Ten Top Tasting Room Tips

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference. ~ Robert Frost

Wine tasting as a "vacation focus" is a growing segment in the travel industry. As wine enthusiasts are no longer content to just grab a bottle from the local grocer, they desire to see where the romance is made. It's something I've personally invested the majority of my own vacation time doing and the experiences had have been fantastic. Even though it was nearly thirteen years ago, as cliche as it may sound, it could be said the continued popularity of the film Sideways continues to inspire many folks to plan similar trips.

Summer breezes, sunny skies, more free time, the month of June is typically the time of year when many folks are thinking about a quick road trip. With summer vacations on the horizon, long weekends looming, many wineries will extend their tasting room hours, some will allocate more days to be open to the public, increase staffing to meet the crush of wine enthusiasts demand and plan some great summertime activities to augment the everyday tasting experience.  
When you do go wine-tasting, it’s typical to be allowed to sample a handful of wines for a fee, I know shocking huh? Many places you visit, you'll find that some are upwards of $50 per tasting for some of the top producers in the Napa Valley like Opus One. But most tend to be in the $10 range per person and you’ll typically sample 3-4 wines. As a bonus, some will let you keep the logo-ed Riedel glass if you like having an assorted stemware collection.

Many wineries offer educational tours of the facilities which are terrific for first-timers who’d like to get "beyond the bottle". And please be aware that many of these opportunities need to be booked ahead of time, so please plan accordingly.

1. WINE CLUBS: So there you are in the wine tasting room where you will see and hear offers to become a wine club member. It's a great opportunity to stock up on wine you won't see at your local grocery store or in your favorite wine shop. While you may often pay a bit more than retail, you often will have opportunities to purchase wines not offered in distribution. Another great thing about a “wine club" is that if you live close by, you can really benefit from going to pick-up parties, concerts and various other "cool" activities, which many wineries kick-start during the summer months.

My recommendation, don’t wince the next time you hear the words, "would you like to join our wine club?" embrace the wine club and you’ll save on average 20-30 % off a wine you would most likely purchase anyway and have the first dibs on wines which have never left the winery, unlike their counterparts who make the long distribution journey to a shelf, where the wine goes through rather rough treatment, bright lights, and sketchy temperature extremes. 

2. Hot Days: Since we're on the topic of purchases it's good to remember to bring a large cooler with you to keep your wine cool while it sits in the car, keep the windows cracked open a little, it can get real warm in wine country.

3. Planning: I’ve read Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher, the former Open that bottle Columnists at the WSJ, who I think have oddly recommended it's best to "not have a plan", a whimsical suggestion. Their recommendation is that wine enthusiasts to randomly drive through wine country and just show up to any tasting room you may find open. Uh, okay while this may sound great in theory, but in my experience, it will most likely end in disappointment.

Based on my own excursions over the years, my trips to wine country; I've found that even a little planning will go a long way to maximizing the whole experience and sometimes the romanticized expectation you imagined. Not only for you but everyone else you may encounter along the way. Managing expectations is a prime key to overall trip planning satisfaction. That said, there's another side to that coin. I stopped by a winery in Santa Barbara, during our time there, over a conversation, they recommended a winery which was only open for appointments, they made a call on our behalf, and boom, we had a wonderful impromptu visit to a winery I had overlooked. 

4. Maps:
Order your wine country map ahead of time [or print it out] and bring it with you on the trip. This will allow you preview the wineries you plan to visit before your trip, so you are somewhat familiar with the area and it helps you visualize your itinerary for each day, even if you have GPS. 

It's is helpful to locate and/or group wineries with relatively close proximity. Lastly, make some dinner reservations ahead of time; this will save you a lot of frustration and make you look like a genius. The OpenTable app is a great resource for making reservations.

5. APPOINTMENTS:  Don’t be discouraged if they are by appointment only, it's not an obstacle. It’s simply a tool to manage their time more effectively and these arrangements can be done easily via email [winery staff and winemakers are some of the busiest and hardworking folks I know].

But on the flip side this can be some of the best times you will have tasting wine because often times the winemaker or proprietor is the one hosting your appointment and they are very eager to give you their wrapped attention and can interact with you on a much more personal level.

Make sure you keep your appointment, call ahead to remind your host of your arrival and show up on time and if you have to cancel please call them at least day ahead, that is just good form.

6. The Barrel Room: Another thing to keep in mind, is that some appointments are located in the wineries barrel room. A place which is often a very cool 57 degrees, while great for maturing wine, which can be a little uncomfortable if you're not prepared. So I'd take a jacket with just in case, even if it's 80 degrees outside.

This happened to Mrs. Cuvee and I once while at Patricia Green Cellars in when we were still wine-tasting newbies. The other couple who were at the appointment were quite cold; they especially since they had only sunny-day garments, my wife and I fared a little better with our sweaters, but it was still cold.

7. ARRIVE EARLY: Another good rule of thumb regarding tasting room visits is to get there early [the popular places will fill up fast and this will minimize your experience]. I can not stress this point enough, because as you may know some wineries are "super-popular" and you may not make it to the [tasting-area] bar at all. Most tasting rooms will be open by 10 or 11 in the morning and they start closing up by five or six in the evening, which is why I recommend only going to 3 to 4 wineries a day, it’s no fun rushing through a tasting.

5. DRINK OR SPIT:  Stay hydrated, and make sure to have a designated driver. They should most likely not be sampling any wine at all. But, if you do I recommend spitting everything and having a large breakfast. And for everyone else remember you really only there to sample [taste] the wines and not drink them.  

6. Pours: Don't feel bad if you don't like the wine, just pour it out and move onto the next wine in their line-up. By the way, if you’re in-between pours please don’t pour the water sitting on the bar to rinse your glass or allow the tasting room staff to do that either. In my experience this will only dilute your next pour; ideally, you only want to rinse your glass with wine or just ask for a new glass.

7. TASTING MENUS: In my experience, if I have a choice between the reserve tasting and the everyday tasting, I go all-in on the reserve. If you’re on the tasting trail with someone else, try sharing the tasting. 
Another point to consider is that many times the tasting fee will be comped if you make a purchase of a certain number of bottles, often two. 

8. SHIP OR HOLD:  This will mainly be determined by what method you may have arrived at your destination. For example, if you drove to wine country, you can save yourself some money on shipping.If you've flown to your destination, you will most likely opt to have your wine shipped home, unless you've flown via Southwest or Alaska Airlines who offer a 2nd bag which can be checked for free. If shipping home I would recommend sending it to a work address because the shipper will need to have someone sign for your wine.

If you only plan to buy a few bottles you can easily put it in your "checked" luggage, [just watch the weight] which I have done successfully many times without anything other than my clothing protecting them from breakage. I bought nearly a case home in my luggage from Italy and not even one casualty, knock on wood.

9. WINES NOT SOLD RETAIL: One other thing to consider is to ask about the wines you may have tasted, which are not sold outside of the tasting room. I would recommend purchasing those bottles, over a wine which is available via your retail wine store shelf. 
10. HAVE A BUDGET:  This is a very good idea; because it is far too easy to go overboard. This will cause you to really be more focused and fastidious about the wines you just can’t live without and save you some headaches down the road.


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