If you are planning to visit a tasting room and are unfamiliar with what happens inside one, or simply want to learn about tasting room etiquette, this guide is for you!
I begin with a summary of Do’s and Don’ts that I will expand upon. Hopefully, this will assist you in making your tasting room experiences more enjoyable. Your tasting room host will also appreciate you because you’ve become a good guest. I also invite you to visit Vindicated LLC’s website for other blogs and more information about wine events, and wine tours: www.vindicatedllc.com.
A summary of the Do’s and Don’ts in this blog:
- Carefully consider whether to visit what I call “Disneyland” wineries that attract big, noisy, crowds. Experiences there are not conducive to learning about wine.
- Homework on the wineries you want to visit so you know which wineries are appointment only and which ones accommodate dogs and children. If you get overwhelmed by the choices, hire someone to assist you and help you make the most of your visit if you are traveling to Napa or Sonoma. Vindicated, LLC is one choice if you need help.
- Ask for a spit cup if you don’t want to consume the wine that is poured for you.
- Tip your host if you’ve received excellent service and hospitality. Prepare ahead and bring tip money.
- Bring your business card if you are in the wine industry and let your host know right away that you are “industry”. This includes distributors, retailers, winery employees, etc.
- Know your alcohol limit. It’s bad form to be drunk in a tasting room.
- Ask questions!
- Wear perfume, scented lotion or scented after-shave on the day you will be tasting.
- Ask for more pours from your host – with one exception.
- Bring your bachelorette party.
- Use the dump bucket as your spit cup unless the tasting room has no individual spit cup to offer you.
- Walk into a tasting room and hand your empty coffee cup or water bottle to a host.
- Chew gum, use mints, or drink coffee just before wine tasting. It will ruin your palate and you will have a limited ability to properly smell and taste wine.
- Constantly swirl your wine. Set your wine glass down unless sniffing or tasting.
- Go into a tasting room drunk or get drunk while in the tasting room.
Preparing for your tasting room visit:
Many tasting rooms well worth your time are appointment-only tasting rooms. It pays to do some research in advance, so that you can make appointments at the wineries that require them. You can also hire a company such as Vindicated, LLC to help you plan your winery visits and conduct a tour for you, or put together an itinerary for you. Also be aware that some wineries do not accommodate children and/or dogs. The winery’s website should state this if it applies.
The advantages of an appointment-only tasting room are several:
- You won’t be knocking elbows with other strangers at a tasting bar and vying for the attention of a host.
- You won’t be yelling to be heard because there is a noisy crowd inside.
- You will have the host’s undivided attention during your appointment. The host will be able to educate you about the winery and its history, and about the wine you are being served, and will have the time to answer your questions. Often, an appointment-only winery includes a tour; perhaps of vineyards, or the wineries’ caves or barrel storage area. Many appointment-only wineries have food and wine pairings that you can choose as an upgraded option.
If you are planning a visit to the Napa Valley or Sonoma areas, consider visiting some of the mountain wineries. Many first time visitors to the Napa Valley area are unaware of how many wineries are located in the Mayacamas and Vaca Mountain ranges that range along each side of the valley floor. If you only visit wineries on the valley floor you are missing some really spectacular wineries – as well as some stunning views from those locations. Mountain vineyards produce some of the best wines (this is true worldwide). Almost all the mountain wineries are appointment-only and I highly recommend you try a few. If you need some recommendations, please contact me at www.vindicatedllc.com .
I don’t want to name any particular winery in saying this, but there are several “Disneyland” wineries in the Napa/Sonoma areas that attract large, noisy crowds. Speaking personally, I don’t want to have to yell to be heard by my host, or to have to elbow my way up through a crowd to a tasting bar for a wine pour. How will you know a “Disneyland” winery? If you pull into the parking lot and see large tour buses, stretch limos, lots of black town cars and lots of parking spaces (I’m talking acres) – that’s your first clue.
On the day of your visit do not wear perfume, use scented lotion or scented after-shave! Scents will interfere with your ability to analyze and appreciate a wine’s aroma. It will not only interfere with your ability to smell, it will interfere with other guest’s ability to smell. There is almost nothing worse than smelling a cloud of perfume or cologne while trying to appreciate wine. No one working in the industry will wear body scents when working around wine – it just isn’t done.
Decide whether you want to hire a guided tour company like Vindicated, LLC to educate you about wine as you are out tasting. My company utilizes Certified Sommeliers as educators, something very rare in the wine touring business. Whether or not you hire a tour guide, you will quickly become intoxicated when wine tasting if you aren’t very careful, so having a driver is always the best option.
Finally, I suggest eating a good breakfast before you start in the morning, visit no more than two wineries before having lunch and don’t drink all the wine you are poured at those wineries, or use a spit cup. After lunch, visit no more than two wineries and call it a day. Your palate will get fatigued after visiting three or four wineries which means you won’t be as good at evaluating what you are drinking by the end of the day.
Inside The Tasting Room:
A tasting room can vary from an opulent homage to the founders’ vision (and current economic status), to a humble and charming converted barn. Occasionally, some of the smaller wineries’ tasting rooms are still located on someone’s back porch or inside a barrel storage area. (Love the smell of wine aging in oak!)
I have visited hundreds of tasting rooms in Washington, Oregon, California, Michigan and France, and I’ve worked in some tasting rooms. Any tasting room you visit should be welcoming, and when you leave you should feel you’ve been provided with excellent hospitality. If you don’t experience those things, that will be unusual in my personal experience and you should let the manager know (suggestions about that later). Tasting room staff are trained to be engaging and are hired for their ability to interact well with strangers while also telling the winery’s story and educating you about the wine. Of course they also want to try to sell you wine, but almost all sales pitches will be a soft sell. They mostly just want you to have a great experience, hopefully enjoy their wine, and be able to genuinely recommend them to your friends and family. As with any product, they want to build brand loyalty.
When arriving, especially in the Napa Valley, it is not unusual to be greeted by a concierge. This person will have a big smile for you and will immediately either offer you a welcome splash of wine or escort you to a host who will offer you some wine and explain the tasting menu. If there is no concierge and you do not have an appointment, then just walk up to the tasting bar and a host will welcome you and provide you with the tasting menu. You will need to decide what tasting menu to choose, and once you’ve done that, your host will begin pouring wine for you and educating you about the wine you are being served. You can let your host know if you want to share a tasting with a companion, but don’t expect to be poured more wine if you choose this option. You will not be allowed to choose more than one tasting menu because of the winery’s permit restrictions. Usually, your host will collect payment for the tasting at the end of the tasting experience, and you will often be offered a “bonus” pour that is not on the menu.
If the tasting room has a “reserve wines” menu in addition to their “regular” menu, the reserve menu will be more expensive. (The term “Reserve” has no regulated meaning in U.S. law. When a winery uses that term it is generally meant to convey the best wine produced by that winery.) Some tasting rooms will credit you the tasting fee if you buy wine, others will not.
You are not expected to buy wine, but the host will probably ask you if you wish to purchase any. If you don’t wish to make a purchase, politely decline and thank the host for the great experience he/she has provided.
Be aware that every winery has a permit that governs how much wine can be poured for each visitor. Generally you will be poured about two ounces of each wine being served, and the total will probably be 8-10 ounces maximum. If you put this into context, a 6 oz. pour when you order a glass of wine in a restaurant is a generous pour – many restaurants or bars will only serve you a 5 oz. glass of wine. Be aware that you are consuming about 2 glasses of wine at each winery you visit! Don’t place the host in an uncomfortable position by repeatedly asking for more pours of wine you have already been served. It’s perfectly acceptable to ask to “revisit” a particular wine especially if you are contemplating purchasing it, but don’t ask to revisit more than one.
Once your host has poured your wine, you can start evaluating and enjoying it (or not). Evaluating the wine begins with sniffing it – before you swirl. Put your nose right into the glass, and sniff. Move the glass away from your nose and think about what you smelled. Next, swirl the wine to oxygenate it, and bring it up to your nose and sniff again. You should smell aromas more intensely after swirling. Take the glass away from your nose. Think again about what you smelled. Did swirling intensify the aromas, or change them? Next, bring the glass up to your mouth and taste the wine. Does the wine taste like it smelled? These three actions give you a basis to start talking about the wine with your companions and with your host. If you use these techniques with each wine you taste, your ability to analyze aromas and discreet flavors will improve.
One thing I really dislike about visiting a tasting room is when the host immediately says to me, “You should be smelling a, b and c, and tasting x, y and z.” Every person’s sense of smell is different and so is every person’s palate. Besides, I want to decide for myself what I’m smelling and tasting. If you’re an experienced wine drinker and have participated in blind tastings, then you may be able to detect certain aromas common to a particular wine but if you are not, then you will struggle at first to identify what you are smelling and tasting. This is common, and if you want to, you can get better at it. Most important when you are new to wine tasting is identifying what you like and don’t like and trying to discern why. That way you can seek out similar wine styles in the future. Do you find you dislike white wines? Try seeking out different white grapes before you dismiss all white wines completely. Different grape varieties produce really different wines. Perhaps you have only tried Chardonnay’s that has spent too much time aging in new French oak. Try an un-oaked Chardonnay instead, or a Sauvignon Blanc or a dry Reisling. Do you like robust, mouth-filling red wines that leave a long, lingering finish in your mouth? If so, seek out wines such as Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo or Bordeaux-blends. Do you dislike wines that make your mouth feel dry? Then seek out red wines with soft tannins such as Malbec or Merlot.
I see people in tasting rooms all the time that seem to think they need to constantly swirl the wine in their glass. In fact, I’ve hosted people whose arms never stop moving while holding the wine glass. Some who do this move their entire arms in large circles trying to swirl the wine. It’s amusing to watch them. A practiced swirl is a wrist movement, not an arm movement. If you can’t do it, then keep your wine glass on the counter surface and swirl it that way – it’s less likely you will spill your wine. If you don’t know how to do this, ask your host to show you. There is no need for a constant swirling motion with your wine glass, so give it a rest!
If you are working in the wine industry in any capacity, be sure to have business cards with you and hand one to your host or to the concierge when you arrive. Industry professionals will almost always receive a free tasting and a generous industry discount on wine purchases. You may even get an industry discount on a wine club membership, so don’t hesitate to ask. Don’t expect your industry discount to extend to your friends or family who are with you…that is an individual decision for each winery. Be sure to thank your host for any “perks” you get for being in the industry and you should leave a generous tip as you’ve likely received a generous benefit that the regular public doesn’t.
Don’t walk into a tasting room with your empty paper coffee cup or empty plastic water bottle and hand it to a host. The hosts aren’t there to dispose of your garbage and in my opinion it immediately creates a bad vibe between the guest and the host.
Get rid of your gum before walking into a tasting room – better yet, don’t chew gum at all on the day you will be wine tasting. Gum in your mouth while tasting wine is so wrong that I struggle for words as to why I have to explain this. But I have seen this enough times to know that it’s a frequent occurrence. It also immediately marks you as a newbie. People think they need gum or strong mints after eating lunch, but remember that wine and food are meant to enhance one another. Strong flavors in your mouth from gum or mints will make it very difficult to taste the wine, let alone try to analyze and appreciate what you are tasting.
Most tasting rooms will have a “dump bucket” of some kind. This is generally not meant for you to spit into; rather it is for you to pour your unwanted wine that has been served to you. It is not considered rude to pour wine into the dump bucket. If you want to spit your wine instead of consuming it, ask the host for a spit cup. If the winery cannot provide you with a spit cup then use the dump bucket for spitting, just be aware it is not very sanitary.
It is not considered uncouth to spit the wine you have been served, rather than consume it. Many people visiting a tasting room will choose to spit because they are driving or because they just don’t want to become intoxicated. Professionals in the wine industry frequently will spit their wine when visiting a tasting room, particularly if they plan to visit several tasting rooms in a single day.
You do not need to rinse your wine glass with water between tastings! If the menu includes red and white wines you may be provided with a different glass when you switch from whites to reds, but if not, you can use water to rinse your glass when switching from white wine to red wine but that is the only time you need to rinse your glass. Once you are tasting only red wines you are simply watering down your wine if you rinse your glass between each wine pour.
Many wineries have “wine clubs” and you will likely be presented with information about the various wine clubs when you visit a tasting room. Usually, this is a very soft sell. There can be real advantages to joining a wine club, so if you are interested, check out the details and ask questions. One of the advantages is free tastings in the future, usually for four people, and there will always be a discount on the retail price of the wine. Many wineries have a section of the tasting room set aside just for wine club members, which can be a nice benefit of membership. Plus, you get the wine shipped directly to you and that can be something to look forward to!
Do ask questions if you have them! Your host has been trained to answer questions, and how else are you going to learn if you don’t ask questions? You would be surprised at the knowledge many hosts have from working in other tasting rooms, or having industry experience and certifications.
When your tasting experience is over and if you have had a good experience, leave a tip for your host. Always leave a tip if you’ve received a free tasting for whatever reason. Also, your host will be a good resource for other wineries for you to visit as well as restaurants he/she enjoys if you need some recommendations. Your host is likely very well versed in which wineries in the area offer good experiences to their guests, and have good wine.
This leads me to the issue of bachelorette parties. I have been an unfortunate guest at several wineries where bachelorette parties invaded the tasting room. Ladies, no matter how a host might behave when you arrive, offering smiles and a welcome, I guarantee you they are inwardly groaning at having to serve you. If the tasting room is small and there is no separate space for a larger party, it immediately creates an obnoxious environment for the other guests. I also know from talking with several tasting room managers and staff that they all hate bachelorette parties even though they would never state it publicly. In fact, several wineries have become appointment-only in order to avoid bachelorette parties. Bachelorette parties should occur elsewhere – no exceptions, unless you are occupying a private space within the winery through an advance reservation.
Finally, whether to use Yelp, Trip Advisor, and other customer review sites after your visit to a tasting room. Tasting room managers do review these sites to read customer reviews. If you have something nice to say, then go ahead and write about it. However, if you had a bad experience, my suggestion is that you contact the tasting room manager to let him/her know what happened. They want to know! What they don’t want is to have their winery’s reputation called into question because of a bad review on the internet – especially when it is a training issue they can correct. Be constructive is what I’m suggesting, rather than destructive by writing a bad review. All tasting room managers want their staff to be well trained and able to offer an excellent experience to guests. They will also do anything in their power, in my experience, to address any guest complaint and resolve it satisfactorily.
I hope this blog has been helpful, and that you have a good time when you go out wine tasting. Please contact me at www.vindicatedllc.com if I can be of assistance to you. Cheers! Santé! Prost! Salute! Christy Davis, Esq. and Certified Sommelier.