This week we spoke with Douglas Thompson, head of the Hawkes Winery’s Sonoma Valley tasting room, brand ambassador, bartender, concierge, hospitality liaison – let’s just say he wears many hats!
What does your job at Hawkes entail?
I run the Sonoma tasting room- and we have two. We have a tasting room up in Alexander Valley, and then we have a tasting room down here in Sonoma right off the plaza. With the idea being that Hawkes is a direct to consumer winery. The majority of wines that we produce are being sold through the tasting room to wine club members. My job is a little bit of sales and a whole lot of hospitality- as far as welcoming folks when they come in and making sure they understand who we are, and what we do, and why we do it. And if they like the wines, then helping them get the wines. It has its moments where it feels like being a bartender, but my job is really more about being a brand ambassador. A wine tasting is a way to help folks get to a place where they’re comfortable and can have a personal connection with the wine, and it’s my job to help create that connection.
How did you first get into wine?
Oh boy- well, I grew up in Sonoma and my family was not in the business, per say, but my Dad was kind of into wine and so the family regularly had wine with dinner. Drinking wine became part of our family ritual, and we learned the good stuff from the bad stuff early on. One of my close friends, her Father was in the wine business and would hire us when we were teenagers to help during the bottling season. We’d go out for a day or two to help put foils and labels on. It was nothing big, though we were excited about it at the time. It was fun, and being part of the process was a good learning experience. When I was in college I think that’s when I was bitten by the bug. I knew a fair amount about wine from growing up around it, and I think I was homesick at college- so I would go down to a couple of the wine shops in Santa Barbara to rummage through and chat with the guys who ran them. So that’s really how it kicked off for me. Wine was part of where I was from, so to explore it and learn about it kept me connected to home.
What kind of wines would you recommend inexperienced wine drinkers start with when learning about wine?
There’s sort of a natural evolution that’s happened in California wines- people as they get into wine it seems they always start with sweet wines. The more interest in wine they develop the less sweet wine (and I don’t mean dessert wine) becomes their main focus. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir seem like good places for people to start and there’s a ton of both out there on the market. I think the best bit of advice that I could give people is to keep in my that it’s wine tasting not wine liking. And you learn more by tasting stuff that you don’t “like” than you do by sticking with what you already know you like. The goal is to broaden the palate, and that’s an experiential thing. It’s not about liking every single thing you try, it’s about seeing what’s out there and learning to understand what you do and don’t like and why. It’s not a process of elimination, it’s a process of exposure. I could say start with Chardonnay and Pinot, but what I really tell people is think less about whether you like it and think more about the opportunity to experience something new.
What would you say life is like in the Sonoma Valley compared to the rest of the Bay Area?
It’s interesting because Sonoma is a little paradise, and a lot of people have realized that. I mean it’s a totally different town now than it was when I grew up here. In some ways it’s the same, but the tech booms have certainly changed it. However at it’s roots, Sonoma is a real community, a real town with real people. It’s not a creation of branding or marketing for the sake of selling wine or tourism. I think that there is a tremendous amount of pride in the community- the locals have a great amount of pride and love for the community. It’s a very interesting spot- it has a very specific vibe and energy. Not that everyone is happy all the time, but it has a very pleasant vibe. People are real, and they’re genuine, and they’re friendly. People here value quality of life, and I think that’s what has jived for all socioeconomic levels in the town. Whether it’s the 6th or 8th generation local whose family has lived in the same home the whole time and isn’t a bajillionaire- but they don’t want to leave the area because they love it and quality of life is important to them. On the other side you have the person whose Sonoma house is one of three homes and is their 15 million dollar get away- but quality of life is important to them too and that’s why they chose this place. So that really resonates within the community and I think when people come here they can sense that peace and good energy. I think we’ve been lucky as a community.
What places do you recommend that people visit when they come to Sonoma?
Oh man, that’s one of the things that I enjoy most about my job. The specifics of acting as a concierge – for some people who come in, based on our conversation and interaction, I might be sending them on to another tasting room that I think they’ll enjoy. For someone else I might be sending them to another Cabernet producer or a producer of something I think they’ll be crazy about. Or based on our conversation I’ll send them to Vella Cheese Company, which is an awesome, family run company that reminds me of when I was a kid (we always had Vella Jack in the house). So when it’s the right moment, that’s where I send them. The plaza sort of speaks for itself- it’s nice, there are many options and you can’t really go wrong with any of them. There are places where there’s someone working there who I adore- it’s more about what someone is tasting and what their palate is calling for. I like to be very specific with it.
You can visit the Hawkes Sonoma tasting room Monday – Friday 11AM-6PM at 383 1st St W, Sonoma, CA, and the Hawkes Alexander Valley tasting room Monday – Friday 10AM-5PM at 6734 CA-128, Healdsburg, CA.
About the Author // Eliza Dropkin is the newest member of Vantigo. She enjoys live music, good food, and cruising around town in Jerry (the other newest member of Vantigo).