Wednesday, June 11, 2008

How To Take A Wine-Tasting Tour

Whether you’re a wine-tasting newbie or an experienced wine-country traveler, there are many things you can do to enhance your experiences. Most of the following information applies to wine regions within the U.S. – some international wine destinations (France, for example) do not have the same “wine tourism” attitude we do in the states.

  • Make some choices before you go. If this is your first trip to wine country, you might want to go to some of the big names – for example in Napa you might visit Mondavi, Sterling, and Beringer.
  • Visit some smaller wineries. Even if you’re a wine-tasting newbie, take some time to visit several smaller wineries – at the smallest ones you’ll have a good chance that the winemaker/owner will be pouring in the tasting room, and you’ll have some great conversations.
  • Make appointments. If there’s some place you really want to see (especially small wineries) make an appointment in advance.
  • Don’t try to do too much each day. We find that three to four wineries in the morning, and another three or four in the afternoon, are generally more than enough.
  • Buy some wine. Unless the wine just isn’t enjoyable, purchase at least one bottle of something you enjoyed at the tasting room. It will probably taste even better at home.
  • Don’t be afraid to pour. Even the small tasting amounts can add up. You’re there for wine tasting, not wine drinking. The pour bucket is totally acceptable to use.
  • There are no “bad” wines. A wine might not be to your tastes, but don’t say, “that’s awful.” If you need to express a negative opinion, just say that the wine isn’t your style.
  • Not all wineries charge. Most smaller wineries – and ones in smaller regions – do not charge for wine tasting. In our recent travels, we’ve seldom been charged for wine tasting. But...
  • Be prepared to pay. Many wineries, especially in Napa, now do charge for tasting. Some apply the tasting fee to purchases, others don’t. Also in Napa, be prepared for the “Disneyland” experience – at some big and popular wineries, it’s now become industrial tourism, with complimentary souvenir tasting glasses (after you just paid $10 for tasting), huge cheese and gift shops, and tour busses lined up outside.
  • For the big wineries, go early. And at any time of day, if there’s a tour bus in the parking lot, go elsewhere, fast.
  • Take a tour or two. We’d suggest taking one “big” winery tour, and a smaller one. On a recent trip to California, Washington, and Oregon, our big tour was at Benziger in Glen Ellen (Sonoma Valley), where the 45-minute tour goes through the vineyards, the production facility, and the cellars, ending with a tasting. Our small tour was just the two of us (the other three guests were late), at Mayacamas (outside Napa Valley) where we witnessed what winemaking was like a half century ago – not much has changed, and that’s all for the best. Note that the small Mayacamas tour and tasting was free, and the big Benziger had a charge. Both were excellent tours, nonetheless.
  • Explore not just smaller wineries, but smaller regions. On that recent trip, we found several good wineries outside Hood River, Oregon, and wanted to spend a lot more time at the wineries in Amador County in the Sierra Foothills.
  • Be enthusiastic and appreciative. You just might be offered a special wine, or be offered to taste the whole tasting list, rather than just the limit of four (or however many) for free.

Outside B.R. Cohn winery, Sonoma