Tasting Room 101: A Guide for Beginners and Pros Alike

It's harvest in Northern California and with the earthquake behind us, it’s time to hit the wine roads
Sep 10, 2014

Harvest is peak season for wine tourism in Northern California, although some of the tectonically anxious may worry about visiting this year after the earthquake. There's no reason to. It's business as usual in Sonoma County, and even in harder-hit Napa Valley, wineries, restaurants and hotels are open with a few exceptions.

If you're a veteran of the wine trails you know the ropes. You have a detailed plan and an itinerary of appointments.

The average wine tourists just wing it. Believe me, as someone who has lived here and entertained guests from out of town for 25 years, I know of what I speak. They just want to see wine country, drink a little vino and have a nice day.

It's those folks I have in mind with today's post: a primer (or refresher course) on tasting-room etiquette. I know, "etiquette" makes it sound like something stodgy and set in stone. Not to fret. A laidback day of tasting in wine country is one of the most enjoyable things you can do as a certified grown-up.

Drop in, or call ahead? It depends on the winery. Most have posted hours that they are open for tastings. Some small or exclusive wineries are either not open to the public or open only by appointment.

Expect a fee. The average is $10 to $25. Many wineries will waive the fee if you buy a bottle, and it's generally OK for a couple to share a taste.

Don't be shy. If you don't like a wine, most wineries won't take it personally. Tastes differ. Pour out any leftover wine from your glass into one of the small buckets on the counter.

Don't hog the counter. If the tasting room is busy, move away from the counter after you're poured a taste to give others a chance.

Time to chat. If it's a slow day, most tasting rooms welcome your questions. If it's a small winery, you could be talking to the winemaker. (But if it's harvest, don't count on it.)

What about a tour? Large wineries have set hours for tours and an appointment is usually required. There is often a fee. Most wineries limit tours to mailing club members and special guests. Call ahead to be sure.

Have a picnic. Some wineries require that you reserve a spot in advance, but most welcome drop ins. Always buy a bottle as a courtesy, whether you drink it there or take it home.

What about kids? A tricky issue. Some tasting rooms are child friendly and others are not. Look at it this way: The kids will get bored. I have a lot of experience with this issue. If you must bring the children, adults should take turns keeping them entertained outside or away from the tasting counter. That way the whole family has fun.

I could list many more—cut back on the perfume, for example—but I'll leave it at that. What are your rules for the tasting room? Any that I left out?

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