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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
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Sep 10, 2014 10:30am ET

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?

Mark Lyon
Sonoma, California —  September 10, 2014 1:25pm ET
I hate to say this, but please check the prices on their larger production wines. Often times, they are more $ than what is found at the store. Investigate which wines are only sold at the TR and buy them if you like! You can pack them in your suitcase to take back with "wine sleeves". Often times, signing up for their wine club enables discounts.
David Peters
Mission Viejo, CA —  September 10, 2014 2:33pm ET
Tim: My biggest pet-peeve are the groups (large & small) that are loud and obnoxious while standing among other visitors who are trying to think about the wines they are tasting or discussing with the host/hostess. Some of these yahoos behave like they're in a sports bar. Tasting rooms are for the purpose of learning about & exploring new wines, not wine bars for just another night out with the girls or guys. Go to your local pub with you just want to tie one on. Thanks for listening.
Christine Humphrey
Thousand Oaks, Ca.  —  September 10, 2014 3:54pm ET
Yes, David, I couldn't agree with you more. When we see limos or tour buses in the parking lots of wineries, we generally leave and come back when the majorly buzzed and loud people have left. A potentially really nice tasting was ruined at DePonte in Oregon last year by small groups shouting and laughing so loudly that it was deafening. But I also feel that tasting rooms should really encourage use of the spit bucket. The first time I went to Burgundy, my professional guide taught me that the proper way to taste was in the mouth and then to spit. But I do realize that some people seem to feel that tasting rooms are like bars, but their buzz is a buzz kill for me!
Mike Decker
Castle Rock, CO —  September 10, 2014 3:54pm ET
Tim, you are right on with the perfume! No perfume would be the best. And David, from Mission Viejo, I could not say it better about loud, obnoxious folks who treat the tasting room as a sports bar.
Tim Fish
Sonoma County —  September 10, 2014 4:15pm ET
Great comments all, thanks. I'd love to hear from some tasting room employees. I bet we'd get an earful.
David Peters
Mission Viejo, CA —  September 10, 2014 5:08pm ET
Christine: Dittos on the spit buckets........as for myself I always carry extra paper cups (16oz) in my car when visiting wineries. They work great and I can just toss them in the trash on the way out. And, to be considerate I always turn and take a step away from anyone I'm near before spitting. This is funny: a few years ago at a tasting room a gal next to me saw me spitting into my cup and said, "Oh, you must be one of those professional wine reviewers"! No, I said, just didn't want to wrap my car around a tree on the way home! We both laughed.
Chad Dikun
Rutheford, NJ —  September 10, 2014 5:21pm ET
I could not agree more about the loud and obnoxious people. There's absolutely no place for that type of behavior in a tasting room. There's a few select wineries in the Finger Lakes that seem to encourage and cater to that type of crowd. I avoid those places even if they may have a few good wines that I'd like to taste. Then there are other wineries that do a great job of handling rowdy bus groups by moving those groups to separate rooms so as not to disturb the people that are actually there because they want to really taste and learn about the wines. And then there are even some wineries that simply don't allow buses or limos at all.

On another note, I would encourage people to show an interest in the wines and don't be afraid to ask questions about them. I've had numerous experiences where the staff (in some cases the owners and winemakers themselves) have opened up bottles not on their tasting lists or allowed my family to taste a few extra wines once they see we are seriously interested in their wines. Even though I usually go to the Finger Lakes during harvest time, I've still been lucky enough to have met several of the winemakers in the region during tastings.
Robert Hight
CA —  September 11, 2014 11:28am ET
Hi Tim,
Thoughtful and timely advice. I usually schedule a 11:00 am and a 2:00 pm appointment. That way you have time for lunch, drop-ins, and aren't rushed to get from one tasting room to another.
John Wilen
Texas —  September 11, 2014 2:48pm ET
I’d prefer to flip this around… The winery is a professionally run business. The tasting room exists to sell wine at the highest margins, market the brand, instill an image, bond with the customer, etc. While boorish visitors might have an excuse (they’re drunk, they’re on vacation, they're newbies), there is no excuse for a winery getting an F in tasting room operations. And yet so many are really bad. (Want to improve? Take a short drive. There are 600 other wineries in Napa/Sonoma where you can pick up tips on how others do it better.) Here are my pet peeves:

1. Offering one good wine among a tasting flight of three or four sub-par ones. Every winery thinks their wine, all their wines, are the best. Hah, far from it. If the guest doesn’t enjoy it, don’t make them feel like there is something seri­ously wrong with them. This attitude is problematic because more often that not, it will end up with the winery not making a sale and the customer walking away with bad feelings and writing a negative review. You both lose. And the winery impression we leave with? We don’t remember the one good wine, we remember how many we dumped.

2. Treating potential buyers like scum based on their age or dress. Luckily, I am past that point in life. But on many occasion I’ve been in a tasting room and watched the staff size up the young kids coming in. Trust me, your profiling is often flawed. Do you think a young 20’s server at the tasting room, who has spent their entire life in farm country, thinks he can size up his mid 20’s counterparts who are visiting from NY, LA , Dallas, etc.? Young affluent buyers are put off by an attitude that appears snobby or uppity.

3. Not realizing the damage done by an inexperienced and underpaid staff. The people you are relying on to meet your business objectives are totally exhausted from saying the same things and answering the same ques­tions about the same wines — by visitors who are, at best, distracted, at worst intox­i­cated, day after day. Sorry, but you are in the hospitality business. Once your server looks robotic, bored and/or ignores customers, you are toast. There is no good justification for any of these things. It’s simply bad business. I know that many of them are either local kids who grew up in the area or people inter­ested in wine and just breaking into the industry. Fine. They still need some training beyond memorizing their lines. Who hasn't had the wind-up server — she says very little until you ask a question. Then out comes the memorized speech. No more no less. She had memorized what she was supposed to say. And if she sounded bored, it is because she was. It’s like a server at a restaurant reciting the specials, except at a tasting room the specials never change.
Leonard & Terry Korn
Palm Springs, Ca —  September 11, 2014 7:21pm ET
As we've aged gracefully, we've gotten smarter. Realized we're tasting, not drinking. So now my husband and I split a tasting. If the pour is a little small and it's a wine we're interested in we'll ask for a little bit more. And we generally buy wines that we 're not going to find elsewhere.

Tim, we're coming up the end of this month. Could you give us 3-4 favorites of yours for Zinfandels. We plan to go to Carol Shelton, Novy-Siduri, Seghesio, Limerick Lane, Sbragia. Do you have a few more to add to the mix?

Tim Fish
Sonoma County —  September 11, 2014 7:40pm ET

That's a hard list on which to improve. While many Sonoma wineries make a Zin, only a handful specialize. I might add Hartford and if you're in Napa - Biale. Also, I think some old hands like Ravenswood and Dry Creek Vineyard are making some lovely wines these days. Have a great trip.
Leonard & Terry Korn
Palm Springs, Ca —  September 11, 2014 8:35pm ET
Thanks Tim. We're actually staying in Calistoga along with long time wine drinking buddies. So, we're splitting time in Napa and Sonoma. We'll definitely go to Biale and the others you recommended. We have five days so we don't have to speed taste.

David Peters
Mission Viejo, CA —  September 12, 2014 4:07am ET
Leonard & Terry: When in Sonoma don't overlook Mauritson and Ridge. They both craft wonderful Zinfandels. Also, if your in the Rutherford area of Napa try the 'Edizione Pennino' Zinfandel at Francis Ford Coppolo's Inglenook Winery (formerly Rubicon Estate). Have a great trip......I'm jealous !!!
Mark Swenarton
New Jersey —  September 12, 2014 12:30pm ET
I was tasting in the Finger Lakes and it was later in the evening. I was driving so I was spitting of course. Winery employee said I was the first one they have seen spit all day! Spit folks.
Bill Stell
Greenville, SC —  September 13, 2014 3:15pm ET
I'd add:

No more than 5 wineries in a day. Take it slow and savior the wine.

Appt's are better and off season (Jan - April) is best as owners and winemakers are more likely to be available to talk to you.
Greg Schaefer
Minneapolis, MN —  September 13, 2014 4:06pm ET
To Leonard & Terry Korn:

If you decide to go up into Dry Creek Valley to visit Mauritson and Ridge, as suggested by David Peters, take the time to head over to the "other side" of the Valley and try Lambert Bridge and Bella, at opposite ends of West Dry Creek Road. Their zins are on the pricier side, but they're both great zin producers (and Bella also does well with syrah and Lambert Bridge with the bordeaux varietals). Together with Ridge and Seghesio, they're among our favorite Sonoma County zin producers. And, as an added bonus, Lambert Bridge has very lovely grounds on which to picnic, and Bella has a rustic picnic setting as well.

Adam and Diana Lee at Siduri/Novy are terrific. Carol Shelton is also an excellent producer. You might also want to check out Quivira, also on West Dry Creek Road. Enjoy -- late September is a wonderful time to visit Sonoma and Napa.
Steve Gale
Portland, Oregon —  September 15, 2014 1:52pm ET
In the 20+years I have been going to winery tasting rooms, I have only had 1 sub par experience when dealing with tasting room staff. I have though had to endure hundreds of the "Loud & Rude", not necessarily intoxicated people. If you don't care for a wine pour it out and move on to the next. No one needs to hear somone loudly go on about how bad a wine is(in their opinion)for minutes. My other peeve is the bar hog. Not just space at the tasting bar, but also talking non-stop to the staff, so they can not attend to others.
Wilfred Wong
San Francisco,CA, USA —  September 15, 2014 3:37pm ET
Hey Tim,
Great advice here. When anyone visits a winery or any establishment good manners and commonsense is very important.
Keep up the excellent writing,
Lucy L Hey
ballwin, mo —  September 16, 2014 10:12pm ET
The first time we went to Sonoma and Napa we did 6 wineries a day. It was too much for us. I couldn't really taste any nuance after 4. We're smarter now. We draw the line at 3. Take time enjoying the grounds, picnic, buy a bottle or two.
Lisa Lehar
St. Paul, MN —  September 21, 2014 8:04pm ET
Hi Tim,
As a sometime employee at a winery:
I would suggest that guests think about tipping the people behind the tasting bar. Yes, it is their job, but many will take time to explain and educate people at the tasting bar. They will spend more time with guests than a bartender or wait staff would and don't make a lot of money doing it. A token of appreciation is appreciated, it doesn't have to be a large sum.
Also, realize that you don't want to rush a tasting. Give yourself an hour and don't show up 15 minutes before closing time. It is disrespectful and you are really cheating yourself of the leisurely experience a tasting deserves.
And finally... as you mentioned earlier... take the stag parties elsewhere. It sounds like a great idea, but it isn't. If an establishment has a private room for you to indulge and be loud, have at it. If not... maybe another venue is more appropriate.
Thanks for allowing me to voice my humble opinion.
Roberta Lasky
Woodland, CA USA —  September 24, 2014 11:32pm ET
My limit is three per day. Usually it's two appointments and a drop in if I have wine to pick up somewhere. If you are looking for Zin in Sonoma/Russian River area, Seghesio is the place to go for me. For Chardonnay or Pinot, there is a plethora of great wineries to choose from. Some of my favorites are Dutton-Goldfield, and Siduri. We are also on some wine lists like Kosta Browne and Dumol for Pinot exclusively. I also love the single vineyard Chardonnays from Ferarri-Carrano, and the Sauvignon Blanc from Merry Edwards is to die for! There are lots of choices out there and I'm still searching!

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