Meggan Robinson on August 5, 2015 2 Comments “Free wine tasting” might be the loveliest string of words in the English language. Whether you’re on a mission to learn more about wine, or you’re adding to your extensive collection, going to a wine tasting in a store, restaurant, or winery is the single best way to both learn more about wine in general and also ensure your wine rack is filled with wines you know you like. You’ll have the opportunity to taste new releases and interact with folks who eat, sleep, and breathe the wine business. While the folks who pour wine in stores or at events are professionals–engaging folks trained to provide you with a great experience–there are some things you as a consumer can do to get the most out of any tasting. While some of these suggestions may seem elementary, as someone who’s spent more hours than I can count pouring wine at events, I can assure you they’re not. Be Polite It’s a Friday night and you’re ready to start your weekend off with a little wine. When you walk into your local wine shop, you’re off duty. The person behind the table is still on the clock, though. While selling wine can be fun, it’s still work, and you should never underestimate how far a smile and a friendly greeting can go. Be prepared to pay attention and add to your wine knowledge. Keep an Open Mind The best thing about wine tastings is the opportunity to experience wines you’d never ordinarily buy. You get to broaden your horizons by trying varieties, producers, and regions that are new to you. If you’re typically a Sauvignon Blanc drinker, don’t turn down the chance to sip a Spanish Albariño or an Australian Sémillon. Once you’re past a certain stage in your wine journey, you’ve developed likes and dislikes, and while you can certainly politely decline to taste wines you think you won’t care for, I always advise folks to taste everything. I pour a lot of dry rosé, for example, and many shoppers see a pink wine and assume it’s sweet. When they taste the bright, vibrant rosé and learn more about it, they’re converts. Push your boundaries a bit. Don’t Make Faces! We all like different wines, and that’s a good thing. It’s important to remember that the person pouring wine for you–in addition to sharing their vast knowledge–is also trying to sell the wine. If you don’t care for it, then you’re certainly free not to buy it, but making yucky faces or panning the wine while other folks may be enjoying it is just poor form. If I don’t care for a wine and the rep asks me point blank if I like it, I just say it’s not my style. Don’t ruin the experience for other tasters. Taste in the Right Order Wine tasting order is so important! Though you may not realize it, factors like sweetness and acidity in one wine really do affect your perception of the next wine you taste. Though most of the folks pouring wine will offer the wines to you in the right order, it’s helpful to understand why we taste in the order we do. In general, wines should move from lightest to heaviest, reserving sweet wines for very last. If your host suggests you taste in a certain order, follow instructions! I’ve had folks march up to my table, demand to taste a Cabernet, then ask to try a Pinot Noir. When they complain that the Pinot doesn’t have much flavor, I’m stuck trying to politely point out that it was meant to be tasted before the Cab. Let your host guide you through the tasting, and you’ll have a much more pleasant and educational experience. Ask Questions Developing a relationship with your wine guy or gal not only helps give them insight into your preferences, but it’s also an opportunity for you to soak up some of their knowledge. Many wine experts will offer you limited information at first (since not everyone in the world cares about wine minutia), and if you start asking about the region where the wine’s made, its aging potential, drinking window, or suggested food pairings, you’ll learn more from the encounter. Special Guidelines for Winery Visits Make an appointment. While it’s fun to meander along the Silverado Trail in Napa Valley, stopping in at any place that strikes your fancy, when you have particular wineries you’re really excited to visit, it’s best to make an appointment. Not only can you set up a more intimate tour and wine tasting, but you also know someone will be ready and waiting for you. Be on time. You may be on vacation, but if you’ve gone to the trouble of making an appointment for your wine tasting, get there on time. Do a little homework. It’s not like there’s a test, but I always enjoy wineries more if I’ve taken the time to read up on them ahead of time. Whether you want to be prepared to ask questions about Cabernet clonal selections at Beaulieu Vineyards or you just want to know what wines Truchard Vineyards produces, get to know a little about the winery before you go. Spit, don’t swallow. If you’re going to be visiting a number of wineries in one day, or if you’re at a winery with lots of options to taste, you’ll need to spit at least some of the wine. If you drink everything you’re poured, not only will you run the risk of overconsumption, but you’re also dulling your palate. Palate fatigue will prevent you from appreciating all the wonderful wines you’ve traveled to taste. Look for a spit bucket, and if you don’t see one, just ask. I guarantee the winery will have one, and if you ask, you’re identifying yourself as a different kind of wine taster–one who cares enough to actually taste thoughtfully, rather than simply looking for a glass of free wine. Look for special events. Many wineries host concerts, seasonal wine dinners, and themed tastings, giving you a festive atmosphere and an alternative to a traditional tour and wine tasting. Ask for restaurant recommendations. Okay, this tip doesn’t actually benefit you while you’re in the tasting, but folks in the wine biz know where to eat! Don’t be Intimidated Most of us have had less-than-pleasant encounters with snobby wine folks–the sommelier who talked down to you or the wine merchant who badmouthed California wines as inelegant fruit bombs. Don’t let wine snobs discourage you from participating in wine tastings. It’s important to remember that none of us was born knowing anything about wine. Learning about wine and developing your palate is a process–a wonderful journey we can all enjoy. Regardless of where your preferences are at the moment, don’t be afraid to jump in to a wine tasting and sample something new–something outside your comfort zone. Whether you discover a new favorite variety or a region you can’t wait to learn more about, going to a wine tasting remains the single best way to augment your knowledge and ensure a steady supply of wines that suit your palate.