Humans have been making and drinking wine for thousands of years. In that time, we’ve come to see wine as a symbol of class, culture, and refinement. That rich tradition is one of the most prominent rewards awaiting newly minted wine aficionados, but it can be intimidating to novices who aren’t sure what to expect. Don’t be afraid to look foolish at your first tasting, just keep reading and we’ll give you all the tips you need to sip like a professional wine critic.
HOW TO TASTE WINE IN NAPA VALLEY. Respect the wine, the vineyard, and the vintner. When you attend a wine tasting, you are sampling the hard work, experience, and expertise of a group of dedicated professionals. Treat each wine like a work of art, do your best to appreciate the unique qualities of each pour, and do nothing that might pull attention away from the tasting.
There’s no magic word or secret formula. As long as you make a sincere and serious effort to appreciate the vintner’s work, you’ll be a welcome guest in any tasting room.
Still afraid to commit a faux pas? Read on. We’ll give you tips on how to prepare, the proper techniques for tasting, and help you steer clear of a few hidden mistakes you might not think of on your own.
A perfectly executed tasting expedition starts before you head out the door. Here’s what to know before you leave:
- Check the tasting room’s policies. Many rooms require you to schedule your tasting in advance. If you’re bringing a large group you should call ahead even if they don’t specifically require it.
- Eat beforehand. Many tastings offer light snacks to cleanse your palate between wines, but that food is meant to aid and supplement your appreciation of the wine. If you’re eating it to fill your stomach instead, you won’t pay proper attention to the wine.
- Bring water and stay hydrated.
- Assign a designated driver, or make other transportation arrangements in advance.
- Bring a cooler stocked with ice to safely carry any bottles you buy.
- Bring a pen and paper for taking notes.
- Do not wear cologne, perfume, or any strong artificial scents. Scent is a huge factor in taste, and your cologne will affect not only your own tasting experience, but also everyone else nearby.
You may worry that there’s some special code of chivalry that applies once you get to the tasting room, but it’s nothing so complicated. The most important things are to be courteous to your neighbors, say “please” and “thank you,” and remember that you’re there to appreciate the wine. Here are a few good rules to bear in mind:
- Do not become overly drunk. You want to have a good time, but if you become loud, boorish, belligerent, sloppy, clumsy, or drowsy, you take attention away from the wine.
- Ask questions. The vintner wouldn’t have invited you to come try it if they didn’t want to talk about their work. They’ll be happy to answer any questions you have about the wine you’re tasting, the other wines they make, and the history and winemaking process of the vineyard itself. Try to steer clear of general wine history questions. If you can look it up when you get home, it’s probably not the right question.
- Discuss the wine! We all have different palates. When you talk to your fellow tasters about what you’re experiencing, your attention will be called to subtle secondary and tertiary flavors and textures you might never have noticed on your own.
- Be as honest as you can. Listening to feedback is how great vintners refine their craft, and participating in that process is a true rite of passage among wine lovers.
- Try everything that is offered. You may have had a bad experience with a particular type of wine in the past, but it’s not fair to judge this vineyard’s brand by somebody else’s work. If you’re lucky, an old distaste will become a new favorite, and if you don’t like it you can spit it out.
- Spitting out wine doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t like it. It’s also a way to taste as much wine as possible without drinking enough to impair your ability to appreciate the flavors, which really makes it a sign of respect.
- If you love it, buy a bottle! Compliments are lovely too, but they don’t keep the lights on Buying a bottle shows the vintner your appreciation, helps them decide which wines to make more of, and helps ensure that the vineyard is still thriving when you come back for more.
Of course, the most important part of wine tasting is tasting the wine. The key here is to remember that taste is subjective. Your goal isn’t to figure out some obscure correct answer, it is to thoroughly experience the nuances of the wine. Here are a few techniques that help:
- Take detailed notes. You brought a pen and paper for a reason, now put them to work. This ensures that you’re paying attention to each pour, it helps you remember which ones you like enough to come back for, and it allows you to compare similar wines across multiple tastings, even years apart.
- Hold your glass by the stem to preserve the temperature of the wine (and to keep your fingerprints off the glass).
- Use the snacks and water provided to cleanse the taste of one wine from your palate before moving on to the next.
- Look at each wine from multiple angles before you sip. Look straight down from above, sideways through the glass, and at a tilted angle. What you see can hold clues about the wine’s characteristics, but there’s no need to worry about what the signs mean yet. Just observe what you see and taste with an open mind, and soon you’ll be able draw your own conclusions through experience.
- Swirl the wine and observe how the appearance changes.
- After you swirl, take several short, quick sniffs with your nose just over the top of the glass. Try to pick out familiar scents. Fruit smells are common, as are herbs and spices, but it could be anything.
- Now taste the wine. Some recommend a large sip followed by several small ones, others recommend swishing the wine and your mouth, and many try to pull in air with the wine to help release the flavor. Regardless of how you do it, your goal should be to observe as much detail and depth of flavor as you possibly can. You should also swallow at least a bit of each pour to see how it affects the flavor.
- Observe textures as well. Think about how the wine physically feels against your tongue and in different parts of your mouth.
- Finally, observe the finish. What flavors does the wine leave on your tongue? How long does that flavor remain? Does it leave you wanting more?
Do you tip at a wine tasting?
Not necessarily. While it’s wise to remember that tipping expectations vary based on local custom, in Napa Valley, and most other American wine regions, there is no expectation to tip at a wine tasting. Unlike servers in a restaurant, the tasting room staff’s wages are not tip dependent, and it isn’t uncommon to find rooms where the staff aren’t allowed to accept tips at all.
At tastings where it is permitted, you can think of tipping as one of many ways to show your gratitude for excellent service. Even a modest gratuity goes a long way, and the staff will appreciate it all the more because it’s unexpected. Alternately, you might consider filling out a comment card or telling a manager directly about a standout employee, and if the entire tasting blows you away, the best way to let them know is to bring home a bottle or two.
How much wine do you get at a wine tasting?
That depends on the tasting room, and on the one who does the pouring. In general, each guest can expect a 2 to 3 ounce pour for each wine you taste, and three or four wines available at each tasting. Some tastings will have a wider selection available, and you’re always welcome to ask for a second pour if you’d like to retry any wines that stood out, but don’t overdo it. You’re there to taste the wine. If you want to get drunk, buy the bottle and take it home.