Posted by: East and West | 2011/06/18

Impression: Ruby Hill Winery

The Ruby Hill Winery in Livermore is a beautiful facility: manicured grounds, grand architecture, massive granite-topped tasting bar, cheese and meat deli counter, upscale gifts and merchandise. It’s unfortunate our experience didn’t live up to the image.

My wife and I arrived on a Saturday afternoon in May, at about the same time that a group of 20-somethings disembarked from a limo bus. A friendly face greeted us as we entered the large tasting room. The 20-somethings were ushered to a private area of the winery and we walked up to the tasting bar.

We stood there for about five minutes, unacknowledged by the staff behind the bar and notably by the woman pouring for a couple standing a mere five feet away from us. Long enough for me to dip my sweater in some spilled jam on the counter. My wife whispered that if no one came up to us within the next two minutes we should simply turn and leave.

Just in the nick of time, a staffer named Mary approached us and apologized for keeping us waiting. She brought us each a glass of sparkling wine and offered to comp one of our tastings because of the wait, then did a quick review of the two flights we could taste. We opted for one of each and she offered to do side-by-side pours when the two flights intersected. Mary then turned us over to another staffer because she was required to take a break.

The experience went downhill once again from there.

The staff referred to the sparkling wine as champagne. I’m sure the controllers of that appellation will have something to say about that, since this wine was produced in California, not Champagne.

Mary’s replacement lost her way in our tasting programs, at one point pouring a heavier red ahead of a lighter one. They really weren’t, as she stated when we noted the error, interchangeable.

A third staffer stepped in when we asked for the side-by-sides that we had originally arranged. She poured them, but said each time: “We don’t normally do this when it’s busy on Saturdays, unless we know you’re going to buy.” And in not too pleasant a tone, either.

We ended our visit without tasting everything on our tasting flights. We purchased a couple of bottles of sparkling wine, because at only $13 each we found them to be the best value that the winery offered and the second bottle helped waive our tasting fee altogether. We were not sufficiently impressed with the rest of the wines we tasted to justify their upscale prices.

Will we return to Ruby Hill? That’s not likely. The winery seems more occupied with its image than its wines and the staff don’t value their customers. The tasting room, while quite beautiful, feels snobbish and commercial. The winemaker, if he or she was there, made no effort to meet us or anyone close to us at the bar. Even their web site focuses on the winery, not the wines: Descriptions of their wines, even their lone gold medalist, are brief and inconsistent and hidden in a single, buried link.

There are many wineries in the Livermore Valley that offer a more friendly, personal tasting experience. I’ve met and spoken with winemakers, a valuable part of my education in grapes and wines. I’ve tasted more interesting, complex and personally appealing wines. Ambience is great to have, but at the end of the visit it’s not what should sell the wine. Because of that, Ruby Hill will not be on my need-to-visit list and the complimentary tasting ticket we have will go unused.

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