Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Belly Up to the (Wine) Bar - Tips for Wine Tasting at a Winery (Part II)

In my last post Belly Up to the (Wine) Bar - Tips for Wine Tasting at a Winery (Part I),  I provided some wine vacation/winery tasting recommendations including putting together a plan of attack, having a budget in mind, and doing some research to pick out some familiar and some new wineries to visit.  Now, finally, let’s chat about some tips for getting the most out of your visit to a winery for wine tasting.
Some of you may already be winery tasting pros, so there may not be much here for you to learn - but read on - you never know! If you do have some additional suggestions (or disagree with any of my recommendations) please share with the group by commenting to join the conversation.

So... it is finally wine tasting day, and you are well rested and ready to go and experience the wonders that the wineries have to offer. I always leave my Aqua Velva and Old Spice at home for these trips, as any perfume, cologne or even strong deodorant smells do interfere with the wine tasting experience for you and others around you at the winery. Today your day will be filled only with the wonderful aromas of the wines you are going to taste! You know to hit the popular places early or risk waiting around watching other enjoy wine tasting, and you’ve got you list of wineries you want to try. Please remember to arrive on time if you have an appointment for a tour, and if you are going to be late, please give the winery as much notice as possible. 

At the Winery - Time to Sip, Savor, and Learn. 

OK, so your GPS or Google Maps have guided you (or your designated driver) to your destination. Follow the signs to the Tasting Room, and let the experience begin! Here are some considerations and recommendations for you tasting experience:
  • Types of Tastings. Some wineries offer just one wine tasting choice, while others may offer options that focus on either reds or whites, focus on different varietals, or they may even offer a “reserve tasting” that features their very best stuff.  The first question you may be asked by your host is “What Type of Wine do You Like” - as they may be looking to point you toward a certain wine tasting. Just answer to the best of your ability, there is no wrong answer! My answer is usually - “All types, but especially big reds!”. 
  • Fee or Free? Some wineries offer free tasting, but many will charge a tasting fee that they may apply to a wine purchase (your friendly winery host will explain this all to you - if not please ask). Please be understanding if smaller wineries do not credit your tasting fee toward a purchase - support the small guys!  The reserve tastings will be more expensive, but often worth it.  I tend to go with the Reserve Tasting to try the best wines that a winery has to offer - and typically if you want to try a sip or two from the non-Reserve tasting, you will get the chance.  If the winery does charge a fee, you can expect to pay as little as five bucks for a regular tasting and as much as twenty dollars or more for a reserve tasting.  Some wineries, especially the biggest ones may ask for the fee up front, while many others collect at the end of the tasting.
  • To Share or Not to Share. If you are looking for a way to reduce costs a bit, or just a way to cut down a bit on the wine consumption during a full day of wine tasting - you can share one tasting with a loved one (at least loved enough to drink from the same glass). My wife and I often share a tasting, especially a more expensive reserve tasting.
  • Time to Pour it On. The winery will have sequenced the wine tasting in the best way to enjoy each one.  The sequence will depend on the wines in the tasting - but here is a general sequence:
    • Sparkling Wines
    • Lighter Bodied White Wines
    • Fuller Bodied White Wines
    • Rosé Wines (don’t be afraid - there are awesome Rosé wines out there that aren’t White Zin!)
    • Lighter Bodied Red Wines
    • Fuller Bodied Red Wines
    • Sweet White Wines
    • Sweet Red Wines
  • Be Adventurous. There may be types of wine you’ve never heard of - but what better opportunity to try some new things. You never know, you may be one sip away from your new favorite type of wine! <+>
  • Get your Proper Swirl On.  Take your time and enjoy the experience of tasting the wine. Go through the process: See (is the wine clear, what color is it in the center and on the rim of the wine), Smell (before swirling - what are you able to identify in the aroma, is it subtle or strong?), Swirl (get some air into the wine to help release the aromas), Smell (after swirling - what do you smell now? How much did it change from before you swirled?), Sip (what flavors do you detect? acidity? tannins? sweetness?), Savor (do you like the wine? if you are unsure...then...), Repeat!. You may hear some slurping sounds that would have drawn the wrath of your mother at the dinner table when you were growing up, but the slurping action actually helps aerate the wine in the mouth, and distribute the wine throughout the mouth so that all the flavor receptors get a little taste. Consider bringing a notebook to take notes of what you liked and didn’t for future reference. <+>
  • Chat Them Up. The smiling, friendly soul pouring you glass after glass of wine may be the winemaker (happens more than you would think), a family member, or a winery employee. In any case, find out who they are, their connection to the winery and how long they have been  working there. Winemakers and long-time employees will have tons of information, and are more than happy to talk about the wines, where they grow the grapes, their wine-making process - basically anything you want to know about. If your host using a term you don’t recognize, like maybe “malolactic fermentation” - just ask them to  Expressing interest by chatting about the wines does two important things: 1) it gives you a chance to learn more about wines in general, and the wineries offerings in particular and 2) once your host realizes that you are there for more than just to tip a few back, you will often find yourself invited to taste some additional wines.  Let your host know what you like, or if there is something in their offering that you have never tried, and sit back and enjoy the hospitality.  At wine tastings I have been at, only the very biggest wineries will stick to the tasting list only. I have enjoyed anywhere from one or two extras, all the way up to two or three times the numbers of wines on the tasting list.  Also, my bio on this blog talks about how one statement about one wine led to an afternoon of barrel tasting. I can’t promise that will happen to you - but you never know!
  • It’s OK to Spit or Dump. Yes!! - and you can quote me on this!!! The wine bar will have some type of spit bucket available. If you take a sip and don’t care for the wine, or if you are the designated driver - feel free to spit out and dump out any wine you do not want to finish. Please don’t openly shriek or make any gagging sounds to illustrate your displeasure - if you are asked you can just say “That one is not for me.”
  • To Rinse or Not to Rinse. There will be pitchers of water on the tasting bar to allow you to rise your glass and dump into the spit bucket. Rinsing your glass will actually leave water in the glass and dilute the taste of your next wine. These are small 1 oz - 3 oz pours at tasting, so even a little water will make a difference. The pro sommeliers will sometimes prepare a decanter by putting another wine in, giving it a swish and dumping out the wine, so I follow this example and skip the rinse.
  • Can’t They Do Better than Plain Crackers? - I’m Hungry! The bread or crackers you will see on the bar are there to help you refresh your palate. After tasting a few wines, your senses can get overwhelmed, and a neutral tasting snack like a plain water cracker will help reset your senses so you are better able to smell and taste the next wine.
  • Hit me Again - A Re-Taste. Often at the end of your tasting, your host will ask if there is anything you want to re-taste. If you enjoyed the wine and are up to try some more of a particular one, ask for a re-taste. It can also give you a chance to step away from the tasting bar and stroll around the  and see the sights of the winery, and give some thought to if you want to spend any of your wine purchase budget on something you just tasted at the winery.
  • Let’s Make a Deal. Do not feel obligated to buy any wine if it is not to your liking, or not in your budget. But if you do then the winery may have a setup where you can grab your own bottles, or your host may help you with a purchase. Some wineries offer discount for a case of wine (12 bottles), and they typically do not have to be of the same type of wine (i.e. mix and match cases).  There are some (not many) wines where the winery may only let you you buy a certain number of bottles, as they want to be able to offer a limited availability wine to as many people as possible. If you will need the winery to ship wines back to you, you will need to make sure they can ship to your State. Living in Arizona, it’s about a 50/50 chance that a particular winery will be able to ship to us.  Also, keep in mind what the weather will be like as your wine is riding around in your UPS guy’s truck.
Taste On - but Reember to Take a Break and Enjoy a Little Lunch

Lots of recommendations here, but ultimately all that really matters is that you have a good time and enjoy the experience. If you end up enjoying wine tasting as part of a vacation, then each time you go you may hone your skills on researching places to go, and finding wines you like. 

Some other things to keep in mind during your wine tasting:

Drink water. Keep drinking water along with your wine throughout the day. Keeping hydrated will help keep you going throughout the day, and help you avoid a “mini” hangover later in the evening.  Down at least a small bottle of water as you travel between each winery.

Protect your Investment. If you purchase wine to take with you during your day of wine tasting, don’t leave the bottles in a hot car. The heat will impact your wine by first dulling the aroma and flavors, and after prolonged heat will develop aromas of nuts, sherry, cooked fruit, and who knows what else. Be careful at any temperature above 80 degrees since the inside of your car will get much hotter than the outside temperature. You may be able to leave your wine at the winery to pick up another day, bring along a cooler and some ice packs, or just let the winery ship the wine home for you.

Ring the Lunch Bell. Having some lunch to break up a day of wine tasting is a great way to give your palate a break, plus areas that make great wine tend to have restaurants that make great food. Many wineries have picnic areas where you can grab some goodies at a local grocery store and enjoy a meal with a beautiful view.  If you have more tasting to do later in the day, consider skipping alcohol and having water or sparkling water with lunch so nothing interferes with your enjoyment of your afternoon of tasting.

Bring on the Night - The Night After the Afternoon Before
Especially after a full day of wine tasting - you will be feeling the intoxicating effects and will have a bit of a burned out and overwhelmed palate. Just keep in mind that it may not be the best night to plan a wine pairing dinner at the local find dining restaurant. Consider enjoying a bottle you bought during the day with some cheese, or a more casual dinner. Save the wine pairing dinner for another night - there are likely some spectacular ones available!

Have a favorite memory of wine tasting or a wine vacation? - share with us in the comments section below!

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