o If you go wine tasting, hire a car or have a designated driver. Chances are you will taste more wine than you expected to -- those little tastes add up.
o Focus on the smaller places. To feel the passion of wine and winemaking, it's important to seek out the smaller places where you can really spend some quality time with the people behind the bar.
o Have an answer to the question, "What kind of wine do you like?" Many people who aren't totally comfortable with wine find it hard to answer on the spot. Think about saying something like, "I enjoy all kinds of wines. Which would you start with?"
o Keep wines out of the hot car. The trunk is no place for your treasures.
There has never been a better time to go visit a winery near you. All over the U.S., more wineries than ever are open and eager for you to drop by. Many of them plan special events during the summer and entire regions now are heavily promoting their wine trails.
Winemakers and winery owners are among the world’s most charming and interesting people, and they often give away samples of their art for free. Why wouldn’t you go? If you do, here are some tips on how to visit wineries, with some suggestions for winery etiquette. We’ve focused here on visiting wineries in newer wine regions, where tourism might not be as well advanced as places like Napa and Sonoma.
1. Get an empty box for wine. Grab one at your local wine store, or think about buying a Styrofoam wine carrier from the shipping store. Trust us on this. You are going to start buying bottles of wine that will rattle around in your car unless you’ve brought a box. You’ll thank us for this advice when your box is full (and this might have an added benefit; see below).
2. Hire a car or have a designated driver. Chances are you will taste more wine than you expected to — those little tastes add up. Not only that, but if you’re not used to drinking wine early in the day (see below), it could catch up with you fast. In many of the newer wine regions, the wineries might be spread out, so you have some driving ahead of you. Various tour companies are popping up in wine regions all over the country that are happy to chart your visits to wineries and take you to them.
3. Take the kids, but, if you do, find something for them to do. Wine regions are very pretty around now, so green and lush, and winery people are nice, so it’s a shame for children to miss the experience. But tasting rooms can be boring for children, so ask right away if there are cookies or crackers, animals to play with or anything else for kids to do. Some, though not nearly enough, have basketball nets, bocce courts, coloring books or Play-Doh. Take along a Rubik’s Cube, which did the trick for our kids for a while.
4. Go early, especially on weekends. The thing that’s the most fun about a winery visit is chatting with the people behind the bar, who are often the owners or winemakers, especially at smaller wineries. They won’t have time to talk with you if it’s busy.
5. Focus on the smaller places. There is something comforting and unintimidating about the larger places with big parking lots, T-shirts for sale and lots of hired help. But to feel the passion of wine and winemaking, it’s important to seek out the smaller places where you can really spend some quality time with the people behind the bar.
6. Be polite. Yes, this seems obvious, but we’ve visited hundreds of tasting rooms over more than 30 years and we’re always amazed how rude people can be. In a smaller winery, you are likely to be in part of someone’s home and possibly talking to the owner. And you’re probably getting wine free, or for a small charge. Be nice, and show them the respect they deserve.
7. Try new, unfamiliar things. In many parts of the country, the grapes that grow best are native American grapes or hybrids. Perhaps the winery makes a Chardonnay, but it’s not as good as its Vignoles. If you stick to grapes you know, you could miss out on the regional specialties.
8. Have an answer to the question, “What kind of wine do you like?” Tasting-room personnel tend to ask this reflexively as an ice-breaker, but many people who aren’t totally comfortable with wine find it hard to answer on the spot. In any event, we’d be hesitant to answer it directly because we don’t want to try only the kinds of wines we already know we like. Even if you think you only like dry wines, you should try some that are sweet, and vice versa. Think about saying something like, “I enjoy all kinds of wines. Which would you start with?”
9. Ask where the grapes were grown. Many wineries these days all over the country make wine from grapes grown in California or someplace else far away. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, but when we visit a winery in, say, Connecticut, part of the fun of the visit is tasting wines made from grapes grown in Connecticut, near where we’re standing. If you don’t want to ask, just peek at the label. If it says “estate bottled,” that’s a sign that the grapes were probably grown right around the corner.
10. Ask questions. Don’t be shy. If you ask simple questions like “Does this look like it will be a good year?” or “What food goes best with this wine?” the person behind the counter will appreciate your interest. Don’t try to show off with questions like, “Did this get any ML?” unless you really, really care about malolactic fermentation. There are no stupid questions — and, in any event, you can’t do worse than the visitor who once asked a tasting-room pourer whom we’ve known for years, “How long does the wine stay in caskets?”
11. Remember that it’s a tasting room, not a bar. If you want to drink a big glass of wine, buy a bottle and have a picnic. And even if you are not driving, be very careful about how much you’re drinking. People who have had too much to drink ruin the tasting experience for everybody.
12. Be careful how much you buy. It’s a nice gesture to buy a bottle or two, but you shouldn’t feel pressured to. Still, we tend to get carried away at wineries and buy more bottles than we intended. You’ll be amazed how quickly those bottles add up. Many wineries now can ship across state lines, so you can probably call and get those wines after you get home if you have non-buyer’s remorse later.
13. Keep wines out of the hot car. A car that’s sitting in the sun will cook your wines in no time flat. Find a way to avoid that.
14. Ask wineries how to ship your wine back. If you have bought a case or so at various wineries, you might find it easier to ship it back, so ask if there is a local shipping place that specializes in this. This might not be possible, depending on various state laws, so this is where your Styrofoam carrier comes in: Just pack it and check it on the plane with you. There are obviously some risks involved, but we have done this for decades without incident. (Check with your airline to make sure it has no rules against this.)
15. Finally, keep this in mind: The wines you bought at the winery will not taste as good at home as they did at the winery. We’re sorry to end this list with a downer, but it’s true. When you’re there, surrounded by the wondrous sights and smells of a winery, with the winemaker across the bar, pouring wine in pristine condition that has never traveled, the wine tastes special. You simply can’t replicate those conditions at home. But this is exactly why you should go taste wine at a winery this week.
This article was adapted from a Tastings column by Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher published in June 2007.