Sonoma man’s dream job is wine tour guide

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Andy Hyman taught high school history, ran political campaigns and worked in retail sales. But he found his dream job three years ago when, at 63, he got hired as a tour bus driver for Platypus Tours, a company that provides charter and “join-in” wine tours in Sonoma County and the Napa Valley.

“I got introduced to wine by accident,” said Hyman, 66, of Sonoma. “I was walking my dog with my wife when I came across an acquaintance ... he interviewed at Platypus and said it had a different culture, and that I should go talk to the owner.”

Hyman went to the interview, passed his Class B driver’s license and embarked on what he now regards as “the most fun job I have ever undertaken. The vineyards are my office.”

With the help of his wife, Marla Rosner, Hyman recently added another job to his resume, publishing. Over the course of two years, he wrote, edited and self-published “Snob Free Wine Tasting Companion: Wine Smart in a Day!” (Snob Free Press, 2015), an accessible wine guide that helps neophytes get up to speed.

“When I was out at the wineries, I saw nothing for the beginner,” he said. “I wanted a primer for people who want to get a better understanding of wine ... but not come off as being snobs.”

Here’s what it’s like behind the wheel of a tour bus and behind the scenes in the North Bay’s busy wine tourism industry.

Q. What kind of people go on your tours?

Lots of people from the East Coast, and more people from Canada and England than anywhere else. Napa gets more people from Texas than anywhere else.

Q. What’s your typical day like?

I leave at 8:15 a.m. and drive to Napa to pick up my bus. We get a list of people and where they are, and I pick them up between 10 and 11 a.m. We talk about what’s going on in the vineyard right now, as well as the rest of the year. I hand people a “Wine Tour passport” that they can take notes on, with an aroma wheel. It’s everything you can smell in wine, and smell is 80 percent of taste.

Then we head off. We go to four wineries, and each one pours four or five wines. They taste between 20 and 25 wines throughout the day.

Q. How do you keep them in a good mood during the tour?

We offer water every time they get on the bus. I tell them, “You want to drink as much water as wine.” After the first winery, we pass cheese and crackers. At the second winery, I put together a complete lunch with sandwiches, salad, cut-up fruit and dessert. I often bring a bar of chocolate, and sometimes I bring an extra Brie cheese for the late afternoon.

Q. How do you decide where to go?

We specialize in smaller, boutique wineries like Loxton, Kachina in the Dry Creek Valley and Viszlay in the Russian River Valley. People are interested in the back story, so we tend to go to places where the people like to share. Chris Loxton of Loxton Wines in Glen Ellen will spend an hour talking about the business of wine-making and the whole process.

It’s ideal to have 10 or 15 minutes between wineries. When we do the Sonoma Valley, we do the Carneros region or we do Up Valley. When we do Russian River, we’ll do Dry Creek Valley, too.

Q. Which wineries are your favorites?

Kachina in the Dry Creek Valley. Greg Chambers was in high-tech, and he makes red wine. His wife, Nancy, makes the white. They also make a sparkling wine, and they pour charbono. Only 12 people make that in California.

Pasterick Wine in the Dry Creek Valley. Gerry is wonderful. He’s funny, and he’s old school. All they do is estate syrah. You taste inside the cave, and it’s a great tour.

Tedeschi in Calistoga. The winemaker is 24. It’s a very down-to-earth, rustic tour.

Casa Nuestra along the Silverado Trail in St. Helena. It’s very rustic and relaxed. They have goats, and they do a field blend of different varietals.

Q. What are your biggest challenges?

There’s lots of traffic in Napa in the summer. The challenge is getting to the wineries and keeping everyone safe. There are a lot of accidents, especially on the weekends.

Q. Was there a steep learning curve?

It was very steep. I learned on the job. When you’re entrenched and watching harvest and talking to winemakers, you listen like crazy.

Q. What are your strengths as a tour guide?

My passion for what I’m doing. During lunch, I give people 160 years of history in about 12 minutes, starting with the Gold Rush and ending with the Judgment of Paris in 1976. This was when people started to see the future of the Napa Valley.

I try to do it in a fun way, not an academic way. I tell them: “The only quiz is how many different wines you can taste and how much fun you can have.”

For more information about Hyman’s book, go to snobfreewinetasting.com.

Staff writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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