Tasting Room Etiquette

Everything you need to know when you walk in a winery tasting room

Posted by Rich

Are you new to the world of wine tasting and tasting rooms? Let us show you what to expect when you step into a tasting room. We'll help you keep the snob factor down, and the fun factor way up!

-- When you enter the tasting room head straight to the tasting bar. A host should greet you and give you the run down on what wines are available for tasting as well as if there are any fees involved. Sometimes the bar will be pretty crowded, like on any weekend in Napa, so make yourself seen and be patient. Nobody is in a rush here, and a good host can keep two or three groups tasting and moving along with ease.

-- Tasting rooms come in all shapes and sizes, from the formal-looking Napa tasting rooms to the completely informal card table set up in a winery garage. Either way, you'll probably have some form of tasting menu placed in front of you, occasionally with two or three different tasting options to choose from. For example, besides the standard tasting, a winery may offer an Estate Wines tasting that will pour only their best wines. A heftier fee may apply.

-- In the "old days", (up until the late 1990's), many tastings were free, but now it seems that charging a fee is the norm. If they do charge a fee, it is usually okay for two people to share one tasting, (one glass and one fee). In addition, most wineries will apply the tasting fee to any wine purchases you make. Some will give you a souvenir glass with the tasting.

-- The proper way to taste wines is to try white wines first, then red wines, and finally dessert wines. This is how the host will serve them to you. The reason for this is that white wines are generally lighter than reds, so it's easier to taste the subtleties of a white wine BEFORE you drink a big, bold red wine. So regardless of your preference for wines, you should taste them in this order even if you think your palette does not yet pick up on these subtle flavors.

-- When you get to actually tasting the wine, first consider the color, then the nose (aroma), then the taste. Don't rush. One great way to tune your palate is to read the winery's tasting notes (usually on the sheet of paper in front of you) and see if you can't pick up on some of the aromas and flavors listed as you go. Use the knowledge of your host and ask questions, (don't worry about sounding dumb). For more detailed tips for tasting, please see TASTING.

-- Don't be afraid to skip certain wines, but we strongly encourage you to at least try a sip of things you don't think you'll like. That's what wine tasting is all about! If you don't like it you can dump the rest in the bucket provided for that purpose. For example, you may say that you generally don't like whites, but because there are so many different varietals, and so many ways to produce them, you never know when you'll hit one you'll really enjoy. So taste everything, then decide.

-- To clear your palate, or to rinse your glass, water is sometimes provided. Don't be shy about asking for water if you don't see it. Sometimes crackers are also provided to help clear your palate. For example, rinsing the glass and cleansing your palate with a cracker is most useful when transitioning from whites to reds. This is not something you NEED to do, nor is it expected of you. But once you can taste the difference between varietals, and you begin to understand the affect of the wine making process on taste, you'll want to clear away any remnants of the the last wine before moving to the next. However, it's totally up to you.

-- It's okay to ask for another little splash of a wine that you really enjoyed, but keep in mind that this is usually done when someone is considering purchasing a bottle of the wine.

-- To buy or not to buy? If they charge a fee, you shouldn't feel any obligation to buy a bottle of wine. Ask your host if the wines are available outside the winery: local wine shops? Restaurants? BevMo? Nationally? Most of the big wineries in Napa, for example, have national distribution, and their wines can be easily found at any major grocery store, (usually for cheaper, too). If the wine is not available outside the winery, you may want to buy a bottle (or a case) of that wine you really enjoyed, particularly if it's a small family winery.

--On the other hand, if you go in with a group of three or more and you have a complimentary tasting, and perhaps a free tour, you may want to make a token purchase of some kind. One bottle of wine should do it. A case or two only if you have the money and REALLY like the stuff. But it's up to you.

--When you know you're going tasting, don't wear any strong perfume or cologne, as these odors can distract not only you, but everyone in the room, from smelling and tasting the wine. And chewing gum when tasting will obviously effect what you taste, and is an easy way to show disrespect for the winemaker. Think about it, the winemaker spends his entire life developing every nuance in flavor and aroma in her wine, and you come in chewing Grape BubbleYum!? Don't get me wrong, if you you really like chewing Big Red with your wine, great... just don't do it in the tasting room.

-- Most importantly, tasting rooms are a great place to meet people and socialize, but you should not treat tasting rooms like a bar. You should not get hammered and go around from tasting room to tasting room with a group of your drunk friends making fools of yourselves. That is exactly the kind of behavior that caused most wineries to start charging fees. So keep it together and have fun. Don't chug the wine like you're late for a frat party. Sure, have some wine and get loose, but keep these helpful etiquette tips listed above in check and you'll be fine.

For more tips, check our TASTING TIPS.

Alert other winos:

Dig this? Then you'll love The Vine blog, other Wino articles, our winery tripping guide

WinoTripping = Wine minus Snoot