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Napa Valley wineries wine tasting - Do's & Dont's

Napa Valley Wineries Wine Tasting Tips – 5 Do’s and Don’ts

Napa Valley Wineries Wine Tasting Tips – 5 Do’s and Don’ts

UPDATED 2018 – So, you are planning a trip to Napa Valley wineries for wine tasting? Below are some tips and 5 do’s & dont’s when wine tasting at Napa Valley wineries:

  • Do plan your trip. Wineries and tasting rooms literally come in all shapes and sizes. There are some “destination” wineries that are more about the sights and experience than about the wine. Some have huge gift stores, deli counters, gondolas or restaurants. And then some are just about the wine. Sometimes the guy pouring the wine is the dude who made it. Before you and your date or your (small or large) group of friends decide to embark into a wine tasting adventure, make sure the tasting rooms you’re thinking about hitting match your desired experience. Some are a small room inside the winemaking facilities or in the family home, open only by appointment. Some charge for a tasting, some (usually in less touristy areas) don’t. Some will waive the tasting fee if you buy a bottle – some won’t. Some are retail spaces on a busy street, completely independent from the winery. Some are large buildings with event spaces. Some cater to frat boys and bachelorette parties – many don’t. Some are dog-friendly, and some are definitely not. Not sure about what a winery’s website or Yelp page are telling you? Call the winery. Especially if you are a large (8+) group – there’s a reason some wineries have a “No Limo or Bus” sign – many of those groups are associated with loud, obnoxious gaggles of assholes who are just there to get buzzed, and buy very little wine. However, some places do cater those groups. Just make sure you plan your trip right.
  • Do abstain from wearing perfume/cologne or lipstick. Perfume gets in the way of the tasting experience. Plus, as a general rule, if anyone can smell you within 3 feet, it probably means you’re wearing too much of it. Lipstick on the rim of a wine glass is bad enough at a restaurant – in a winery tasting room, it’s downright tacky.
  • Do not hold the bottle – to check the back label, for instance – unless you ask the staff first. Please never touch the mouth, cap, spout or cork of said bottle.
  • Do stay the fuck home if you have a cold. I can’t believe the amount of people who not only show up with a cold, but have the nerve to tell me about it, complaining how their senses of smell and taste are affected. Keep your germs to yourself.
  • Do tip if you feel like it. Tipping is not customary, but always appreciated. The only reason you don’t see tip jars in tasting rooms is because traditionally, family members would man the tasting rooms. That’s no longer the case in most places. While tasting room staff makes more than most restaurant staff (above minimum wage), tips are always appreciated, especially if you feel the employee was informative, friendly, courteous, and/or helped carry your wine purchase to your vehicle.
  • Don’t ask to share a glass. If you can’t afford a tasting fee for each of you, you probably can’t afford to buy wine. This ain’t a 10-inch crème brûlée I’m bringing you guys, with two spoons to share after a decadent dinner. Plus, most of you sharing a glass are blabbing away, not keeping up with what you’re tasting, and forcing me to make sure you have both tasted the wine before I pour you the next one. So stop tasting each other’s saliva. Get each your own glass.
  • Don’t be a know-it-all. Chances are you will lose at this game – either by being schooled, or by looking like a pretentious jackass. Don’t ask us tasting room staff overly technical questions like the bottling pH of a wine, or what commercial yeast was used. We might know the answer, but we’re not the winemakers. Then again, be careful – in some small wineries or at special events, the guy pouring the wine might have had a hand in making it, and could embarrass you if you try showing off. Just be reasonable with your questions. If you really want to know the numbers about a specific wine, chances are there’s a technical sheet in front of you with all the answers – or maybe it’s on the winery’s website. Just enjoy the wine. We can probably tell you the essentials – where the fruit comes from, how long it was in the barrels, etc., and help you out with your tasting experience. But don’t try impressing your date by asking us tricky or overly technical questions. Even professional winemakers don’t do that in tasting rooms – they’ll go ask the winemaker himself.
  • Do try being in sync with your friends and you’re in a group or a couple doing the same flight or number of wines. Sometimes one group member is constantly lagging behind, still sipping their first wine while the other ones are two tastings further. This makes our job a lot more difficult, because we now have to keep track of which wine is next for you, or how many more pours you have. I’m good at this, but I also have to keep up with the rest of the room, ring orders, and all sorts of other tasks. I want you to enjoy yourself, but keep up with your friends. You don’t have to finish that wine if you are not really enjoying it – just pour it out, so you can try the next.
  • Do follow the suggested tasting order. There’s a reason we order the wines that way – white to red, dry to sweet, light to full-bodied. We can explain to you why. But don’t argue about it. Don’t go back three wines up – your tasting experience will be ruined. Just trust us on that one. We truly want you to have an optimal tasting experience, because that’s how we sell wine.
  • Don’t ask us if our wines are sulfite-free. Over 99.9% of all wines on the market – from the low to the high end – contain sulfites. I often hear people tell me European wines don’t have sulfites, or not as much. That’s utter bullshit. This myth probably comes from the fact that there are no mandatory “This wine contains sulfites” warning labels on wine bottles in Europe. Trust me, if a winery makes sulfite-free wines, you’ll know it – they’ll advertise it everywhere. And come on – don’t tell us you’re allergic to sulfites when really you’re just a lightweight. The irony is that imaginary sulfite sufferers often will stick to white wines, convinced the content of that sulfur dioxide byproduct is lighter. But it’s the other way around. Whites generally contain more sulfites than reds, because as a rule, they require more SO2 during the winemaking. And sulfites occur naturally to begin with. In reality, only 1% of the population is sensitive to sulfites to some level. You’re most likely not that special snowflake, unless you have been tested positive for it (and you should if you suspect you are, instead of self-diagnosing). Sulfites are probably not what caused your headache the day after you emptied those bottles of Zinfandel with your pack of cougars. That migraine is just called a hangover.
  • Don’t ask for discounts you’re not entitled to. The inter-winery discount is real. But it only applies to employees of other wineries. If you’re a grower, a restaurateur or work for a distributor, we might not offer you a discount, because why would we? The inter-winery discount makes sense because it’s reciprocal – I go to another winery, and they give me a discount on my purchases (and usually waive tasting fees). But if you’re a grower, what kind of discount are you going to offer me? Are you really going to give me a 30% discount on your grapes if I decide to buy them? If you have a restaurant, are you going to give me the same deal on my tab? I don’t think so. So don’t be an asshole about it. Most of us only give discounts to winery employees, or in some cases employees of businesses we do business with.
  • Don’t haggle on prices. It’s gross. Oddly enough, in my experience it’s people who seem quite well off who are the most likely to do this. We might give you an additional discount if you buy a case or more, but this ain’t a Moroccan market. See those prices on the list? That’s it. You drove an Audi to the tasting room and you’re wearing a Ralph Lauren dress. You can splurge for that $35 Cab you claimed to really like. Want a discount? Join the wine club. You can afford it, right?
  • Do be respectful. Avoid saying “This wine is so much better than the previous one”. Maybe you meant to say “I like this wine much better than the previous one”, in which case what you should probably say is simply “I really like this wine”. Even my 8-year old understands this. Reason is, it’s possible that the guy who made the wine you didn’t like is right there – he might even be the guy who poured the wine in your glass. So show some respect – you wouldn’t trash a dish in front of the chef unless it was horrible, now would you? Plus, in my experience, the folks who tend to make that etiquette faux pas also don’t know much about wine. But really, it’s probably because their taste buds are not tuned up for certain wines. So unless you’re comparing say, two Cabs from different vineyards or from different vintages, it doesn’t make much sense.
  • Don’t rinse your glass with water between wines. It will corrupt the acidity level of the wine we pour next, and completely change its taste. If you want to cleanse your palate, we’ll be happy in some places to provide you with a cup or another glass with water. If the next wine is radically different, we’ll rinse it with a bit of the wine we’re about to pour first, or we’ll give you a brand new glass. So as a general rule, don’t pour water in your tasting glass. Just trust us on that one.
  • Don’t ask us for bigger pours. Most tasting rooms use spouts that pour given amounts – 1/2, 3/4, 1 or 2 ounces, for instance. Others have trained staff that will pour without those but still deliver the desired amount. Whichever the situation, don’t ask us for a larger quantity. And for Dionysus’ sake, do not help yourself to an extra pour directly from the bottle sitting in front of you, like some asshole did right in front of me recently, arguing that in a bar, if a bottle is sitting on the counter, it’s fair game. “This is not a bar”, I told him. (Guy brought up his Southern heritage like it was some sort of excuse. He redeemed himself later with a $10 tip.)
  • Do spit if you want to pace yourself. It’s not gross to spit your wine in the designated container. In fact, that’s how pros do it. If you’re a lightweight or are driving, learn to do it properly. You can smell and taste a wine without swallowing it. Most wineries have buckets or spitoons to spit in, or will provide you with a plastic or paper cup. If they don’t have a container at the ready, please don’t hesitate to ask for a bucket or a cup – we’ll know exactly what you’re asking for. Make sure you put the container all the way to your mouth when you spit – making sure people can’t see the liquid come out of your mouth. But etiquette-wise, spitting is perfectly acceptable – and in fact recommended if you’re going to be hitting a few wineries that day, or if you’re serious about your experience.
  • Don’t ever be afraid of asking newbie questions. Ever. If you’re at a winery where you found the staff frowned upon it, don’t go back there. In most places, the staff will be happy to educate you about the basics of winemaking or wine tasting. Don’t be embarrassed about your lack of experience. Many employees or wine professionals love the opportunity to explain their passion to neophytes – plus, today’s newb might just be tomorrow’s loyal club member. Just make sure you’re not hogging counter space and monopolizing the attention of the staff if it gets busy.
  • Don’t go wine tasting to get buzzed. If that’s your thing, go to a bar instead, or throw a wine party at your place. Do not treat the tasting room like it’s a bar. We really want people to have a nice experience (because again, that’s how we sell wine), but sometimes the tasting fee barely covers the wine we’re pouring, labor and overhead costs. So make room for the people who are behind you. Don’t linger for an hour sipping your flight while we have to cater to a busy room. If you want to socialize, many wineries have events for their club members, or special dinners, or social events. Just be considerate. And while we are not a bar, like a bar we have trained employees who will refuse to serve you if you’ve had enough.
  • Don’t ask us which ones are our best wines. Tell us what you usually like, and we’ll suggest the ones you should try. Don’t assume “estate wines” are the best wines. Don’t assume the more expensive wines are the better ones either. You can ask us what our flagship wines are, for instance, or what we’re known for. But if we’re pouring a wine, chances are – we think it’s good. And sometimes, it’s that deep-discounted Dry Riesling no one is buying that we like the most, but it’s also the one that’s the least popular among visitors. So just tell us what you are into, and we’ll figure out which flight or which wines you should try.
  • Don’t bring your kids. They don’t care about wine, and no winery I know has kid-friendly facilities. Don’t feel entitled to finding a kid playground, or an area with crayons and coloring books – this ain’t Chucky Cheese’s. Leave them with grandma or a babysitter.
  • Do bring your dogs if the winery is dog-friendly, but as I mentioned before, plan your trip.
  • Do have a designated driver – unless you spit (see above). Driving drunk is fucking stupid and easily deadly. Don’t underestimate how drunk you can get on tasting wine. 5 one-ounce pours – a typical flight – is a full glass of wine. For an average person, 15 minutes later you will be legally drunk. If you’re planning on hitting several wineries and taste more wine, learn to spit, or have a buddy drive you around. Buy them dinner and/or a bottle of wine as a thank-you at the end of the day.

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