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Monday, February 23, 2015

"Professional" Wine Tasting Tips

I suppose if there was a certification for "professional tasting room visitor" I would easily pass the test. Wine tasting is actually pretty simple: You find a winery tasting room, you go in and probably pay a small fee to taste several wines, and maybe buy something to take home.  But there are some pro tips I can pass along to make it most enjoyable.

Visit when it's raining. Summer and early autumn are peak season for visitors and it can be crowded. California's wet season is a slower time for tourists so visit between December and April. People often think wine tasting isn't a rainy day activity, but it's actually the best time to visit! Or my motto, "I only visit Napa Valley on rainy Tuesdays in January."

Know when you can visit on weekends. People who visit Napa Valley on Labor Day weekend are rookies. If you have to visit on a weekend do it in the off-season. A week before or after a holiday is usually okay. A weekend in January is even better. You can find Yelp complaints about Napa Valley tasting room service from people who visited on the Saturday afternoon of Memorial Day weekend--as though it's the winery's fault they visited at one of the busiest times of the year!

Visit mid-week. This one should be obvious. Anything is better than Saturday afternoon if you're in a popular wine tasting area.

Visit early afternoon. Many tasting rooms will have a morning rush then a late-afternoon one. Things clear out temporarily as visitors stop for lunch--usually about 1pm. Not advising you to skip lunch, a bad idea when you're wine tasting, just eat earlier or later than others. I often take food along then nibble between each winery during the day.

Don't ask to try everything. If there is a specific wine that's not on the tasting list you would consider purchasing you can ask about that wine. If you ask, "What else is open?" that says you are just there to drink in the eyes of the person pouring. If it's a Monday in January don't even ask them to open the $80 Cab. At the end of the day Tuesday after they've only poured three or four tastes the rest will have to be thrown out.

Share the tasting bar. If it's a busy tasting room and there are four people in your group you don't need four spaces at the bar. When I visit a busy place my wife stands at the bar and I'm behind her. If it's really busy and noisy we get our next taste then leave the bar for a quieter spot. If I go to a tasting room and discover it's three-deep at the bar I leave.

If you show up ten minutes before closing then you are there to only try one wine and maybe buy something. If you expect a full tasting be there at least a half-hour before closing. Would you go into a department store five minutes before closing time and expect to shop for an hour?

Plan ahead. If you're bringing a lunch bring along utensils and napkins--don't assume the winery can supply these. If you're going to be sampling a lot of wine during the day and plan to spit out the wine (good for you!) then bring your own "spit bucket" (I use a red Solo Cup). Wineries have dump buckets, but not spit buckets. It's kinda gross to spit in the bucket on the bar in front of other folks.

Tipping. It's not expected in a tasting room though most will accept tips. I'd recommend only tipping for special service. Tasting room employees don't exactly get paid well, but they're paid better than restaurant workers who need tips to live on. For me, a primed tip jar on a tasting room bar is a real turn off--don't fall for it and think you're expected to leave something extra.

Stay sober. It doesn't matter if you're driving, a passenger, or even in a limo. How do you know if you might be overdoing it? If you're visiting more than one winery in an hour assume after two hours you've had enough for awhile. You can probably visit four or five wineries in a day if that day of tasting is about six hours long and you stop for lunch in the middle, but everyone is different. If I'm going to multiple wineries I share tastes or dump out half of what they give me. You probably need at least three-quarters of an ounce of wine in a glass to smell it properly. You probably need to consume less than a half ounce to decide it you like it or not. Know when you've had enough.

Know some of the basic laws. There are lots of laws in the alcohol biz. Some you should know are: 1) A tasting room can pour only a certain sized taste so don't ask for a a half a glass. 2) A winery cannot give you free wine (other than the tasting). 3) You cannot carry liquids on an airplane, including wine bottles. 4) You cannot bring other alcoholic beverages onto a winery's property to consume. 5) Some wineries are licensed to sell by the glass or let you buy a bottle for consumption on their property, some are not. 6) You cannot be served if you appear intoxicated.

Go there to learn. Whether you know nothing about wine or believe you're an expert (no such thing, really) you can learn something about wine if you are open-minded. If you just follow this one you're pretty much guaranteed a good time!