Tasting Room Tips: To spit, or not to spit?

Clif Family Winery Tasting Room Caroline copyThe Wall Street Journal’s wine reporter Lettie Teague recently let us in on a few pointers about what to do, and not to do when in tasting rooms in her article “A Winery Tasting Room Guide to Sipping and Spitting”.

After reading it I though it would be a good time to add my two-cents!

WineryCritic Tasting Room Tips:

When to spit: According to Teague’s sources in the article, less than 1% spit. It surprises me that more people don’t do this. Spitting is totally ok. Actually it is a good thing and may signal to the tasting room team that you are not a novice, appreciate good wines and you may get to try some wines not normally poured. I have to say I spit about 80% of the time. Unless it is something really good, I do usually spit – then again, I’m working. I would say spit anything you don’t love. You’ll be able to last the day without getting to woosy or tired – especially if you happen to be driving.

When to go: I tend to avoid Saturdays.   Tasting rooms tend to be really overcrowded and staff are stretched – especially in popular places like Napa and Sonoma. Especially in the summer or over holiday weekends. Tasting room staff have far more time to spend with you on “off peak” times and I promise you, it will be way more fun.

What to ask: Be generally interested in the winery and wines and you’ll get better service. Tasting room staff are (normally) trained to ask you about your preferences, so be open to telling them what you like, and what you don’t. That way they can pour wines that you are more likely to enjoy.

When to buy: It is absolutely OK not to purchase the wine and you should not feel pressured to do this. Good wineries realize that a good experience with their brand will lead to recommendations by you, or that you will buy the wine in your local store when you get home. This is why many change tasting fees, so they can recoup their costs even if you don’t buy anything.

When to join the wine club: Most wineries you visit will ask you to join their wine clubs.   Obviously there are only so many clubs you can join. This can be a good idea if you really love the wines, and you know you have room to store it (or will be consuming it frequently). It is certainly great to have a regular supply coming in, especially if you entertain a lot. However, for wine brands you see in the supermarket, you may find pricing is better there and it is not worth the commitment. I have found many big brands with severely discounted pricing and it would not be worth my while joining the wine club.

What to wear: I always wear smart, casual clothes. Nothing too fancy, but no shorts or tank tops. Jeans are totally ok, at least here in the US and most of the world (Well, not in Bordeaux, but that is an exception to the rule. When I visited there was a fairly strict unspoken “dress code”). I would not go “dressed to kill” as mentioned in the article unless you are attending a winery event. Ladies should wear flats (heels can be a real pain especially if there is a walk across a garden or vineyard to get to the tasting room). I also recommend taking a wrap or light top if you are doing a tour as you will often go into the cellars, which can be a bit chilly.

What to pay: Tasting fees differ drastically depending on the region. In Napa you’ll pay more for tastings. I’ve seen these anywhere from $20 to $70 per person. Some wineries I’ve struck, such as on my recent trip to the Anderson Valley, do not have a tasting fee, while others charge $5-$10. If the winery has a fee for tasting, and many do, this should be waived with a wine purchase. Some wineries may make you pay for purchases in addition to the fee, which isn’t right. If they don’t explain this up front ask them if they will waive it with a purchase. If they don’t do this then I would walk out.

When to tip: It isn’t necessary to tip for a tasting at the counter, however if you are doing a seated tasting, or it is part of a food and wine pairing experience I would suggest leaving a tip.

Other tasting room tips:

  • Don’t wear perfume or aftershave as it can interfere with how you smell the wine – and also annoy other tasters.
  • If there are any wineries you particularly want to see I always recommend visiting their websites first to see what they offer beyond the regular tasting. Often times there are pairings, upgrades to reserve wines or tours that you can book ahead.
  • If going with a group of more than 5 people I recommend calling ahead and make a reservation. The last thing you want to be is turned away if they do not have room for a group. Wineries want to give you a good experience and it is harder in a group setting. With a prior reservation you may find you get a special room or experience suited for a group.
  • Make sure you drink plenty of water and plan to eat breakfast and lunch along with snacks along the way. Even if you are spitting the alcohol can still get you and you will be better off at the end of the day to enjoy a bottle of your favorite wine, than feeling like you’ve had a bit much. Tasting room staff can be great sources of information about great local restaurants and cafes!

Do you have a tasting room tip you’d like to share? Please post them below.