So you are planning a wine country tasting vacation. How exciting! I love visiting tasting rooms, and I never grow tired of it. My mouth and taste buds, on the other hand, have experienced fatigue to the point that I could no longer smell or taste the unique characteristics of the wines. Don’t do that for sure. Besides killing your palate, there are a few other “do’s and don’ts” that you may not be aware of, so for this post, I compiled a list of tasting room guidelines and etiquette to ensure that you have the perfect trip.
Wine Country Tasting
Where to Go
In deciding where to go on this wine country, tasting vacation is the most important question you need to ask yourself. Since not all grape varieties grow in all growing regions, you need to ask yourself, what do you want to taste? The best way to figure it out is; do you primarily drink Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir as well as Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay? If you say, Cabernet, then Napa Valley is a great choice. Pinot Noir, then I’d suggest Sonoma County or Willamette Valley as your best choices. If you say Chardonnay, I would head to the Central Coast AVA in south-central California. Think Santa Barbara, Sta. Rita Hills, San Luis Obispo areas. These are not the only places, of course, but do your research, so you get the most out of where you are going.
Wine Country Tasting
When to Go
When to go on this trip involves two separate questions. What time of year? And what days of the week? First, I will tackle what days of the week. If it’s me, avoid the weekends. Busy roads, crowded tasting rooms, and crowded restaurants are not my idea of a good time. Yes, you may need to stay over a Saturday to get a great airfare, so make that your last day and fly home Sunday morning. Instead of wine tasting, perhaps Saturday is your shopping day in one of the small towns that dot wine country. Or head back to whatever major hub you flew into and enjoy the day there. Lastly, plan for no more than four days of tasting. That is a lot of wine.
What time of year to make this trip is also very, very important. August through October is the busiest time of year. Expect large crowds and expensive hotel rooms. But the latter portion is also harvest time, which is a fun and exciting time to witness. I prefer early November in the fall and May in the Spring because well, I do not like crowds. March and April are also quieter times to go. June and July can work if you like hot, hot temperatures. Remember that these are valleys, and it can be sweltering with little to no wind.
Now that you have decided the where and the when, let’s get to the “do’s and don’ts.”
Wine Country Tasting Some “Dos and Don’ts”
- Do have fun while still respecting the staff and other guests. Keep your conversation low so that everyone else doesn’t have to hear your thoughts on the wine.
- Don’t wear perfume or cologne. Not only are you interfering with your ability to smell and taste, but you are also interfering and perhaps ruining the experience of those folks near you.
- Do eat a big breakfast every day you are tasting. You do not want to start tasting wine on an empty stomach.
- Do Spit! Don’t Swallow and Don’t get drunk! Tasting rooms are not bars. They are showcases for a product that takes a year or more to produce. Inevitably you will swallow, but spitting is expected and encouraged. Respect the process.
- Do stay hydrated. Always have a bottle of water with you to keep you hydrated. Your head will thank you.
Additional Dos and Don’ts
You’d Be Surprised What Some Will Do.
- Do consider hiring a car service to take you from winery to winery. Even though you will be spitting, you are still drinking. They know the roads and the best routes. They can also recommend where to visit if you did not make your own itinerary.
- Don’t drink the entire pour just because they poured it into your glass. So you ask, then why did they pour it? Because you need a certain volume to give off the aromatics to smell, and enough to swish and swirl in your mouth to taste the flavors and textures. There is an expectation that you will spit. And you should. Remember, you are tasting, not drinking.
- Don’t make a face or a disparaging comment, if you do not like that wine. Respectfully spit and pour the remainder in the dump bucket.
- Do swirl your glass resting on the table. Do not swirl the goblet in the air to avoid wine flying out onto someone or something.
- Don’t be late for a pre-arranged tasting appointment. When a winery requires you to arrive at a specific time, that means that they have allotted a certain about of time for you. It is always better to be early.
- Do leave a tip for your host/server as they are serving you.
- Do share the photos you snapped on your social media and tag the wineries.
Some Finer Points to Maximize Your Experience
You should only plan on visiting three wineries a day. Winery tasting rooms open anywhere from 10 am to noon. Schedule one tasting for the morning. Plan on 60 to 75 minutes at each visit. Then break for lunch. Plan on two tastings in the afternoon. Tasting rooms close anywhere from 4:30 pm to 6 pm. For a seasoned taster, you may consider a fourth tasting in the late afternoon.
Every winery charges a tasting fee or a range of tasting fees. It can be as little as $20 per person or as much as $80.00 or more. At most (but not all), the tasting fee is waived with a minimum purchase.
If a winery has multiple levels of tastings on the menu, NEVER go for just the entry-level tasting because, in many cases, you get their “entry-level wines.” The more you invest in the process, usually the better your experience. You are here, perhaps just once; taste the good stuff.
Some wineries offer premium tastings that may include a tour of the winery or a vineyard, food pairings with the wine, or a special barrel tasting. I highly recommend that you do some of those as they enhance the total experience.
More About Reservations
If you’re planning on taking a group of more than six people, it’s worth calling ahead to see the best time to go and whether an appointment is required.
Premium Tastings as mentioned above require advanced notice. Be sure to make a reservation
Some wineries require a reservation be made regardless of the number in your party. These are typically smaller wineries with limited staff. In some cases, your tasting is led by the proprietor or the winemaker. As a rule of thumb, if I need an appointment (unless just because of large group size), I plan to make a purchase. Some “appointment only wineries” will tell you if there is an expectation to purchase, and you need to respect that and make at least that purchase.
Wine Country Tasting
If you are planning on buying more than a couple of bottles of wine, you may want to create a budget before you go. Keep track and a tally as it is easy to lose sight of what you are spending.
And be sure to plan on how you will get your purchases home. When I buy a case of wine at a single winery, that gets shipped. But if I buy only a few bottles I will bring them with me in my checked luggage. Shipping wine can get expensive and receiving it requires an adult signature, so plan accordingly.
So you’ve collected 12 bottles from different wineries. This is how you get them home. Inside this bag (that is checked luggage) you insert a shipping box with paper pulp wine bottle inserts and let the airline transport for the cost of a checked bag!
Join a Wine Club
Continue your wine country experience by joining a wine club that each winery offers. Generally, wine clubs are for six or twelve bottle shipments twice a year. You are committed for one year and can cancel anytime after that. I recommend that if you are traveling with friends or family and you live near each other that you each join a different club and trade for half each shipment.
Check out some of my past winery visits: