I saw Barry Martin’s “The Tasting Room” when it premiered last summer and thoroughly enjoyed it the first time around.
But the second time, with its farcical stereotypes only Napans would know, is even better. It’s a play that uniquely represents the culture of the Napa Valley. And when so much of that culture has been recently re-oriented toward tourists, it’s nice to see something that is squarely set for the attention of the locals. Of course, a tourist would enjoy it as well because they would see what things are like behind the scenes.
The play is a cornucopia of every possible cliché, joke, and frustration anyone who works in a tasting room has had. From the tired sales pitch about one man’s “passion” for winemaking, to the tourist, banging down the door before they open, to the wine critic who really could not care less about them, or anyone it seems — it’s all there in one hour and a half package.
It’s a familiar story here in the valley: a winery founder and patriarch dies, leaving his children to continue his legacy. That is the situation in which Emily and Rebecca Lusch find themselves with their family’s winery, the eponymous Lusch Family Vineyards. Lusch, it seems, has never been a highly successful brand, and the girls struggle with how to make the winery relevant in a competitive market.
Incidentally, the proper pronunciation of Lusch is with the long “u” sound—the same as “amuse,” “blue” or “bruise” — it may be more apt to spell it as “Loosh.” In the play, those who’ve never been to Lusch Family Vineyard’s pronounce Lusch with the short “u” sound, as in “lush,” like someone who tends to drink too much and get tipsy. What a funny name for a winery, right? Lush Family Vineyards? It gets a laugh every time, though not from Rebecca or Emily.
Martin, co-founder and managing director of Lucky Penny, wrote, directed and stars in the play as Tony Spiccoli, a fast-talking ice-to-eskimos salesman who can make even the most puritanical teetotaler a wine club member. Every person who walks through the front door has a $100 bill stuck to their head and it’s his job to take it. He will do anything for that $100 bill, including adulterate their competitor’s wine, the hilariously named Oversight Winery, in a comparative tasting.
Like so many Napans, Martin has done stints in tasting rooms and he drew on that experience in creating the play, adding a feel of authenticity one would not otherwise get.
Rebecca Lusch is played by Lucky Penny co-founder and artistic director Taylor Bartolucci, who also is the scion of a winemaking family. They own Madonna Estate in Carneros. It’s pretty clear that Bartolucci has no problem poking fun at her own family’s livelihood, especially when she makes her entrance drinking a beer at 9:45 in the morning, with a less-than-positive attitude about her job in the tasting room.
Emily Lusch is played by Lucky Penny associate artist Danielle DeBow. She is the earnest, serious glue that keeps Rebecca’s irreverent and self-destructive tendencies from devolving the whole operation into chaos.
Lucky Penny regular Tim Setzer hams it up as a maniacal, desperate tourist in a Hawaiian shirt, knocking down the door of the tasting room before they open, wondering, excitedly, how he’s going to see all 500 wineries in the Napa Valley in only two days. DeBow’s Emily rolls her eyes at him, wondering allowed how anyone can drink wine at 10 a.m.
We got a special treat on opening night, when Setzer performed a prologue as Bacchus, the Greek god of wine. He was dressed in a cheap nylon toga and had a tasting cup on a chain around his neck — the kind that sommeliers would wear in restaurants in the 1970s. He was wasted, blatto, and proceeded, with a slithery tongue and poor balance, to give us a somewhat less than historically accurate history of the fermented drink. Setzer plays a good sloppy drunk.
Michael Ross plays Elbert Fleeman, the wine critic from Wine Fanatic Magazine. I don’t think there could be any more condescending name to give a wine critic than the pretentious, constipated, stiff-upper-lip name like Elbert Fleeman — do you think Martin has an opinion about wine critics with all their arrogance and power?
Ross’s Fleeman is a stoic and commanding presence. When he tastes the Lusch wines, he betrays no emotion or judgment. Emily, Rebecca and Tony confront him, asking him to explain himself and we hope that he is going to trip up and show some sort of weakness, but his response indicates that he actually knows exactly what he is talking about. We begin to think that maybe he has earned his right to be as arrogant as he is.
In a note about the show in the program, Martin admits that he does take a few shots — I would say more than a few — at the wine culture as it is here in the Napa Valley. But, he writes, “beyond the jokes is a respect and admiration for those who grow the grapes, make the wine and teach people how to love it.”
If you like the culture of the Napa Valley, you’ll love “The Tasting Room.” It’s a delightful and hilarious romp through a business and a lifestyle that we all enjoy.
“The Tasting Room” plays at Luck Penny through Sunday August 18th. To get tickets call 707-266-6305 or go to www.luckpennynapa.com.
John Henry Martin used to work in a tasting room, so when he says this play is accurate, he knows what he is talking about. Let him know what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org.