As the manager of a wine shop that doubles as a tasting room, I feel a certain obligation to the tasting room industry to help those who may be new to wine tasting (and some who are seasoned veterans even) get a better sense of what the proper etiquette is in a tasting room or when visiting a winery. I am always thrilled when someone is bold enough to announce to me as they step up to the tasting counter “We’re new to this whole wine tasting thing – in fact, this is our very first time. What do we do? How does it work? Can you walk us through it?” These are some of my favorite people to do tastings for because they are humble enough to put their egos aside and accept some guidance, yet courageous enough to jump in and give it a try despite the common misperception that the wine world is full of snobs and know-it-alls. Well, to be fair, that’s probably true, but it is equally full of helpful and considerate people who are just as passionate about helping to demystify wine as they are about the wine itself.
So, on that note let’s dive right in to my 10 rules of wine tasting:
Rule #1: Don’t be a snob or a know-it-all.
Do not pretend to know more than you do – eventually, you WILL be found out by someone who knows more than you…trust me, I’ve seen it happen! Do not talk loudly and boldly about how you hate riesling because it’s too sweet…or any other broad generalization that only proves you know less than you proclaim to. Do not snub your nose at someone who asks a question that you deem as stupid…there are no stupid questions. And lastly, don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know something and DO ask questions! Tasting room staff are generally very friendly folk who usually love to help people learn more about wine. And if you find yourself in a tasting room with staff who are not friendly or helpful, then maybe it’s time to move on to another one.
Rule #2: Relax and enjoy yourself.
Remember that the most important quality of wine is that it’s meant to make our lives at least a little happier. It relaxes us, breaks down walls between us and lightens our mood…assuming moderation of course. You don’t have to take it all so seriously. Of course, if you enjoy the geekier aspects of wine, then by all means geek out to your hearts content…you will likely find a willing comrade either among your fellow tasters or the tasting room staff who will happily join you in debating whether you think the wine has stem inclusion or whether the wine may have been better without malolactic fermentation.
Rule #3: Keep an open mind and be adventurous.
So often we find ourselves in the rut of habit. We go to the grocery store and peruse the wine section for a half hour only to walk out of there with the same wine we know and love almost every time. Now, don’t get me wrong, there is something comforting about finding something you love and the safety it carries with it. But life without some risk will get really boring really fast. And though I can understand why you wouldn’t want to blindly risk $20 or $30 on a bottle you’ve never tasted or a grape variety you’ve never heard of while browsing your local grocery store shelves, there is no excuse for not at least trying a new wine that is poured for you at a tasting. Keep in mind that not all chardonnays, or any other grape for that matter, are created equal. They can vary in quality, aroma, mouthfeel and flavor to such a large degree that it may seem as though you are drinking wines made from completely different grapes. If you don’t believe me, try a stainless steel chardonnay next to an oaked one. Or try a dry riesling next to a sweet one. Why pay the money to taste if you are going to turn down one of the wines because you “don’t like chardonnay”. A better way to approach it would be to say “I haven’t really liked any chardonnays I’ve had so far, but I’ll try this one – maybe it will surprise me.” I find this happens a lot with dry rieslings. People will often be quick to announce that they don’t like rieslings because they’re too sweet. But then once I explain to them that the dry riesling in their glass has a negligible amount of residual sugar and that they may find that it’s completely different than any other riesling they’ve had, most will break down and give it a try. And most will thank me for coaxing them into it as the wine opens their mind to whole new possibilities.
Rule #4: Take in the wine with ALL your senses and by God, sip it, don’t shoot it!
The best way to take a wine in fully is to involve all of your senses – look at the way the light brings out its beautiful purple hue, listen to the tasting room staff describe it and explain what went in to making it, give the glass a good swirl and stick your nose in to smell its aromas, feel the wine on your tongue and in your whole mouth, and finally taste all of its glorious and subtle nuances. And take your time with the process…no one will rush you through it. And for heaven’s sake, just because the standard one ounce pour happens to be the same size as a standard shot of liquor, please don’t knock it back like your doing shots of Jaeger! Sip it, savor it, experience it fully.
Rule #5: Forget your manners.
Yes, you read that right – forget your manners…in fact, throw them out the window. Well, okay…not ALL your manners. Just the ones that prevent you from being okay with the fact that the wine world is the one place where it is perfectly acceptable and in fact encouraged to slurp, spit, and spill. A controlled slurping allows you to pull air in through your lips to volatilize the alcohol in the wine, thus releasing its aromas and flavors more fully. And spitting and spilling allow you to be responsible and control the amount of alcohol you are taking in. No tasting room will ever fault you for taking a tiny sip and spilling the rest (in the dump bucket, please!), or spitting if you prefer that method (again, in the dump bucket, please!). In fact, we are happy to see it as it means less obnoxious drunken behavior and less drunk driving accidents! Here’s something to consider – each tasting room you go to will usually pour about 6 tastes for you, sometimes more. Each taste is about 1 ounce each, sometimes a little more. If you drink every taste poured to you, after four tasting rooms, you’ve drank AT LEAST 24 ounces. A regular sized 750ml bottle of wine is 25.4 ounces. So you’ve just drank a whole bottle of wine yourself usually in less than a few hours. In many cases due to extra wines being poured or heavier handed tasting room staff, it is very easy to hit a full bottle after just THREE tasting rooms visited!!! Keep this in mind next time you are debating whether to swallow or spit/spill.
Rule #6: Please don’t complain about the size of the pour.
See rules 4 and 5 above. This is one time when those good manners your mom taught you actually do apply. This is wine TASTING after all, not a college frat party. Most tasting rooms pour a standard one ounce pour, some a little more. This is more than enough to get an accurate feel for the wine. And keep in mind that tasting room staff are not bartenders. The reason wineries conduct tastings is to introduce you to their wines in the hope that you will enjoy them and want to buy some to bring home. It isn’t to get you drunk. Just be gracious and accept what is given to you. And if there is one that you particularly enjoyed, most tasting rooms will be happy to allow you to revisit the wine with an additional small taste, especially if you’ve expressed interest in purchasing something.
Rule #7: Don’t treat a tasting room like a bar.
By all means, relax and enjoy yourself. Take your time with the tasting. Chat with the people next to you and with the tasting room staff. But don’t take up valuable real estate forever chatting and socializing while your wine remains in your glass untouched. Don’t forget what you paid for – wine tasting. And don’t forget that there are others who would enjoy some time at the tasting counter as well. If you’ve made a new friend with the person next to you and are deep in conversation, merely grab your glass and invite your new friend to step back a bit with you to continue discussing the current administration’s foreign policy or the benefits of a free market economy. We’re happy that wine has brought you both together, but please be aware that others may be waiting to taste as well.
Rule #8: Keep your hands in the vehicle at all times.
We’ve all heard this phrase repeated numerous times in theme parks and on tour buses. Well, the same applies, in a manner of speaking, to when you visit a winery. If you venture out to some of the wineries with vineyards, please do not pick the grapes. The vineyard is not a smorgasbord ripe for the picking. It is the product of someone’s hard work, sweat and dedication and provides the raw materials for the wine you enjoy. And frankly, picking the grapes without being invited to is just plain stealing. Look at them, even touch them gently if you wish, but please leave them on the vine. This rule also applies to open bottles in the tasting room. They are not there for you to help yourself. If the tasting room staff member is busy and is taking a while to get back to you, it is NOT okay to pour the wine yourself. This is actually against the law and can get the tasting room in big trouble. So please be patient and if you need to, just kindly inform the tasting room staff that you are ready for the next pour.
Rule #9: Let the tasting room staff know if you’ve enjoyed yourself.
There is nothing that keeps us loving our jobs more than to be told often and enthusiastically how much you’ve enjoyed your time spent hanging out with us, tasting wines and chatting with us. It makes our day. It has also become very common to tip a tasting room staff member if you received particularly great service, knowledge or recommendations. If you don’t see a tip jar, you can hand the staff member the tip directly…no need to ask if they accept them. If they have been instructed not to receive tips they will surely let you know. But keep in mind that tipping in tasting rooms is optional, so you don’t need to feel obligated. It is never expected, but ALWAYS appreciated.
Rule #10: Spread the word.
If you enjoyed the wines or your experience at a particular tasting room, spread the word! Tell other tasters that you meet (and even other tasting rooms) where you enjoyed tasting most. Most tasting rooms and wineries in Santa Ynez Valley are small, boutique, often family run operations that can’t afford a lot of advertising and always appreciate the power of great word-of-mouth evangelism. People are always looking for recommendations as well and will appreciate hearing about your great experience.
Well, there you have it – a light-hearted approach to wine tasting room etiquette. Now get out there and do some tasting!