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From Music to Management- Q&A with Tasting Room Manager John Morris

By Lauren Phelps

I spent a lovely, spring afternoon on the wisteria-adorned patio discussing with John Morris the journey that has brought him to the role of Tasting Room Manager at Tablas Creek Vineyard.  John has been with Tablas Creek since 2006, was instrumental in the design of our new tasting room, and continues to lead a growing and diverse team of tasting room personnel as we try to keep providing memorable experiences to the over 30,000 people who come to visit us each year.

Where were you born and raised?
I was born and raised in Flint, Michigan, a town that’s been in the news a lot lately. Later I actually lived on the Flint River; the river in question was in our backyard. We canoed in it, we skated on it, we fished in it (but we didn’t eat the fish), we hunted snakes and frogs down there but we didn’t swim in it, it was too polluted.

John Little

When and how did you get into wine?
I first got into wine when I was living in Seattle, where I lived most of my adult life. I started getting into wine because I lived in a neighborhood with a nice little wine shop. I was most interested in European wines because they were inexpensive. Washington wines were available but they were expensive so I drank a ton of Rhones. Buying Cotes du Rhones were my go-tos; I could spend between $10 and $15 for wines that were quite good.

What has been your career path to where you are?
Because I didn’t plan at all and didn’t go to college, I wanted to be a musician and ended up in retail. Which led me into the coffee business, because I lived in Seattle and eventually into management in that field and did that for quite a while. The little coffee chain I worked for got bought by Starbucks and I worked for them for a short time but it quickly became untenable. So I went to work at DeLaurenti, an Italian import store that friends of mine had bought, which had a wine department that I talked myself into working at. I did that for about a year before I moved here to Paso. I knew I wanted to move to a warmer place, I knew I wanted to stay on the west coast, I knew I wanted to live somewhere rural but kind of cool, so wine country made sense. And it was just a matter of which location, so I moved to Paso and jumped right into the wine industry here.

In your view, what makes the Tablas Creek tasting room special?
The history of who we are and where we came from, working with Bob Haas, the people who work here, the wines. I guess that’s what makes it special to me. What makes it special to visitors may be more of your question. I think the way we’re set up, not just one long bar, makes a lot of sense. I think the customer service ethos that has trickled down from management to me to my staff makes it special.

What’s your biggest challenge as a Tasting Room Manager?
Making a schedule juggling up to twenty people, with many people who are part time or work in other departments, they’re seasonal, and they’re needed at different times in the wine club or the cellar. We all have different needs at different times. You know, managing people is both rewarding and can have its challenges so that’s a big challenge- having a big crew and keeping them together on the same path. Saturdays (our busiest day of the week) trying to let people come in to enjoy themselves without it getting too loud and disruptive for the serious wine buyers is key.

Which are your other favorite wineries and tasting rooms locally or around the state?
I don’t get out as much as I used to now that I’m a parent. There are a lot of great wineries, I think Denner is making really great wines, Terry Hoage is making great wine. The new tasting room at Halter Ranch is pretty spectacular. When I’m out looking for wines I’m looking for things you can’t find here, European wines that I miss. I love Arcadian down in Santa Barbara county, I still love what Bonny Doon does. Those are just a couple that stand out.

What’s your favorite wine region in the world – other than your own?
I would choose one region only is would be Piemonte in Northern Italy, home of the Nebbiolo grape, Barolo, Barbaresco, Dolcettos, Barbera, Arneis. I love how they tend to be light in weight but heavy in flavor if that make any sense… I love the acidity of Italian wines: the fact that they don’t coat your palate but they have great depth of flavor and they go well with a lot of the foods that I like.

How do you spend your days off?
Working around the house and in the garden. We’ve had a hobby farm, a little market garden for the last several years. I like working outside more than anything.

What would people be surprised to know about you?
I used to play really kind of obscure free-jazz/Prog-rock music and it used to be the main part of my life. I played electric bass in Seattle starting when I was about 25 until I was about 45. I’m attracted to pretty obscure music which is probably why I never made any money at it.

If you weren’t managing a tasting room for a living, what would you be doing?
What would I like to be doing? If I had started earlier and owned more property, maybe an organic farmer. Maybe if I had been a starving farmer like I had been a starving musician, I could have made that happen.

How do you define success?
Success is happiness. That’s all there is to it… finding what makes you happy. The thing that’s really interesting is when you get older, you find that that changes. I’ve found that a couple of times in my life, what was working beautifully, I couldn’t understand that it wasn’t working anymore… so you have to shift. I think staying on that path where you’re satisfying what makes you happy which I think is having enough good friends, making enough money to live comfortably and enjoying what you’re doing every day to make a living.