The Art of Wine Tasting

Rebecca Chapa |
Beer, Wine, and Spirits

Visiting wine country can be a great experience, but it’s always important to approach a day of winery visits with clear goals, a plan, and some basic knowledge to ensure that the day is exactly what you want it to be. I am frequently asked, “I’m taking a trip to Napa and Sonoma. Where do you think I should go for wine?” It’s asked very innocently and I’m happy to help, but without some basic information, it’s impossible to answer. Often, the real issue is that the person asking hasn’t really thought through their visit themselves.


Step 1: Planning

Before getting to the nitty-gritty, it's important ask what the goal of your winery visit is. Are you in wine country for a wedding that's going to eat up most of the weekend with an hour or two free for visits? Will there be an overnight stay or is it just a day visit? Who is going? After all, the audience will very much dictate how much and what you are able to do.


It’s important to be clear on the parameters of your visit so that everyone can enjoy the day. If you're driving to Mendocino and have a minute or two to jump off the highway to have lunch in Healdsburg, it may not make sense for you to do a full-fledged tour. Instead, you might consider dropping into the CB Tasting Room & Wine Bar {320 Center Street, Healdsburg; 707.473.9707}. That type of visit will be perfect to whet your whistle and pick up some fun wines as gifts for friends.


If the weekend is all about stocking the cellar, however, then it may be important to make set appointments at your favorite wineries. Be sure to give yourself limits; while the idea of hitting five wineries and having lunch at The French Laundry sounds delectable, in reality, you will find yourself worn out and exhausted by the end of the day. These types of days start to spiral out of control quickly and winery visits end up taking longer with each subsequent stop.


Most wine regions have websites where you can research wineries to visit, and many even specify whether they have picnic areas, artwork, gardens, or the like. If you travel with non-drinking companions, consider visiting wineries that have activities other than wine tasting. You'll all be happier for that extra effort you spent researching.


To Sum Up:


Step 2: Execution

We have all been victims of wine tasting faux pas, so it’s best to know what’s appropriate. Generally, wineries offer visits for free or a small fee. The fee does not even begin to cover the cost of operating a tasting room; instead, it allows wineries to track visitors and monitor consumption. Think of all the work it takes to host a friend at your home and consider this when visiting a tasting room. Whether a larger operation or a small, family-owned winery, winemakers are investing time, staff, and samples to ensure that you have a good time have a chance to try their wines.


Be polite. Be attentive. Be patient. Being nice is such a simple thing, but sometimes easily forgotten. You’re in wine country, so have fun! Also, keep in mind that engaging with the tasting staff is part of the experience. All too often, I notice groups of people carrying on about what they did last Saturday while the staff just stands there. That indicates that they really aren’t interested in the wine. If you show interest, many vintners will pull out that special sample, or take you on a mini tour. Save the other conversation for lunchtime or for a tasting room that has that type of setup, such as tables with table service. If you are going to chat amongst your group, it’s also helpful to step aside from the tasting bar so that others can engage and taste. And if you get a call from work or a friend, answer it outside and out of earshot of the group.


While wineries don’t expect you to buy wine, it really helps them out. The industry is not always easy and seeing that you like what they serve is a boon to any winemaker. If you don’t like the wine, there is no reason to lie, but consider the time spent on creating a given vintage or bottle of wine. If you were at a friend’s house, you wouldn’t tell his mother that you hated her goulash. You would smile sweetly and fill up on salad. If you really love the wines, then ask about their wine club or email list. It’s great to be in wine country, but when you can’t, the next best thing is being able to crack open a bottle you buy locally and remember the day you first visited that winery.


After tasting, it's appropriate to spit. Yes, spit. Remember that even if you have arranged for transportation or have a designated driver (which is vital), wine tasting is a marathon and not a sprint. If you have six one-ounce tastes at each winery—on top of wine at lunch—you will notice the effects very quickly. If there is no spittoon or spit bucket readily available, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask for one. On some winery tours, you may find yourself without anywhere to spit. It's not uncommon, however, for wineries to allow spitting in the drains or even their gravel areas. Before you do, though, be sure to ask permission.


Overall, have fun and ask questions. This should be both fun and eye-opening.

To Sum Up: