Tasting & Touring
When to Visit
For most regions, peak wine touring season is from late spring to early fall, and the busiest days are Saturday and Sunday. If you are planning on going to a popular destination such as Napa during the summer, try to visit wineries on a weekday or schedule an appointment. Appointments range from wine bar atmospheres to a personal tasting with the owner or wine maker. Find out the details when you make the appointment so that you are not surprised or disappointed. Although scheduling an appointment for tasting can be intimidating for a new wine drinker and can increase the pressure to make a purchase, the personalized attention often results in an experience that is far better than standing in the back of a line waiting for a small pour of wine. You can use American Winery Guide's Winery Search to find wineries that require an appointment and those that don't.
Although your travel times may be dictated by your work schedule, consider scheduling your wine touring to coincide with the prime season for other activities that you like to do, such as hiking, boating, fishing, or skiing. Another option is to schedule your trip to coincide with a festival in the region. You can use American Winery Guide's Event Search to find events across the country.
Choosing Wineries to Visit
In most wine regions, there are far more wineries than you will have time to visit. Depending on the distance between wineries, plan to visit between three and five wineries per day. Some of the things to consider when choosing wineries to visit are:
- Whether or not an appointment is required.
- The average price of the winery's wines. This is especially important if you like to buy bottles from the winery or are looking for wine clubs to join. One option is to focus on wineries that sell some or most of their wines for a price that you are comfortable paying and then throwing in a few wineries that sell wine at a price far above your comfort range to taste some "high priced" wine.
- The awards or ratings that the winery's wines have received. If you're not familiar with the wineries in a particular region, you probably have no idea which ones are known for consistently producing quality products. You can review write-ups in popular wine rating magazines, check out the awards that the wineries have won at wine tasting competitions and read some of the respected wine bloggers that cover that region, or you can use the Wine Ratings filter on American Winery Guide's Winery Search, which will save you lots of time.
- Other visitors' recommendations. One of the best sources of information is people who have previously visited the winery. You can use American Winery Guide's Winery Search to find wineries that received high ratings from other visitors and find out what they liked and disliked about each winery they visited.
- Size and Amenities. Do you prefer small, family wineries or large wineries? Although larger operations often are more polished, many wine tourists like to try wines that are not widely distributed. Also consider whether or not you want to do a tour of the winery or just do a tasting. Common winery amenities include picnic areas, outdoor recreation such as bocce ball or hiking, restaurants or delis, and gift shops.
- Viticulture and Wine Making: Are you interested in sustainable, organic and biodynamic farming practices and wine production or "natural" wine making practices such as non-filtering and non-fining? If so, you may want to choose to visit wineries that use organic or biodynamic grapes or that focus on natural wine making.
One of the joys of wine touring is the opportunity to visit beautiful settings and enjoy new and exciting wines. Getting to and from these destination settings, though, requires a sober driver. Nothing ruins a wine touring experience like getting in an accident or getting charged with driving under the influence. Another popular option is to hire a driver. Not only do you not have to drive, but you also don't have to worry about getting lost. In addition, a good driver can give you insider knowledge about the area. If you would rather leave the planning to someone else, don't mind groups, and want to save a few bucks, consider taking a bus tour. Keep in mind that many wine tasting rooms are not staffed to handle large group. If you have six or more people in your group, give the winery a call to let them know before you arrive.
Price and Pours
In the last ten years, there has been a significant shift towards charging a fee for tasting. For those wineries that charge a fee, most provide a standard flight (usually 1 to 5 tastes) for $3 to $10 and a "reserve" flight (1 to 5 tastes) for $10 to $20. At some wineries, the tasting fee includes a tour and others the tour fee is separate. In addition, some wineries have created wine tasting events that pair foods and wines or that include a tasting with the owner or wine maker. These events can be significantly more expensive but also provide a much more educational and rewarding experience. The amount of wine that is poured varies widely depending on the winery. Although it only a small amount of wine for a wine drinker to determine what a wine tastes like, as wine drinkers are asked to pay higher tasting prices, they are also expecting a descent size pour. You can use American Winery Guide's Winery Search to find wineries that provide free tastings or you can search for wineries whose tasting fees are between a certain range.
The complexity and variety inherent in wine makes it stimulating to both the intellect and the senses. For most people it's difficult to truly engage the intellect and senses when the person next to you is being completely obnoxious or getting sick on your shoes. The goal is to have fun while being considerate of those concentrating on their wine a little more than you care to do. The related goal is to avoid getting ill on your neighbors' shoes, i.e. pace yourself. If you don't spit, as you drink more wine and your palate becomes more fatigued, you'll notice that all the wines start to taste similar, and that they're all really good. It's usually at this point that you start buying wine, that when drank weeks later at home, makes you wonder why you bought it. Strategies for pacing yourself include 1) only tasting reds or whites or just a particular variety, and 2) spitting (unlike puking, spitting is encouraged). Also, no one will be offended if you don't finish your wine. If it's a wine that you're not particularly excited about, instead of drinking it anyway, pour it into the spit bucket. The main problem with these strategies, though, is that most wine tasting rooms charge for tasting, and no one likes not getting their moneys worth. In this case, the best strategy is to split a tasting flight with someone, especially someone who prefers a different style of wine than you do so that they don't drink all of your favorites.
Other Miscellaneous Tips:
- Avoid excessive (or noticeable) cologne, perfume or other grooming products.
- Skip the cigarettes, gum and mints. They will negatively affect the taste of the wine.
- Ask questions. Most wine servers and wine makers love to talk about their wines.
- Drink plenty of water before, during and after tasting.
- Eat bread, crackers, cheese, etc. between pours to clear your palate and to ensure that you have food in your stomach.
- Take notes about the wines you really like and record your perception of the winery and its wine to share with others at AmericanWineryGuide.com .
- If you find a wine or winery that you really like, especially one without a wide distribution, buy some wine or join the wine club. If you buy more than you can carry, almost all wineries will ship the wine home for you if your state allows.
- Bring a picnic if the winery allows or plan to eat lunch before you depart for tasting.
- If possible, bring ice chests or collapsible, insulated wine carriers to protect any wine that you buy from excessive heat or cold and temperature fluctuations.
- Set aside time to visit wineries that are recommended to you by local drivers, wait staff, other travelers, etc.
- Set aside time to visit a local wine bar and/or wine shop to try and buy wines from wineries that you did not have an opportunity to visit or more from wineries that you really liked.
Start by taking a good look at your wine. By tilting the glass away from in front of a white or pale background, you will be able to observe the wine's clarity and color intensity. In addition, you will be able to observe the degree to which the color thins out along the edge where the wine meets the glass. As red wines age, they generally become paler and take on more of a brownish hue. White wines do the opposite, they become darker as they age. In addition to age, the color of a wine is heavily influenced by the type of grape, fermentation and aging practices and the climate in which the grapes were grown (warmer climates usually produce wines with darker colors). Although looking at wine may be aesthetically pleasing and allow the drinker to identify major flaws and approximate age, few wine drinkers choose a wine based on how it looks. And although there are some general rules related to color depth and flavor intensity, there are also plenty of exceptions. For most wine drinkers, looking at the wine is just a brief prelude to the good stuff, smelling and drinking!
Swirl & Smell
Swirling does much more than just show everyone that you have good motor skills and have spent many hours "practicing", it exposes more of the wine's surface with air which helps release the wine's aromas. Once you've given the wine a good swirl, stick your nose into the glass and take a deep breath. Some professionals recommend starting with a shallow sniff followed by a deeper sniff. Other professionals recommend one deep sniff and some recommend keeping your mouth open while sniffing. Whichever method works best for you is the one you should use, with the goal being to get a good sense of the various aromas contained in the wine. Whereas some wines have almost no aroma, others can be so enticing that just sitting and smelling the wine can be as pleasurable as actually drinking it.
Wine contains hundreds of aromatic compounds which result in a wide range of aromas including fruits, flowers, spices, herbs, minerals and other earthy substances. Some aromas are so distinct that the majority of people who smell the wine will probably identify the same aroma whereas other aromas are much more subtle. Some of the aromas you are likely to come across such as mushrooms, green pepper, cat pee, and petrol may not be particularly pleasant at first but add to the character and style of the wine. Whether you like that style of wine or not is another issue. The most common smells that indicate a wine may have gone bad are a musty, wet cardboard smell (cork taint), vinegar (oxidation) and bad eggs or struck matches (sulpher-related problems).
Now that you have visually inspected the wine and enjoyed its various aromas, its time to taste the wine. Roll the wine around in your mouth so that it comes in contact with as much of your mouth as possible. Then, open your lips slightly and draw in some air to further aerate the wine and help move the aromas up to your olfactory bulb. The effect of drawing in air can be substantial with most wines tasting and feeling significantly different, almost like different wines in some cases. The first and most important thing to look for is whether or not the taste is pleasurable, i.e. are you eager for a second drink. While this may not necessarily identify a wine of high quality, it does identify a style of wine that you enjoy, which is the primary purpose of tasting and drinking wine. With regards to assessing the wine's quality, the major things to consider are the wine's balance, length, intensity and complexity. Balance refers to the relationship between the wine's alcohol, sugar, acid and tannin components. Wines with high alcohol levels often create a hot, burning feeling, and wines that are overly tannic can be bitter and excessively mouth-drying. Quality wines create a harmonious balance between these four components. Length refers to the flavors that lingers in your mouth after the wine is swallowed or spit. Most quality wines have a long aftertaste. Intensity refers to the richness of flavor in the wine. Wines lacking in intensity will be light and bland without much flavor while intense wines will have bold, rich flavors. Complexity refers to the number of different flavors and aromas found in the wine. Complex wines display a number of different fruit and non-fruit flavors that continuously evolve as you enjoy each glass.