Chances are you’re doing it all wrong. Here, Contributing Editor Matt Kettmann provides expert tips for how to taste like a pro.
Recently, a friend of mine who just started to get into wine asked me about tasting room etiquette. Is it mandatory to buy bottles? It is appropriate to tip? How does she ask for “the good stuff”?
I quickly realized that while the tasting room experience is commonplace for those of us who’ve lived in wine country for years and visit wineries often, it remains foreign territory for millions of non-industry Americans.
When answering my friend, I also realized that some of my advice may actually be out of date, especially since many tasting rooms now function as de facto wine bars. So, should you tip? I wasn’t sure, nor had I been tracking whether the rules I’ve been following for about 15 years still have any validity.
Were things getting more relaxed with the millennial crowd? Should we be spitting? Can I finally wear perfume?
To find out, I tapped three experts for tasting room how-to tips:
Hugh Margerum, who is the brother of winemaker Doug Margerum and runs a handful of tasting rooms in the heart of downtown Santa Barbara;
Larry Schaffer, whose Tercero Winery tasting room in Los Olivos is in the middle of Santa Ynez Valley wine country and who frequently runs tastings all over Southern California;
And Andrew Jones, whose Field Recordings tasting room in the “Tin City” urban winemaking collective in southern Paso Robles caters to a creative and often millennial crowd.
Here’s what they had to say.
Don’t wear fragrance.
There go my cologne dreams! Seems obvious, but scents can ruin the tasting experience for everyone within nose-shot.
Be open-minded: Drop pre-conceived preferences.
“Maybe you’ve never tasted a rosé you’ve liked, but go ahead and try what is being offered,” says Margerum.
“I have folks say that they do not like sweet wines at all, but my ‘dryish’ Gewürztraminer turns out to be their favorite of the wines poured!” adds Schaffer.
Don’t flex too much wine knowledge.
I usually refrain from talking too technically in a tasting room because it seems like I’m showing off. And often the tasting room staff, who tend to be entry-level employees, don’t know as much as you’d think. “It’s fun for me personally to deal with folks who know a lot about wine—I love the tête-à-tête,” says Schaffer. “But for the average tasting room employee, it probably isn’t that much fun.”
But no matter who’s working, know-it-alls are no fun.
“We get this a lot with older patrons that don’t get us or our concept,” said Jones. Adds Margerum, “We are there to showcase what we do and welcome all levels of expertise and knowledge.”
Don’t pretend to be in the industry.
“Industry” truly means those working to make a living within the wine trade, so don’t fake it just to get a discount or special treatment, even if you are truly passionate. “We seriously have home winemakers come in with fold ‘n’ tear business cards they made at home and ask for discounts,” says Jones.
And if you are industry, act like it.
“If you are industry, and it’s a busy Saturday, don’t ask for special treatment when we have a full bar,” says Jones.
Go ahead and swallow.
There’s no need to spit. “It’s not all about education,” Jones says. “It’s okay to drink a little and have some fun.”
But spit if you’re visiting a lot of tasting rooms, “moderate your intake,” Margerum says. “The bane of tasting rooms are drunk tasters.”
And dump, too.
“It is not rude to pour out wines, even ones that you like,” says Schaffer. “’Spit’ and ‘Dump’ are four letter words that should not be.”
Don’t ask for the “good stuff.”
Definitely don’t, but it’s okay to inquire whether there are any library or reserve wines open beyond the advertised flight. Just realize that special requests should increase your pressure to purchase wine.
Linger, but meaningfully.
Both Schaffer and Margerum happily allow people to retry wines if they are considering a purchase, so long as patrons aren’t getting drunk or disrupting the experience for others. Jones thinks lingering is more the fault of the winery than the taster. “If you format things right, it isn’t an issue,” he says.
Do buy wine.
“Some tasting rooms have a specific policy about waiving the tasting fee when a particular amount of wine is purchased,” says Margerum. “For others it’s a judgment call.” Jones usually waves the $10 fee with a two-bottle purchase, but understands not purchasing if you have to fly home. Schaffer waives the tasting fee with three bottles, but “sometimes less depending upon the circumstance.”
But don’t haggle.
Jones can’t stand “patrons who try and work it like it’s a car deal. It’s just wine. I don’t get how people haggle, always wanting extra deals.”
Jones doesn’t take tips. “It’s a tasting room, not a bar,” he says. But Margerum and Schaffer are both open to tipping.
Who still breaks the rules? It’s not the millennials. “We find that it’s the older patrons that violate the rules more than the young ones,” said Jones. “The younger tasters are usually more appreciative and considerate.”
BY MATT KETTMANN