and strong. He is weak now – sore, chapped, even lost. It is only because the night is so black that he sees a tiny yellow lozenge in the distance. At the doorway, the master of the house looks upon the bedraggled man leaning against the doorsill and waves him inside. The next morning the rider is upon his horse, fed, untired. The earth is wet still, but he is dry. He takes off confident and strong again.
We go to winery tasting rooms to discover, and we go to restaurants to uncover (or to be uncovered). At least that’s why I go. Though these experiences reverberate for me a little differently – have different directions of energy and thought perhaps – they are, at their heart, the same act of kindness and restoration. Winemaking is sufficiently mysterious still that the source of it – the winery – maintains a sense of the inner sanctum, a private place wherein all manner of secret alchemical transformations take place. The winery tasting room can be, then, a place of consecration and magic – where the fruits of production are brought out into the light and new tastes and textures revealed. Regardless of the rarity and expense of a wine, its points or cult-like status, all serve the same principal purpose: to add joy and richness (and something beautiful and delicious) to peoples’ lives.
It doesn’t matter much whether the catholic cartoon chef in the chef-mouse movie who proclaimed that “anyone can cook” was correct, what is true is that we all have a sense of familiarity with and find comfort around a kitchen. We may not know how to make mother sauces or manage 15 flaming burners during the restaurant rush, we all have an idea of what happens in taking a potato and cream to vichyssoise. When we sit down in a restaurant and are presented the food we have ordered, our general knowledge of the effort taken to make it provides us a sense of connection to the thousands of meals, grandiose and ordinary, that we have had before. Even at its most revolutionary, food – lovingly made – connects us to primal emotions that harken back to the very first fire. We do not know how an olive is spherified, necessarily, but we do know that it is meant to take our hunger and thirst away – an act of intimacy second only to sex – and that it is a symbol of the chef and winemaker’s compulsive need to care for his guests.
There is purity in commerce. Making great wine or great food is only one part (and perhaps, the lesser one) of an equation that proves existence. Without a receptive audience, and I mean receptive in the clinical sense of taking in sensory output, the object being perceived does not truly exist. Wine and food are not gravity or the speed of light; they do not exist in a purely objective realm, unencumbered by the vagaries of style or the temporariness of fad. The winemaker and chef not only must make something worthy of attention, but they also must figure out a language and environment for communicating the specialness of what they have made that has the greatest likelihood of honest revelation for the audience. What are those methods? What is it about my wine that reveals the true meaning of it, what story can I tell that will scrape away “marketing” fluff to leave the guest with as unadulterated a sense(s) as possible of my creative intentions? Now we enter the world of Hospitality.
I’ve had great service in some restaurants and tasting rooms, dropped spoons replaced quickly and wine glasses refilled without asking. I’ve been treated poorly too. Most service, like things plotted on every other Bell curve, exists in the great undifferentiated, uninspired middle. Here in the middle, there are no connections, just transactions. In the middle, waitstaff and kitchen check off boxes without feeling any obligation to provide a sense of comfort or empathy or burden-easing; service is given, but there is no soul. Hospitality is not about the correct fork, a full water glass, or the timely delivery of good food to the table. It isn’t even really about the perfect pillow for the guest. Imperfections exist everywhere, but what separates true hospitality from perfunctory table-setting perfection is the genuine coming together of two people at a table or over a wine glass for as long as that moment might last. To be seen and to be understood (even if only in the context of the food and wine experience) is to be given a fine gift, one that allows me to transcend the daily mischiefs and hurts that are endemic to living. My server sees me for the hungry and put-upon soul that I am, troubled by something she cannot limn, and if she tries to lift me out of this funk with a kind word and a legitimate desire to lessen these unknowable burdens, she has transformed me from beast into brother.
There is great honor in this kind of service. Working our way through a pandemic over the last 18 months has shown us both our compulsion, like the bugs cavorting in flame, to be taken care of, and the deep loneliness when these temporary though necessary relationships cease to exist. The rupture in everyday hospitality during 2020 has had a profound effect on the millions of displaced restaurant and winery staff, just as it has laid waste to this remediating and restorative business landscape. Tens of thousands of restaurants disappeared in just over a year, the life’s dream and life’s work of those owners left bereft. The attrition rate of eating establishments has always been horrific; 80% of restaurants do not survive their first five years, but the Covid-wrought cataclysm was Vesuvian – bustling one day, wiped away the next.
The restaurant, especially, but all businesses whose main function is caring for others, is the North Star of civilization. These places are the cultural centers of their communities because they are the places people go to be around other people. Within their walls is a gustatory hospital that brings remedy in the form of connection and compassion. These places are where hope resides. Hope for sustenance and for new experiences, for comradeship and for absorption into a larger One. The Inn is where the proto-Americans – Hamilton and Washington – gathered to create a new country; the restaurant is where we go to celebrate successes and cheer in new marriages and new lives. Caring is certainly not limited to the one receiving it. Those who are compelled to provide it, too, do so out of an inner sense of rightness, not as obligation and not even as a gift. Out of a sense of balance perhaps. Perhaps out of a subconscious understanding that everyone is connected in some fashion, each person is part of a large network that has roles to fill. The carer fills her seminal role, then.
The most hospitable places do not achieve excellence by accident. And hospitality is not an accident. For a winery tasting room or restaurant to succeed, the idea of hospitality must be as inevitable and fundamental as DNA. Hospitality styles differ greatly from place to place, and each style reflects how important the idea-made-real is to the restaurant or winery team. Like a language, Hospitality has great range and nuance and connotation – textures that reveal historical circumstance, upbringing, and learned detail. Gathering all our experiential jetsam and repacking it into a coherent shape – concretizing the shifting details into a working model – is where the best businesses separate themselves from those that never seem to be quite as good as they could be.
Hospitality as art and business objective starts with the single most important priority:
- The True Believers. The desire to take care of people, the Real and Authentic desire to emotionally connect with a guest cannot be trained. The story of the brand can be learned, and knowledge of vineyard, wine, and production technique – all of which add fine and necessary shadings to the experience – can be instilled. However, this communication skill is for naught if the guest does not feel as if she has been understood.
- An experience that matches the guest’s expectations and needs. Even the most empathetic server cannot rescue the time with a guest if the experience is significantly different than what the guest hoped for. It is sometimes difficult to communicate what it is the house has on offer – what kind of tasting experience should be expected, the cost, the amenities, the style of wines, etc. Each person has a built-in set of goals and expectations and emotional needs she carries with her everywhere she goes. Aligning them with what the winery or restaurant provides can lead to magic.
- Reinforcement of the Hospitality credo. As noted earlier, hospitality is not an accident. In the best establishments, it is given seamlessly and naturally as part of the “menu,” it is important to establish with the guest from the beginning of the experience that we will attempt to create a connection that transcends (or dives below the surface of) mere service to reach a point where our need to take care of her is received with an understanding of our intention. If all that is achieved is making an inchoate emotional connection that can be strengthened when the guest returns, that is success.
- The True Believer. Every service interaction we try to provide is given freely by talented people. We know because we are on the other end of the hospitality equation often, that there are more failures than successes. We leave the tasting room feeling slightly askew…we aren’t sure what didn’t work quite right. The wines were good, the site was gorgeous, the weather was perfect. Our interaction with the server/establishment was an opportunity missed. The remedy for this un-connection is difficult to find given how nuanced the miss There is probably a subtle combination of factors such as sensitivity to the vibe of the table and the timing of actual service that can be mastered one table at a time. But this mastery can only occur if the right person is there at the beginning to set the emotional tone for the interaction.
Each guest experience we have at The Lineage Collection is a gift. It gives our whole team an opportunity to provide pleasure and to banish the cares of the day for at least a little while. We all want to feel connected to something bigger, to feel accepted and understood. If our guest is buoyed up – lifted by a sense of connection and joy when she leaves – we have then succeeded at our Mission.