The image of the Wine Country visitor sidling confidently up to the tasting bar, swirling technique down pat, is an iconic one. But the reality is, it’s not always clear what to do and, perhaps more critically, what not to do once you’ve arrived at a tasting room.
Though COVID-19 has changed how we go wine tasting (at least for the foreseeable future), the general unspoken rules of wine etiquette remain relatively the same, whether you’re tasting cabernet sauvignon in Napa, pinot noir in Oregon, or chardonnay in Santa Barbara County. To help guide you, we’ve put together a few wine tasting etiquette tips — plus a few extra guidelines worth noting for COVID times — so you can seamlessly enjoy this beloved Wine Country activity.
While many wineries used to be open for walk-in visitors, most are now welcoming guests by reservation only due to COVID-19. Depending on the region, it may even be mandatory to make an appointment. Even if you’re a solo traveler visiting a region that doesn’t require advanced reservations, it’s best to call a winery in advance to ask about their walk-in policies for tastings and tours, particularly on the weekends, so everyone can stay on the same page.
While group visits have historically required an advanced appointment, it’s now imperative to make special arrangements in advance, especially since many wineries are not currently accommodating groups of six or more. When large group wine tastings resume without restrictions, be sure to still check with a winery on their transportation rules before visiting, as special arrangements may be needed for large vehicles such as limousines and tour buses.
Touring Wine Country with kids (or your four-legged fur babies) can be a fun activity the whole family can enjoy. While some wineries (and regions) are more kid-friendly than others, it’s best to call in advance to confirm what the child and pet policies are, especially during the pandemic. It’s also worth noting that some kid-friendly wineries will gladly welcome kids free of charge, but others do charge a small fee, particularly if there’s a tour involved. As for pets, some notoriously dog-friendly tasting rooms have had to change their policies as of late, so even if you’ve brought your pooch in the past, don’t forget to double check existing guidelines.
While there are seldom formal dress codes in Wine Country, wearing comfortable and casually elegant clothing is the norm. Even if a winery is considered pretty casual, wine tasting is, for the most part, a more sophisticated activity that one shouldn’t arrive inappropriately dressed for.
When it comes to choosing what to wear, the first suggestion is to wear the right shoes. Some wineries have paved walkways and patios, others have grassy picnic areas for tastings, and some may offer a tour in the vineyard, where dirt and uneven ground can be expected. Consider the atmosphere you’ll be walking around and tasting in before you pick heels versus flats, closed toed shoes versus sandals. No winery host wants to see you fall because you chose to wear heels during the “vineyard trek” portion of your wine tasting.
The second most important tip is to bring layers. Lighter clothing, hats, and sunglasses are all musts for summer months, especially if outdoor activities like vineyard walks and picnics are on your agenda. However, even if it’s warm during the day, you may be heading into a cold, temperature controlled production facility or barrel room during a tour, where layers are needed. Also, temperatures in Wine Country can often drop significantly in the late afternoon and evenings, so layers and warmer clothing become essential.
It may sound obvious, but wine tasting is a sensory experience, incorporating sight, smell, and taste. For that reason, it’s a general rule of wine tasting etiquette that one not wear heavy perfumes, colognes, or strongly scented body lotion to a tasting room. Even if you may not think it’ll interfere with your experience, consider the person next to you who may only be able to focus on your perfume rather than the wine’s delicate aromas.
Lastly, be prepared if you wear white. Accidents happen, even sommeliers and wine experts can spill, so if you choose to wear white clothing while wine tasting, try not to get angry if there’s a mishap.
You can check out our full guide to wine tasting attire here.
Fees to taste are standard operating procedure at most wineries, though some still offer complimentary tastings or refunded tastings with the purchase of wine. Every winery is different, so ask in advance if you’re curious about fees and reimbursements.
That said, many producers charge a significant fee to taste through their wines, especially in a higher-end region like Napa Valley. If on a budget, plan to research fees in advance, so you don’t take your sticker shock out on the person pouring your wine. Also, just because you’re shelling out $40, $50, or more for a wine tasting doesn’t mean you have free reign to treat it like an all-you-can-drink experience. Revisiting a wine after your experience is usually acceptable, but don’t abuse your privilege to re-try one or two, especially if you don’t plan to make a purchase.
Spitting in public is usually looked down upon, but spitting during a wine tasting is perfectly acceptable — especially if you plan to visit several wineries in one day (see our tasting etiquette on pacing yourself below). If a winery doesn’t have a spit bucket or something to dispose of the wine, there’s no shame in asking for a spit cup or personal dump bucket to use.
It goes without saying that wine tasting is largely about having fun. But for those looking to glean the most from the wines on pour, swirling is a great way to stoke (read: aerate) a wine’s myriad aromas. If you haven’t had much practice, place your wine glass on a flat surface and swirl gently while grasping the stem. Of course, there’s no rule saying you have to swirl at all, if that’s not your thing, but give it a try and you may just find you get a lot more out of the overall sensory experience.
When tasting, it’s best to hold wine glasses by the stem rather than the bowl; holding them by the bowl coats glasses in greasy fingerprints, but it can also disturb the temperature of the wine (ideally it’s been poured at just the right temperature).
Inhale deeply before taking a sip; wine’s aromas comprise one of its most beguiling offerings! Upon drinking, swirl the liquid around in your mouth to ensure it coats all the surfaces, since we pick up different texture and flavor sensations in different parts of our mouths. Oh, and try not to judge a varietal on the first sip. Oftentimes, your perception of the wine (and how much you enjoy it) will change upon the second or third sip.
If your wines have been poured at the same time and your wine steward isn’t around to explain, plan to taste white wines, high acid wines, and light-bodied bottlings before heavier ones, making sure to save the sweetest for last. This ensures the boldest, more tannin-driven red wines and those with high residual sugar don’t overwhelm the more delicate ones you sip first.
Pacing yourself is a critical aspect of tasting. Build moderation into your day by selecting a manageable two to four wineries to visit. Incorporating activities like tours and a big lunch breaks up the day and ensures you do more than just drink. Also keep in mind that different wines have different alcohol levels. A full-bodied red wine tends to have higher alcohol content than a white wine or a light-bodied red wine, and more alcohol will naturally make you feel buzzed faster.
Of course, inebriation should never be the goal with wine tasting. Wineries are wineries, not bars, so drink plenty of water, don’t imbibe on an empty stomach, watch how much you consume, and keep conversation to a reasonable level. Although alcohol is being served, most tasting rooms offer a relaxed and conversational environment, so save loud banter and raucous activities for later!
Even if you plan to spit on occasion, you will still be swallowing some wine, so always plan ahead and have a designated driver.
Purchasing a bottle you’ve enjoyed is a great way to keep the memory going once you’re back at home. Make sure you’re aware of shipping laws applying to your state if you need to ship bottles back home. If you’re flying, consult your airline about weight, quantity, and liquid restrictions (and note that Alaska Airlines’ Wine Flies Free program is only available in certain destinations). You can also plan ahead by purchasing a suitcase built for transporting wine.
Most producers have wine clubs that offer periodic shipments of wine on an ongoing basis. Besides the wine that comes with a membership, extra benefits and perks can make a wine club a no-brainer. Don’t hesitate to ask about membership price, quantities shipped, when they’re shipped, and any other perks that might be included. In many cases, wine club members will receive complimentary tastings, so your tasting fee may be waived if you sign up that day. However, don’t just sign up for a club membership to get a free wine tasting. That is considered poor wine etiquette, for obvious reasons. To negate this behavior, some wineries have implemented minimum requirements for wine club memberships, usually ranging from two shipment commitments to one-year requirements.
One other thing to consider is tipping. While proper etiquette around tipping varies by region, it’s always a nice gesture to tip the person pouring your wine, especially if they’ve taken extra time to explain what’s in the glass, share the winemaker techniques, and/or provide you with a wine tour. Tipping for good service is generally accepted and appreciated.
Following these wine etiquette tips should ensure a smooth Wine Country visit and – even better – afford you the ability to focus on making memories rather than sweating the details. Cheers to that!