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Wine Enthusiast Podcast: How Music Makes the Tasting Room Experience Memorable

With a winery named after a Pearl Jam song, you know Winemaker/Co-Owner Trey Busch of Walla Walla’s Sleight of Hand Cellars is obsessed with music. Senior Digital Editor Jameson Fink talks with Busch about how music plays a huge role in the tasting room and his life.


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Read the full transcript for “How Music Makes the Tasting Room Experience Memorable”:

Jameson Fink: Jameson Fink, a senior digital editor. What’s your first reaction when you walk into a tasting room? Sometimes it can be exciting. Sometimes it can be a little intimidating or maybe even a little confusing. One thing that really makes a tasking room unique is the music that you hear in it. I was delighted to speak with Trey Busch of Sleight of Hand Cellars about his unique take on music space in the tasting room and in his life.

When I walk into many tasting rooms at wineries, it can still be, for me, kind of an intimidating experience. Sometimes it’s very sedate, maybe a little stuffy, maybe a little quiet. There’re a bunch of laminated PDFs with things like PH and alcohol level and barrel regiments and things like that. I think part of making wine less intimidating is having a great environment that’s welcoming and friendly and maybe a little a-typical of what you think wine might be. A lot of times it’s what’s in the bottle. A lot of times it’s certainly the tasting room staff. Sometimes it might be you walk in and you’re hearing some music that you wouldn’t expect to hear in a tasting room.

Trey, I wanted to ask you about, when you visit either of your Sleight of Hand tasting rooms, there’s gonna be music there. Talk about your philosophy of having music in a tasting room and how important that is to make people feel comfortable.

Trey Busch: Yeah, you definitely hit the nail on the head. The idea about tasting wine and the intimidation factor is definitely there. I knew, when Jerry and I started this winery 10 years ago, we knew what we did not want. We maybe didn’t know exactly what we wanted, but we knew what we did not want. What we did not want was label with the picture of the winery on it and the pretty script and the vineyard and everything that’s everything else.

We wanted to express our personalities. Jerry and I, both, really love music. When we opened our downtown tasting room in Walla Walla, I had taken my turn table from home and brought it in the tasting room because I had a brand new baby and she was just learning how to walk. My turn table at home was perfect grabbing height for little fingers. So I said, “I need to get this out of here.” I was gonna put it in my basement and then I said, “No, you know, I’m gonna take it to work.” I had like 100 albums.

When folks would come to the tasting room I’d have the turn table on. For me it wasn’t a novelty, for me it was, “This is how I listen to music at home.” It was just an extension of that, but the funny thing was the reaction from folks because it’s ten years ago before the true resurgence of vinyl, which we’ve all seen. Folks would really dig that, like, “Oh my God, is that a turn table? You’re listening to records. I can’t believe … How old are these?” And all these really funny questions.

It really helped me realize that folks definitely frame their experience with music. For me, if I have a 22 year old kid that walks to my tasting room, I know he’s probably not gonna know a whole lot about wine, but I want them to be comfortable. So if they walk in and the first thing they hear is the Beastie Boys instead of Sade, no offense to Sade, but you know, I think maybe what would be typical tasting room music, if I’m gonna generalize, all of a sudden their head’s completely not even thinking about wine.

What that’s really turned into, especially in my Walla Walla tasting room and also our Sodo tasting room even, where we have a Sub Pop shop, is that you walk into our tasting room, the first thing you see is a wall of 2,000 albums. That’s the first thing people gravitate towards. Now they’re not thinking about being intimidated and wine is, you know, it’s like, “Hey.” They go and check out the albums first, then they migrate over, we’ll taste some great wine, “What do you want to listen to?” “Oh, man, I want to listen to the Allman Brothers.” “Let’s listen to the Allman Brothers.”

They’re almost getting to frame their own experience and they’re comfortable. At that point, we’re having a great conversation about music and then we’re sort of talking about our wine and they’re comfortable, they’re in a good space, hopefully they enjoy what we’re pouring. It’s been a good thing for us.

JF: I guess I need to back up and I should have you explain the name of the winery Sleight of Hand.

TB: Yeah, my business partner, Jerry and I, when we were coming up with the name of the winery, I had a few ideas and I thought they were great. Jerry wasn’t feeling it the same way I was. He and his wife said, “How can we get TB off of this theme that he’s thinking about?” So they came back to me and he handed me this sheet of paper and it had like four Pearl Jam songs on it. I’m like, “These are all Pearl Jam songs.” And he’s like, “I know.” And I was like, “Sleight of Hand.” That’s one of my favorite songs. So, literally, the winery’s named after a Pearl Jam song. The magic theme came about, obviously, because of the name Sleight of Hand.

JF: Are you the worlds’ biggest Pearl Jam fan?

TB: I would argue that I am, but I also have a lot of friends that I’ve met over the 25 years of touring that I know may be on the same level, if not, a notch more crazy than I am. Yes, it’s definitely my love.

JF: It seems like every time you have a wine dinner, even like Bozeman Montana, I think you’re always finding these cool record shops and stuff. Are you looking at a map and Googling things and be like, “If I’m gonna be here, I’m going to a record store.”

TB: I’m definitely going to a record store in any market I visit. I was in Missoula first and then I was in Billings doing a dinner that night and, literally was driving by, I wasn’t looking for it, but it was this hole in the wall record store and those are always the best. I literally bombed in. This 70 year old woman’s behind the counter and I start talking to her. I said, “This your shop?” She goes, “Ah, it’s my sons’, but he didn’t come into work today.” or whatever. I was literally the only customer there for like an hour and a half and loaded up 30 albums and probably made her entire week. It was awesome.

But, yes, I do. Between traveling, I definitely look for record stores.

JF: There’s probably still that stereotype of like a beer and a shot rock and roll musician, are they into wine? Are you meeting musicians who are asking you interesting questions about wine or surprising you?

TB: Yeah, for sure. Everybody knows that Edd loves wine because he has a bottle, Eddie Vedder, Pearl Jam. He always has a bottle of wine on stage. Jeff Ament, bass player, he likes our wine, which is great. I would always have to go to Maynard who’s the lead singer for Tool and a Perfect Circle who actually has a winery in Arizona, Caduceus Cellars. What’s my favorite winery story from … oh, Mark Arm from Mudhoney.

Mudhoney’s a Seattle grunge, punk rock as it gets. They’ve been around forever. An incredible band. Still playing live today. Through all the world tours that they’ve done, Mark has this really great pallet. He actually loves wine. He had a song in his last album called Chardonnay.

JF: Wow.

TB: Just this awesome punk rock song about Chardonnay. I though, “Oh, how cool. Mark’s singing about Chardonnay.” I listened to the song and it’s basically, “I hate you, Chardonnay.” It’s this, basically, punk rock anti-chardonnay song, right? I went to Sub Pop records to see my friend and I brought Mark a gift because he works at Sub Pop as a day job. I brought him a bottle of my Chardonnay.

It wasn’t really the joke, it was like, “Hey, you know what? Just like music.” You can’t say, “I hate rap music.” And then all of a sudden there’s like … it’s a wide variety of rap music. You’re gonna find something you life. The same way with Chardonnay. So I gave him this bottle of Chardonnay. Hopefully he drank it and hopefully he liked it. I don’t know.

JF: We’ve talked about the tasting room environment, playing records there, but the variety and amount of music I hear in the winery is really astounding. Is there certain TBs’ Greatest Hits that you play on the sorting table or is there different music for cleaning out tanks or what are you listening to when you’re doing the nitty gritty of wine making?

TB: Thankfully I’m not doing the nitty gritty of wine making anymore. It’s been about four or five years, but my staff, Keith and Aaron and Taylor, who are in the cellar on a daily basis, always had the radio going. We typically will stream KEXP, which is a Seattle local music station, actually they have a home base in New York as well. We usually stream KEXP, that way we get to hear a little bit of everything all day love. We love the War on Drugs. We play a lot of the War on Drugs. But, no, there’s no set.

We usually try to give each of our employees gets some time to pick the music. It’s not dominated by just one employee.

JF: It helps keep the peace, I’m sure, to let everyone have their turn.

TB: Got to keep the peace. Absolutely.

JF: I also wanted to ask about … this is so corny, but I always want to ask this. What do you see the link between music and wine? What do you see as that relationship between music and wine for you?

TB: I see a ton of similarities between the two, not just on the business side of things. I’ve always likened wine and music together from a sales perspective because when you walk into a record store or you walk into a wine shop, and you don’t know what you want, it’s almost overwhelming because here you are looking at 20,000 different possibilities. That’s where, like when you were working at Esquin, the beauty is, let’s go find the expert. Let’s find this guy to help me find something that I love.

From the production standpoint, I’ve never really thought about it from that side. If I were a band, who would I be from the wine making standpoint? Certainly there are wineries that … their philosophies are completely different from my philosophy and there’s a thousand different ways to make wine just like there’s a thousand different ways to make music.

I definitely, because of my background with wine with Eric Dunham, Eric was an artistic wine maker, he was not a scientific wine maker. Everything for Eric was always based on feeling and intuition. It was rarely … he never made a decision based on hard science. I definitely took that to heart and that’s how I’ve done it for 17 years.

I think it’s maybe a little more free flowing rather than just a wrote recipe of how to do something. That’s why every year is different and, obviously, every vineyard is different. Our wines are gonna reflect all those changes and differences.

JF: If you’re in the tasting room, what’s in heavy rotation right now on vinyl if you’re there and you’re controlling everything?

TB: My gosh. What have I been listening to a lot? I’ve been listening to, definitely more new music rather than old music. The new Afghan Whigs is incredible. Oh, geez. I’m gonna go buy the new Perfume Genius because I saw them this morning at KEXP. It was incredible. My daughter turned me on to them. That’s why I know I really did a great job at being a parent, as when your kid starts turning you onto really great music. So that’s definitely gonna be in rotation.

Let’s see what else. I was in the taste room all day on Saturday. We played a lot of Prince. Prince actually sees a lot of rotation because everyone loves Prince. It’s a combination of rock and dance and everything, like our wines.

JF: This is my first time being back in Washing State in Seattle. We’re in Woodinville right now. I left in November of 2015. I lived in Seattle for 10 years. From your perspective, how has Washington wine changed in the past 10 years? What’s happening now that you’re doing that’s really surprising or exciting?

TB: You know, there’s certainly been a ton of growth in Washington. It’s amazing to look at the number of wineries that are here now. I think that when you have more wineries your challenge to push the quality envelope and it’s not necessarily to, again, make a recipe for a certain wine that’s gonna get these huge scores. It’s really more about how are you going to make something that’s gonna stand out in this huge crowed marketplace.

We always experiment. We always do … every year we’ll find a couple of lots to do something different with. If it worked out great, then we’ll maybe utilize that the next year. If it doesn’t work out, that’s okay. We’ve got a home for that stuff.

We’ve been using a lot of concrete and I would say, if anything from our rhone program, since I started the winery in 07 with Jerry, and to what we’re doing today, that wine’s probably the most dramatically different. We make a Ciroc called Levitation. I remember my early vintages where 40/50/60 percent new oak, all French, but it was still a lot of new wood. A little riper in style. We have definitely checked back on that.

Now we’re 10 to 15 percent new, large format barrels, and a lot of concrete. We just bought to concrete fermentors and aging tanks that we’ll utilize this year and we’ll do a lot of … we’ll actually do a lot of bordeaux bridles in those for fermentation, but from an aging perspective, we’ll do grenache and syrah in our concrete tanks.

I think syrah’s so versatile. It tastes great at 22 bricks. It tastes good at 26 and a half bricks. Stylistically they’re different, but they still taste great. You can’t really do that with cab franc or cabernet. You have a greater range to play with in that instance. We definitely try to move things on the less ripe side to try and capture more of the savory components of ciroc. That’s what we love about the grape when we taste rhone wines. Nice fruit, but there’s always that savory component. Washington does that so well site, to site, to site.

We’ve got four really different and extreme vineyard sites for syrah. You would think they were from four different countries. It’s really fun to play with that.

JF: One of the things that I noticed since I got here in 2004, it’s just like how the quality of rose, which was, I mean, probably an after thought at that time, I was tasting a lot of things where red and white wine mix together and it was a rose. To me, the rose calling card graped me as cabernet franc. I’ve been pretty excited about that. Can you talk about your rose and how your rose programs change and how important a part of your winery it is now?

TB: Sure. I’ve been making cab franc rose since we started the winery back in 07. I feel like … I think there were only two wineries in Walla Walla maybe making rose back then, like serious rose. I picked that grape because Kay Simon, at Chinook Winery, she’s been making that since the 90s. Not only does she make a great cab franc, but her cab franc rose was like, “Holy cow! So great!” It was true rose. It was 12 and a half percent. It was very light in color. Nobody was making that wine back then. That was how we decided on the grape and really even the style.

Early on, we were fermenting and aging in neutral barrel. Now we’re in concrete and stainless and we’re picking it even earlier. No skin contacts. I think the early … two or three vintages, 7/8/9 maybe even 10, saw like 30 minutes or an hour of skin contact. Those wines were a little darker in color. My thought process behind that was maybe gonna pull some flavor compounds out that you wouldn’t normally get, but we really did. If anything, we picked up character that we didn’t want in the rose. We want it to be light and crisp.

We’ve been working with Black Rock Vineyard since 2009. It’s a two acre block. We farm it to be rose every year. It’s, again, fermented in concrete, stainless, and then it’s aged for maybe two months. It does see a little bit of neutral barrel for aging, then we do a steril filtration. Have a bottle by the end of January. It’s ready to go February 15th.

JF: Awesome. I guess I’ll just bring it back to music. One of the things when I see Sleight of Hand on social media, one of my favorite things is when people are visiting the taste room and, like you said, they’re interacting with the albums, the sleeveface.

TB: Sleeveface, how fun.

JF: Yeah. If you haven’t seen it, it’s sort of like you find an album with someones’ face on it and then you put it in front of your face and it makes a really great photo. What are some of your top sleeveface albums?

TB: Oh. One of my favorites is, and one of my very first concerts too, was Accept, which was an 80s metal band with a German dude named Udo Dirkschneider. He was a five foot five German guy and his outfit was classic German metal. He had a leather vest, no shirt, and short leather pants, you know? Sort of like … it was quite the outfit. The Balls to the Wall album by Accept is one of my favorites because, instead of being a face, it’s basically from your midriff down to your knees and it’s this guy holding this big huge cannonball in his hand.

JF: It’s very subtle.

TB: That’s very subtle. Very subtle. Anyway, that’s one of my favorites that people pull out.

JF: Awesome. Well, Trey, thanks for chatting with me today about music and wine and I think it’s important we all … we say so much, like we want to de-mystify wine and things like that, but I think that music and [inaudible 00:19:31] people coming and hearing, maybe it’s some 80s German metal album or something exciting or unusual. It just puts people at ease because wine can be intimidating. If you can just get them relaxed and looking at albums, then you can pour them something like, “Oh, this is some grenache syrah or rhone style blend.” And they’re like, “Oh, that sounds great.”

Thanks for joining me today.

TB: Yeah. Thanks, Jameson.

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