MY rules for proper tasting room etiquette.
One of the most enjoyable, relaxing, and not terribly expensive ways to spend a couple of hours is to visit the tasting room of a local winery. No matter where I travel, I always make time to try the wine. What I love most about tasting rooms is that I can go by myself and not feel awkward or out of place.
It goes without saying that wine tasting should be fun! The question to ask yourself, however, is: What will make it fun? Why do people pay to taste wine, as opposed to throwing back a craft brew or sipping a boutique cocktail? I think it is because wine tasting is such a personal, sensual experience–even when you are with others.
Besides experiencing tasting rooms around the world, I have also been on the other side of the bar serving the wine. So, I’ve had a lot of opportunity to witness a range of tasting room behaviors. Every tasting room has a different vibe, and when you are going into one for the first time it can be a little intimidating. There are, however, some simple rules of behavior that I follow and have served me well every time I go into a tasting room.
Rule #1: Dress for the experience. While wine tasting should be a relaxing experience, it still has an aura of mystery and sophistication. I’ve also learned that there are unwritten dress codes in different regions of the country (or world). When you go to Sonoma or Napa, I don’t recommend jeans and a t-shirt. Comfortable with a hint of elegance will be appropriate. In the Land of Enchantment, just about anything goes, but I’ve noticed that most people – even return customers—step it up a notch. A lot of ladies wear skirts, dresses, or nice leggings/slacks. Guys will often wear a button up or polo shirt. I like to wear cute dress or nice slacks when I’m going out to a tasting room for the first time because I will fit in 99.9% of the time. Also, check out my Don’t Wear White post.
Rule #2: Don’t wear cologne or perfume. I know, I know. I just told you to dress it up, but now I’m telling you to stop short of applying that amazing designer fragrance you save for a special occasion. Just remember that you taste with your nose first. If there are strong smells around you, it will keep you from experiencing the full smell and taste of the wine.
Rule #3: Go with a clean palate. If you’ve just consumed a loaf of garlic bread or you are still on fire from the red chile enchiladas, you might want to go to a brewery instead. Wine will never pair well with the leftover flavors of lunch. By the same token, it doesn’t go at all with the taste of toothpaste or mints.
Rule #4: Go with an open mind. Don’t show up to taste wine with the attitude that you only like sweet white wine or dry red wine. The tasting room manager is proud of the wine she serves and wants you to enjoy the range of what the winery has to offer. Go to EXPERIENCE the wine. Have the attitude that you want to appreciate different wines and expand your palate. Some tasting rooms have pre-determined flights of wine for you to taste. Select one that is outside your go-to wine type and style. If you are at a tasting room that offers you a menu and asks you to select 5 or 6 wines for tasting, be intentional. Select options from red, white, dry, and sweet. If you don’t know what something is, ASK. When I visit a tasting room, I ask the server these questions:
What is your favorite wine?
What is your best seller?
When the winemaker sits down to relax, what wine will he/she drink?
What wine best reflects your winery? (That’s a tough one for most servers)
I generally taste wines from the answers to the questions. Then, if I still have some choices left, I choose what I like best to see how it stands up to my favorites. For me, that is generally a Malbec or a Syrah.
Rule #5: “Spit” and “Dump” are appropriate 4-letter words. For a somewhat sophisticated event, spitting and dumping are completely appropriate actions. It took me a long time to get comfortable spitting out wine and dumping the remainder of the glass into a dump bucket. I know that sounds gross, but it is perfectly acceptable—especially if you are going to be visiting several tasting rooms in the same day. Just recently, my husband and I did a whirlwind visit to 6 tasting rooms in a 24-hour period up in northern New Mexico. If I’d have swallowed all of the wine I tasted, I wouldn’t have been able to walk out of the first tasting room, let alone 6 of them! It is not offensive to the server or winemaker when you ask for a spit cup or a dump bucket. They have them readily available and they definitely do not want you stumbling out of their place and getting in your car.
Rule #6: Keep a poker face. While it is 100% appropriate to spit out wine and dump out your glass, exaggerated expressions like grimacing, calling a wine disgusting or sticking out your tongue are typical Kindergarten behaviors. Wine tasting is one of the most subjective activities you will ever engage in. There will be some wine you don’t like and just because you don’t like the wine, doesn’t mean it is bad or there is something wrong with it. It just means that particular wine did not appeal to your palate. Here’s a challenge: Don’t decide you dislike a wine after the first sip. Give the wine 3 small sips. Savor it. Swish it around in your mouth, and then spit or swallow. Take time to consider what you taste and feel. A lot of hard work goes into making wine. Put a little effort into tasting it. Don’t be rude or hurtful.
Rule #7: Don’t be that guy (or gal). There are a lot of wine tastings between being a beginner and becoming a wine enthusiast. Always feel free to give your opinion and share your thoughts on the wines with the group but try to avoid acting like a know-it-all wine snob. The great thing about giving your opinion at a wine tasting is that there are no “right” answers. Don’t be that person who makes the experience more serious than it needs to be. Real wine enthusiasts ask thoughtful questions and listen to what others have to say.
Rule #8: Tip your server. Having been a server, I can tell you that there are very few things more discouraging than spending time with a customer, pouring 5-6 tastes of wine, and cleaning up only to have them leave without tipping. I suspect you would not stiff a restaurant server or a bartender, so don’t stiff your tasting room server.
Rule #8: Consider taking home a bottle. Wine tastings cost and you should expect to pay for them, but it would be great if you also purchase a bottle to take home. The goal of the tasting room, beyond providing you with an amazing experience, is to sell wine. I rarely leave a tasting room without purchasing at least one bottle. With that said, many wineries waive the tasting fee, or offer a discount on bottles, but don’t expect it.
Rule #10: Make memories! Nothing engages your mind and all five of your senses like tasting wine. It should be a sensual, intellectual, emotional experience that you share with family and friends, or embrace for yourself.
I want everyone to experience the joy of wine the way I do. This blog is dedicated to sharing information about wine, wine tasting, and, most of all, the incredible wines, winemakers, and tasting rooms in the Land of Enchantment. Plan a trip to your nearest tasting room this weekend! If you want “insider” info about any of our more than 50 wineries and tasting rooms, just send me an email or leave a comment.
Until next time….SAVOR THE SIP!