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Tips for Tasting in Wine Country

Tips for Tasting in Wine Country


Planning a trip to the Bay Area’s wine country? One of the pleasures of visiting Napa, Sonoma, Livermore Valley, and Monterey is the opportunity to taste wines at their source, so to speak.


Whether you have favorite labels or are interested in learning about new wines, there’s no better education than visiting a tasting room or touring a winery. The tasting-room hosts—often the winemakers themselves in smaller wineries—are knowledgeable about their wines and will help guide you through the very enjoyable process. Here’s our tips for tasting in San Francisco’s wine country, from an industry expert.


1.  Plan Ahead. Look at a map of your destination that highlights the different viticultural areas (called appellations, which are growing regions) to get an idea of which wineries are located where, which places require appointments, which have tasting rooms open to the public, tours, etc. For an over-all perspective of the regions, click here. Also check out our wineries section for maps and other helpful information by location.


2.  Plot Your Day. When planning your tour, avoid booking appointments in more than one area per day. For example, the town of Sonoma resides in Sonoma Valley, a picturesque area located within the larger county of Sonoma. But the valley is only a small portion of the county, and is quite a distance from other appellations.  


3.  Don’t Overbook Yourself. Recognize that even within one area, wineries can be far apart. Four stops in one day is a reasonable number (remember, winery hours are typically 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and travel time in between stops can be significant). Consider having lunch at a winery to avoid driving into town to find a restaurant, which can take up a lot of the day. Most wineries don’t sell food, so plan on picnicking or researching a winery that has a deli or marketplace.


4.  Make a Reservation. It’s a courtesy to the winery to make a reservation if you have a group (typically 6 or more). Many wineries have limited space and need to know ahead of time what kind of traffic they can expect throughout the day, or need to set up a special area that facilitates more people.


5.  Eat a Good Breakfast and Drink Plenty of Water. Many visitors forget this or underestimate their importance. Trying lots of little tastes over a long period of hours affects everyone, even professional sommeliers. Stay hydrated and fueled up for a more enjoyable day.


6.  What To Expect. You can taste wine in a variety of places: tasting rooms at the winery, tasting rooms in caves, tasting rooms off-site (not at the actual winery), etc. Tastings typically include between three and five wines per tasting. There will be a menu of wines, and you’ll either choose the ones you want to sample, or the winery will offer a pre-selected group. Some wineries also have reserve (higher end) or library (older vintage wines) tasting offerings, which will be for a separate or higher fee. Tasting fees usually range from $5 to $25 per person.


7. How To Taste. To get the most out of a wine, it’s best to smell it first, then swirl it a bit in the glass to open it up (the aromas and flavors are released more quickly this way).  Next, you taste it, spit (that’s what those buckets are for), and taste again. Repeat as necessary to determine how much you like the wine. Many tasting rooms provide you with one glass, which you use to taste all of the wines. Higher-end tastings typically set up a flight of wines in separate glasses so you can taste in order, and then go back and re-taste wines as desired.


8.  Buy A Bottle If You Like Something. Wineries are pouring tastes (not glasses) of their wine so that you can sample them and decide whether or not to buy a bottle. Wineries can’t stay in business unless they sell wines, and tasting fees simply help offset some of the costs of running the tasting room. Of course, if you don’t like anything enough to take a bottle with you, you are under no obligation to purchase anything. This is the beauty of being able to “try before you buy.”


—By Brooke Herron
Writer Brooke Herron has been active in the California wine industry for 11 years. She is currently in sales management and winery marketing for a Sonoma County winery.



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