We’ve all been there. The near-arctic chill of an ornately furnished tasting room washes over you and, breathing a sigh of relief, you belly up to the bar ready to discover a new favorite bottle. But the calm disappears as fast as it arrived — confronted with overwritten tasting menus and overly exuberant staffers, wine tasting just went from relaxing to overwhelming at lightning speed.
Whether you’re embarking on your first winery visit or are a weekend taster extraordinaire, rest assured there’s a method to the madness. With a bit of advance intel, deciphering jargon and navigating menus — what’s so special about a $25 “Reserve” anyway? — is a snap.
We spoke to winery tasting room managers and rounded up the six best tips and tricks to help you make the most of any tasting experience. What we found is the most important advice anyone can give you is to have fun. The goal of every person at every wine tasting is to entertain and educate with each pour.
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And don’t forget to bring a sweater.
It’s important to know what you’re looking for prior to arriving at any winery, whether it’s for a drop-in tasting or large, passport-style event.
Love Cabernet Sauvignon? Hate Chardonnay? If you’re taking a self-guided tour of a region and want to go to some wine tastings along the way, a quick Google search (e.g., “best Anderson Valley wines”) can give you an idea of what that area might offer. That way, you can narrow your search to avoid wines you don’t love and stock up on what you do.
Map your days in wine country to optimize time spent tasting instead of driving. Not all wine regions are small, and not all tasting rooms are condensed into urban neighborhoods or quaint squares. Two hours of driving between wineries is a very common reality — all the more reason to plan ahead!
At large wine tastings, don’t rush to fill up your glass. Kelsey Mort, tasting room manager of Yorba Wines in Amador County, Calif., suggests getting an overview of the scene first.
“I always like to do a walking circuit first just to get a sense of where things are and see if anything catches my eye,” she says. “Then visit wineries you may not be familiar with before you visit the ones you know “
Follow the Tasting Order
It may seem like the person pouring is being bossy by telling you to drink your Chenin Blanc before your Merlot, but there is science behind every tasting sequence. Winemakers spend a long time organizing their wines for optimal results. Tannin, the astringent, puckery feeling caused by red wines, and sugar both linger on the palate. They can cloud the taste of lighter, dry wines. That’s why delicate whites and rosés are usually served before reds and dessert wines.
If you’re visiting a tasting room of a winery you are familiar with, be open to trying new wines. “Many wineries offer limited-production and often-esoteric wines only available at their tasting rooms,” Allison Caruso, tasting room manager at Turley Wine Cellars in Amador County, says. “Get outside your comfort zone and allow the tasting room staff to show you what they get most excited about.”
It’s not just O.K. to let the winery make suggestions and lead the way — it’s encouraged, Caruso says.
When confronted with multiple tasting menus or a large group of wines at a larger-scale event, do a quick scan of all the menus. Ask pourers or event staffers which is the most popular, or select one based on your preferences. If you’re in a group, it’s always acceptable to share flights. As long as you taste the wines in the order they’re suggested, you’re good to go.
The only reason to skip around is if you plan to truly abstain from a portion of the tasting menu. But where’s the fun in that?
Embrace the Water Pitcher
Look, we’re not trying to ruin anyone’s buzz here, but skipping water won’t end well. Ever.
Firstly, the universal solvent acts as an excellent palate cleanser. Hydrating will also keep you alert during tasting, while every sip of wine does the exact opposite. This is good for a number of reasons, not least of which is you will remember the details of your new favorite wine instead of bringing home something you may never want to drink again.
Water is even more important at large-scale outdoor tasting events where issues like heat stroke and dehydration can easily arise. This is especially true in the summer and fall in warm-weather wine regions.
Mort’s advice is simple. “Water, water, water,” she says.
Like water and electricity, booze and empty stomachs don’t mix. To avoid being the person stumbling out of the tasting room, eat breakfast before you taste and bring along a couple of snacks for the road.
Most wineries preach the value of combining wine and food and, as a result, are thrilled to accommodate picnickers on their grounds or snacks at their tasting bars. Call or email to ask about picnic options, or simply pack a cooler for your car. (Side note: Your designated driver should not rely on snacks to stay alert behind the wheel. They should rely on sobriety.)
That said, to make the most of the wines, save big meals and bold flavors for the days before or after your tasting. Lingering hints of sriracha or hollandaise can cloud your palate through an entire flight of wines. Since smell and taste are connected, the aromas of the vino will be muted, too. As a result, you might swear off a variety that tastes “bland” to you at that moment only, or purchase wines that seem good at the time but taste off at home.
Stick to crackers, raw veggies (plain white mushrooms are great!), or unsalted nuts to cleanse your palate between sips.
Take Two Sips, and Then Spit.
For the record, spitting doesn’t take the fun out of wine tasting. In fact, it can make any wine-fueled adventure more fun by allowing you to try (and remember) more flavors.
Generally speaking, each flight is approximately one standard glass of wine. That can add up fast if you’re at a large wine event or touring four or five wineries in an afternoon. A good rule of thumb is to take two sips of each wine. If you love it, drink it; if not, spit it out, and simply dump what’s left in your glass. Contrary to your college-era beliefs, this isn’t “wasting” good alcohol. And the winery will not be offended!
“Don’t try to get your ‘money’s worth’ by tasting everything,” Mort says. “You will regret it the next day and probably won’t be able to remember the great new places you discovered early on.”
“Ask questions” is a common refrain in wine education, but it’s one that deserves to be repeated.
“No server is a mind reader,” Mort says. “Just about any question about the wines, the vineyard, and the history are appreciated.”
The same goes for questions about winemaking terms. If you’re unsure of what something means (malolactic fermentation, anyone?) go ahead and ask the server. It’s their job to teach you.
“It also never hurts to ask if there are any special, ‘not-on-the-menu’ wines that can be sampled,” says Mort. “Sometimes you will get lucky and find your new favorite wine this way!”
You never know what sort of insider intel the person pouring your wine might have. Tasting room staff are expected to be experts about their wineries, but they’re often incredible resources for local information as well. Most live in the area where they pour and can make recommendations for the best restaurants, must-see scenery, or even neighboring wineries based on your preferences. There is no better way to make the most of a day or weekend tasting.