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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Wine Tasting Tip #13 - Going wine tasting for the first time

Visiting winery tasting rooms for the first (or second) time? What should you expect? How should you act? There's nothing to fear -- it's really easy!

Winery Tasting Rooms

Not every winery has a place to taste their wines. Some are just too small to have public tastings. Many are open to the public while others require an appointment. In California, at least, the ones open to the public are usually open every day except major holidays from late morning until late afternoon. A few of the smaller ones will close on some weekdays.

Most will have a separate retail room, or tasting room, where they taste and sell their wines. In some of the smaller wineries it might not even be a "room," but part of the winery's cellar. Some have tasting removed from where the wine is made, such as a retail operation in a nearby town.

How to decide which ones to visit?

If you're new to wine tasting stick with tasting rooms that are open to the public (don't require an appointment). Pick one small area to visit. For example, the Calistoga area in Napa Valley as opposed to driving all over the entire length of Napa in one day. Get recommendations from friends who have visited and then from locals once you arrive. It helps if you have an idea of what you are interested in, such as Cabernet, nice views, winery tours, smaller family-owned wineries, etc.

Other things to check on before you stop in:
Children - Most are okay with small children, but you may find it difficult keeping an eye on them while trying to taste.
Dogs - Many are okay with pets, some are not. Check before you go.

What to do first when you arrive

Ask about their policies (costs, refunds if you purchase). Sharing a tasting should be okay if you wish, but know that each taste is less than one ounce.

The majority of California wineries charge a fee for tasting, usually anywhere from $5 to $25 though some are still free. Most will refund if you purchase, but it's best to check the policy before you go if cost is important. Generally, the more out-of-the-way areas will charge less than the popular touristy places (such as Amador County vs. Napa Valley).

There should be a list of the wines available for tasting that day on a sheet of paper on the bar or maybe on a board behind the bar.

How the tasting works

So there's this list, or menu, of wines you'll be trying. You may have a choice between a couple different lists. One might be white wines with another of reds, or one might be their less expensive wines with a second list of the more pricey wines. You will taste down the list from top to bottom getting small samples (usually about an ounce) of each wine. The wines should be listed in the recommended order for tasting. You may be tasting everything on the list or you may be allowed to select a certain number of wines from the list.


Smell it, swirl it, smell it again, then take a small taste. Dump any out that you don't care to finish. If there's a particular wine on the list you don't want then say so before it's poured, but remember this is your chance to try new things. I've found this particularly true of Chardonnay and Zinfandel as what many folks find that the style of these varieties found back home don't always match the quality of what you can find at the wineries in Sonoma County. For instance, not all Chardonnay is oaky and buttery; and Zinfandel is actually a red wine, not pink, as many believe! Also, you may run across varieties you've never heard of--don't be afraid.

Determining what you like

There are folks that over-analyze wine and some write descriptions that sound more like poetry. What matters is what you like. It's that simple, but ... A few key things to remember:
- The first sip and the second glass of a wine will tasting different.
- The wine will be different based on what you last had in your mouth. If it was toothpaste or coffee, for instance, that's not good for the wine.
- The real trick is, how will this wine taste at home? On the patio on a summer afternoon, with a grilled steak, etc?
- It's perfectly okay to ask for help from the tasting room staff.

How do you judge these things? Mostly, it's by experience. One thing I've noticed is a slight acidic note on the first sip is good. The really soft (low acid) wines are not necessarily very good once you get past that first sip. What's acid? For example, a high acid fruit would be grapefruit; low acid watermelon.


If you're not sure what you may want to purchase it's okay to ask for a second taste of a particular wine to help make up your mind.

Wineries list retail prices and sometimes their wine club's prices to entice you to join. A wine club is a commitment to purchase more of their wine in the future. If you like pretty much everything you've sampled you can ask about their club. Otherwise, most will offer quantity discounts on twelve and maybe six bottles.

Most wineries will ship their wine to your home. What states each will ship to varies widely because the shipping laws for alcoholic beverages is a mess, so ask. The per bottle shipping costs are high for a bottle or two, but drop significantly if you ship larger quantities.

If you aren't interested in purchasing you don't have to make up an excuse, Just say no thanks and settle up for any tasting fees owed.

The tasting room staff

You may be talking to an owner/winemaker, but more likely it's a hired staff member for tasting and retail sales. The vast majority are congenial and knowledgeable about wine. A few are pushy sales people. If the room is busy then the service may not be the best. This means, for example, if you are in Napa Valley on a Saturday afternoon don't expect the quickest, most attentive service.

Some don'ts

Don't ask for a bigger taste than they pour. There are laws as far as what can be poured.

If a winery closes at 5 pm showing up at 4:59 means you probably can't expect a full tasting

Showing up intoxicated means you cannot be served.

If you go tasting without your drivers license it doesn't matter if you're 30 years old. If you can't  prove you are 21 you won't be served. Having your friend say, "But I know she's 24" isn't proof.

Some do's

It should be educational. Learn. Have fun. Relax. Bring a picnic. Socialize. Take pictures.