First time going wine-tasting? 11 things to keep in mind

By Michelle Ganley - Graham Media Group
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The idea of wine-tasting seems simple enough. If you enjoy wine and you're not opposed to trying a new kind or two, then it's pretty self-explanatory, right?

Well, yes and no.

Wine-tasting in and of itself really is as basic as it sounds. But still, if you've never gone before, it's understandable that you might have some questions. You might even think it sounds daunting: "Wine-tasting? Isn't that for people who drink wine often, or even buy wine often?"

We're here with some good news: It's anything you want it to be. If you're looking to explore and learn more about wine, start here. We'll cover the basics. On the flip side, if you have a bachelorette party coming up that involves a wine tour, but you don't drink it often and aren't sure where to stand, start here. We'll cover the basics! Pull up a seat at the bar and let's talk wine.


10 things to know

1.) You don't have to be an expert.

You just have to know what you like. And when it comes to your personal preferences, there are no right or wrong answers. We get it: sometimes you'll walk into a winery and there are people swirling their glasses, chatting freely about tasting notes and tannins (what the heck is a tannin, anyway? We'll get to that later), and you might feel as if you don't belong. But hey, remember that everyone started somewhere, just like any other activity. You'll get there too, if you want to, of course. And if not, hey, no pressure. Sample some wine and leave the experience in the past if this is a social situation you have to attend. But really: don't feel like wine-tasting is only for snobs and experienced foodies. Anyone can belly up to the counter and try some wine. As long as you're 21, you're in.

2.) You can drink it all or pour some back -- it's totally up to you.

You'll likely see containers that look like vases lining the bar or countertop. If you want to pour some wine out, or (politely) spit some back, that's what these "spittoons" are there for. It's not rude or breaking etiquette to use them. You can't be expected to like everything! Your pourer, by the way, will likely give you wine samples that are about 1 to 3 ounces, so you can take that information for what it's worth. If you have a full stomach, you're OK with that size of a pour and you're enjoying your wine, drink up! Otherwise, no pressure. Dump it. Which brings us to No. 3.

3.) Drink responsibly.

If pouring some wine back is what you need to do to stay responsible, then that's probably your best bet. If you're hitting multiple stops on a wine tour, please, do yourself a favor: Hydrate, eat along the way and get a driver. Actually, regardless of whether you're on a tour, get or designate a driver, if staying under the legal limit is going to be an issue. For a whole slew of reasons, you don't want to be that drunk person at the winery. It's just not a good look.

4.) The pourers/sommeliers (wine professionals) are there to help -- ask away!

Unless you've picked a particularly crazy time of day to visit or there's some similar circumstance, usually these wine professionals are here to chat. They love to share their knowledge, ask you about what you like and help you find the perfect wine. Take advantage of these people. Pick their brains. Ask about the conditions a certain wine was grown in. Or what "notes" they taste. (This just means what things they're picking up on: smoky flavors, fruits, etc). Snag some recommendations. Sometimes they'll even offer some free tastes or open a bottle that's not on the menu.

5.) You can make some comfortable choices, or venture outside the box.

Do you love dry reds? Stick with those and it's safe to say, you'll likely be a happy camper. Or if you only drink whites, maybe try a flight of bold reds. Again, this experience is whatever you want to make it. It's like one of those build-your-own-adventure books. But be confident. Laugh with the pourer if you have no idea how to pronounce "Gewürztraminer." Or if it turns out wine isn't your style after all, go wander the grounds or split the cheeseboard with your significant other.

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6.) Sometimes you'll need an appointment, sometimes you won't.

With a lot of this advice, it'll come down to specifics: the winery itself, the region, etc. But the good news is, it's 2019, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a winery or tasting room that DIDN'T have a website, phone number, several social media accounts and Yelp reviews. Do your research. Make sure you write down hours (some places are seasonal, too), check on the appointment situation, and if walk-ins are welcome, stroll on in and say you'd like to do a tasting. It’s not always as stiff as you’d imagine. Attire is typically casual and you can stay for as long or as short of a time as you'd like, within reason, of course.

7.) Some tastings are free, most are not.

Again, this depends on where you are. You might want to look up this information ahead of time, just so you're not caught off guard. Keep in mind, there are usually deals -- for example, if you buy a bottle, your tasting fee might be waived. And hey, if you ARE tasting for free, and you're enjoying your wine, it's common courtesy to buy a bottle, especially if the prices are reasonable. Tastings can range anywhere from $5 per person all the way up to $50 if you're in the Napa (California) region.

8.) Sample what the winery or region is known for.

If you're in Napa, you're going to be surrounded by cabernet sauvignon. If you're in upstate New York, the pourers might be raving about the ice wine. Try whatever they recommend!

9.) Want to fit in somewhere a little more upscale?

OK, OK, we know: We said you shouldn't worry about this. But on the off chance you find yourself slightly out of place and you want some go-to moves, we'll lay out the following:

  • Pretend your wine is like a scratch-and-sniff sticker -- only you're not actually reaching down and touching it.
  • That said, give your wine a big swirl around in the glass.
  • Lower your nose to the rim and take a deep breath. All the swirling allows oxygen to enter the wine and become more fragrant.
  • Taking a strong whiff of the wine before tasting it, which primes your palate for the flavors that are coming.
  • Drink! Talk about what you just experienced. Remember, there are no wrong answers.

10.) Don't automatically assume you have to tip.

This one is almost hard to write, because we get it: It was great service and you want to tip. Just be prepared, your tasting room might accept happily, or you might get turned down. Author's note: I've been turned down quite a few times.

Just keep in mind, these aren't servers at a restaurant who make a low hourly wage because they depend on tips. Sometimes you might even be chatting with the winemaker him or herself. It's always nice to offer, especially if you're with a big group, but you should know it's not as expected as the 20 to 25 percent you'd leave after dinner.

11.) Have fun!

Cliche, but that's what you're there for, right?


Tannins, by the way, are textural elements that make wines taste dry. (Remember we mentioned these earlier?) They’re found in plants, seeds, bark, wood, leaves, and fruit skins, according to winefolly.com. And now you know! You can go Google a longer and more in-depth explanation if you'd like, we just found this one to be the friendliest.

One final author's note: I'm no expert, either. As a person from the Midwest with no prior wine knowledge or experience, I was dropped into a tasting situation or two during a four-year stint in Northern California, and felt the "what do I do?" nerves. I eventually came to really enjoy learning about wine, and still consider it a bit of a hobby. Just thought I'd pass along what I've learned!

Any tips or pieces of expertise we left off?

Graham Media Group 2019