September is California Wine Month — so there’s no better time to pack your bags for a tasting vacation. We asked experts from the Sonoma County region in the great wine-producing state to share their tips for the dos and don’ts that can make — or break — a tasting experience. (Spoiler alert: The goal is to look and feel like a savvy wine connoisseur… not a sloppy wino!)
Do ask questions and learn a thing or two.
A wine tasting vacation can be punctuated by uber-luxe hotels and world-class food. (Hello, French Laundry.) But it should also be a time for even a novice to take home some education for future wine enjoyment as well as cocktail party sophistication.
“Look for wineries that offer different types of tastings — estate, reserve, single vineyards — as well as offer a wide range of different varieties of wine,” says Rachel Voorhees, who is the director of wine education at Rodney Strong Wine Estates. “When it comes to actually tasting, look at the color and smell of the wine before you taste it. The aromas give you many hints about what you can expect on the palate. Ask questions. The wine professional pouring the wine is there to teach you something. No question is dumb — this is your chance to learn.”
Don’t come on an empty stomach.
Lisa Mattson, who is the director of marketing and communications for Jordan Vineyard & Winery, advises starting a tasting day with a solid breakfast or lunch. She also suggests visiting a maximum of two wineries in the morning, and not more than two more after a lunch break. “Drink at least one full glass of water at the end of each wine tasting to stay hydrated — the rule is one glass of water for every one glass of wine you drink,” she says. (Remember a similar notion from college?!)
Do familiarize yourself with shipping options.
If you plan to buy wine while traveling out of town, make sure you have a plan for transporting it. Mattson says she always advises people to check out the TSA guidelines, which obviously prohibit carryon wine in the era of liquid regulations. The best option may be packing a few bottles with clothes within your suitcase.
If you work with a winery to ship your bottles home instead, consider the weather conditions and plan accordingly. “Don’t place a wine order to be delivered if you know temperature in your area is well into the 90s,” Voorhees says. “Many wineries will hold wine for you and ship at an appropriate time.
Don’t violate tasting etiquette.
Unless you want to subject yourself to some major side eye, avoid heavy cologne and perfume when heading out for a tasting, Mattson advises. “It overpowers the subtle scents in the wine and disrupts the sensory wine tasting experience for not only you, but others around you,” she says.
As well, don’t chew gum; the sugar interferes with the wine’s natural flavors.
Do spill out wine.
“Embrace the dump bucket,” Mattson says. “If you don’t like a wine, it’s OK to pour it out. Winery staff won’t be offended. It’s more than acceptable to not finish a tasting sample, even if you like the wine.” Of course if you drink every sip of wine you’re offered, you’ll find yourself too tanked to really taste!
Don’t drink and drive.
Duh! Make a plan for transportation other than driving your own car, so that you can enjoy the full experience — and leave a little tipsy. “Some people might want a private driver from a small company, who acts as not just a driver but a guide and historian, providing all kinds of advice,” Mattson says. “Some people want more of a group adventure like the new Wine-A-Bay-Go van from Healdsburg Tours.”
Limousines, taxis, and Uber are also options around California’s wine tasting regions.
Do make a plan.
You’ll have the most successful wine tasting experience if you plan ahead. Voorhees advises that some wineries will require a tasting appointment, so do a little research and book your outing in advance.
“Don’t venture out in your car without a plan,” she says. “You can use maps to plan out a tasting route that will be time efficient. Think about visiting sparkling wineries first during the day, and save the heavier big reds for the afternoon. Also, keep in mind that wine country offers many events throughout the year where multiple wineries will be pouring. They are a great opportunity to taste many different wines, from many different wineries all in one spot!”