GEORGE BALLING: Stories of working in wine country

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Before moving back to Coeur d’Alene to open our shop 10 years ago Mary and I not only were fortunate enough to live in wine country, but we also worked there. We “cut our teeth” in wineries in Sonoma after leaving our first careers. Going to work each day in an area so beautiful is pretty swell, and it would be so regardless of whether you are in Sonoma, Napa, Walla Walla, the Willamette Valley or any of the wine growing regions.

The other benefit of our jobs then, like it is now when it comes to wine you don’t very often find people to be cranky. If you can’t be in a good mood in a winery or at a wine shop or when attending one of our wine dinners well it might be that you never have a good day. Mary ran the tasting room at Chateau St. Jean where I poured wine mainly in the reserve room and on special occasion weekends. I also worked as Director of Hospitality operations at Balletto Vineyards. The combination was a good one for me experiencing both a big winery like St. Jean and a small one like Balletto. The one thing in common though is we saw plenty of tourists in both locations at times including celebrities.

While Napa and Sonoma Counties are popular vacation destinations for all of us they are too for the rich and famous among us. While I’m certain it stops short of universal appeal, the beauty, rich history, spectacular dining and lodging venues, and of course the wineries attract a broad cross section of our population. As it should.

Of course we would see famous folks in restaurants and see them from afar in wineries or simply walking along the street in Sonoma or St. Helena. Even the most famous all seemed more relaxed like we all seem when there. One story stands out for me though, a story of uncertain “star power” interaction but one I recall with a smile to this day.

It was late in the day on a Sunday and I had been pouring wine that day in the Reserve Room at Chateau St. Jean. Even then there was a charge for tasting the reserve wines, it was and I speculate still is worth it though, as the tastings are held in the original Chateau. It is a charming and beautifully appointed structure with a huge porch overlooking the St. Jean estate vineyard that slopes gently to the valley floor and Highway 12.

The winery closed at 5 on the weekends and around 4:45, four women showed up and asked to be seated on the porch for a tasting. The winery was fairly empty by then and while all of us would have preferred to be done with our day we accommodated them at a table, they had the entire area to themselves.

They were very polite and engaging. As I poured for them taking them through the lineup of seven or so reserve bottlings they seemed to like the wines. As is normal I took some pictures of them enjoying their day with the vineyards, late afternoon sun in the background. They wanted a picture with me and one of my colleagues accommodated them and snapped one of the 5 of us.

As the tasting went on all of them were very friendly, one in dark sunglasses and a ball cap seemed a bit more quiet but still…. well friendly…. And there was something very familiar about her. While the sunglasses and hat obscured some of her appearance she looked familiar. Thick dark hair, a charming face, full lips and her voice were all hitting a memory for me. I asked where they were from and they replied that they were all close friends from Texas although they lived in far flung places now; the trip was a reunion for these friends to gather.

At that point it struck me! I asked the ball cap clad person, “Has anyone ever told you that you resemble Julia Roberts?” She looked right at me and said, “I don’t even know who that is.” Interesting response. And a telling one. She asked for one more picture to be taken with just the two of us. Politely thanked me for a great tasting and afternoon they paid for their wine and were gone. To this day I still don’t know for sure, but it sure is a fun story and a great recollection of what it is to work in wine country.

If there is a topic you would like to read about or questions on wine you can email or make suggestions by contacting the Healthy Community section at the Coeur d’Alene Press.

• • •

George Balling is co-owner (with his wife, Mary Lancaster) of the dinner party, a wine and gift shop in Coeur d’Alene by Costco. George is also published in several other publications around the country. After working in wineries in California and judging many wine competitions, he moved to Coeur d’Alene with Mary more than 10 years ago to open the shop. You can also follow us on Facebook at!/dinnerpartyshop.

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