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The Rules of Tasting-Room Etiquette

A friendly guide from winery tasting-room managers, including what not to bring: bad attitudes, strong perfumes, small children, handguns …

Posted: Apr 11, 2013 10:35am ET

By Robert Taylor

We had our first 70-plus-degree day in New York this week, the wildflowers are blooming in Napa Valley after a chilly early spring, and winery tasting rooms across the country are playing host to more and more tourists by the day. Those visitors are a huge source of wine-country income, but they can also be a huge headache when they don't abide by proper tasting-room decorum.

Not long ago, in the charming Southern California wine hamlet of Temecula, the Bel Vino Winery tasting room received an unscheduled visit from Temecula Police Department officers and even a sheriff's helicopter, responding to reports of a mêlée between intoxicated tourists …

The shenanigans led to an ill-fated escape attempt by the suspects, an assault on a deputy and five arrests. "Four women began to dispute and assault each other in a bathroom," Bel Vino Winery CEO Lisa Kaplan commented in an online report. "The incident was blown way out of proportion. … We had five people involved in the 'brawl that never was.' I invite anyone to stop by and visit Bel Vino Winery. ... We take very seriously the guest needs and safety. We also take very seriously the wine consumption of all our guests."

Of course, the "Brawl that Never Was" was an isolated incident, and Bel Vino has received very good customer reviews for its hospitality. But, with tasting-room tourist season kicking into high gear, what exactly are the dos and don'ts of winery visits?

Got I.D.? "Bring your I.D., even if you're 40," said Wild Horse Winery visitor-center manager Leslie Churchill, who previously worked in hospitality at Napa tourist mecca Franciscan Estate. "If you have your parents with you, I don’t care if they vouch for you, I'm still not going to serve you. We've had a few European parents who get mad that we won't serve their teenagers."

Plan ahead and watch the clock: "Call ahead if you have a large group," suggested Churchill, who also encourages visitors to be mindful of the tasting room's hours of operation. "People show up at 5 p.m. and stay for 45 minutes, knowing you're closed, and then they don't buy anything. So if someone stays open late for you, at least purchase a bottle. That's just polite."

Don't overdo it: "I suggest doing one nice tasting in the morning and one nice tasting in the afternoon, and then if you have time, your palate is still there and you're not picking your tongue up off the floor, then you can add a third one," advised Jason Bullock, hospitality manager at Napa's Flora Springs winery. "But I see people all the time that try to squeeze in six or seven or eight tastings—like kids in a candy store—but they're not enjoying the experience. You're going to be in a rush. I see it all the time: They spend a year planning their vacation to Napa Valley to relax and enjoy the beauty of it, and they end up just hustling from one place to the next."

Don't be the answer to "What's that smell?" It's impossible to appreciate the aroma of a Cabernet when the air is heavy with the fragrance of perfume or smoke. So be mindful not to introduce any unwanted aromatics to the tasting room, even if the staff is too polite to say anything. "We just go open the door to get some fresh air," said Churchill. Bullock suggests taking the tasting outside if the day is nice, "to enjoy the views of the vineyard and get them as far away from everyone else's nose as possible."

Watch your mouth and mind your manners: "Be polite and don't expect to drink all you want," Churchill said. "Don't be loud; don't be obnoxious; don't be unruly; don't cuss—it's not a sports bar." Also be mindful that only tasting-room employees, by law, are permitted to pour you a glass of wine—never reach for the open bottles. And never, ever, pull a Miles: "Don't drink out of the dump bucket," Churchill admonished. "I've had that happen before, not like in Sideways—it was a little bit classier … he actually poured it into his wineglass before he chugged it down. I said, 'Excuse me, but you can't do that.' And he said, 'Oh, it's OK, I'm from Canada.' I said, 'I don't know what that means, but you still can't do that!'"

Leave the kids at home, and don't leave your friends or belongings at the winery: "If you bring kids, bring snacks and coloring books or something to keep them entertained," Churchill advised, although children are generally best left at home. "Napa Valley is for making babies, not taking babies," Bullock joked. "We don't encourage [bringing children], but we don't discourage it, either. Parents work hard, but it's the other guests that we worry about—they come to Napa Valley to get away from their own children; they most certainly don't want to hang out with yours!" While a call ahead can smooth out any visits from the underaged, winery staff can't often prepare for what guests leave behind, from an off-duty officer's handgun to a wedding party that departed without a bridesmaid napping in the cellar.

Bullock doesn't want anyone to get the wrong idea about tasting-room etiquette, however. The expectations "vary with the caliber of the winery. There are wineries that everyone knows are the 'party wineries,' and we're certainly not Snooty McSnooterson here, but I think we offer a high-caliber experience," he said. "People are good natured about [the rules]. It's fun to come here—to let loose a little bit, and I certainly enjoy that right alongside them."

Steve Kubota
Bellingham, WA, USA —  April 11, 2013 1:26pm ET
I used to find it hard to believe people will leave common sense at the door when it comes to wine tasting etiquette and decorum. I've been to several wineries and events held away from wineries such as winemaker's dinners, gala events, private tastings, etc. and the tips in this article need to be shared with friends prior to attending an event or winery tasting. It might be appropriate for event holders to include this information in their literature prior to an event as well.

I also think a responsible beverage program and/or service will help stem the tide when it comes to over-serving the public at large.
Donald Walker
Los Angeles, CA —  April 11, 2013 6:37pm ET
"Its ok, I'm from Canada". Best line of the year.
Dennis Landes
Fort Worth, Texas —  April 16, 2013 4:25pm ET
Winery visitation etiquette also dictates that when one is part of a tour group that includes a number of wineries, plus tastings in the fee paid, a couple of bottles need to be purchased from a couple of the wineries, at the least.

Wineries are a business, and for them to be part of a tour group visit is a service that they do not have to be a part of; so to purchase from them when visiting as part of a tour group is/should be understood.
Dean Hereford
Fairport, NY —  April 17, 2013 10:00pm ET
My wife and I, and our best friends, have been going on wine trips for over 16 years (Sonoma, Napa, Anderson Valley, Oregon, Tuscany region, Chianti region, Finger lakes). The four of us get two tastings and share (usually per couple :). This way we are able to sample the wine and then purchase what we like. We will visit 5 to 7 winery's during the day depending on the area, starting at 10 and finishing by 5. We hydrate, eat, and enjoy the surroundings in between tastings. Usually we stay 6 to 10 days in the area, so we normally will do a few days of tasting during our stay. We buy what we can not purchase in NYS and then send back home. We make reservations at the winery's we are really interested in, normally they are by appointment only. We have found it is best to plan ahead,the total experience is much more rewarding. Wine tasting is a fun experience and should be enjoyed, but responsibly and courteously.
David Williams
Carlsbad CA —  April 14, 2014 4:24pm ET
There is a thread in the forum currently about bringing children. A question is: If it's against CA code to bring children into a bar, wouldn't it also include children in tasting rooms?

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