How to Not Embarrass Yourself at a Winery
There is an unspoken code of conduct that comes into play when visiting a winery. After all, some wineries see hundreds of visitors a day, while others—exclusive appointment-only wineries—may entertain as few as 10 guests daily. But no matter the size of the crowd, passing out on the welcome couch and drooling all over some custom-designed pillows because you drank too much isn’t going to fly. Making matters worse, all anyone can smell is the powerful cologne you doused yourself with, which is now saturating the pillow, too.
So, it’s time for the talk. Not that one—I mean, how not to embarrass yourself at a winery.
It’s easy to get caught up in the romance of visiting wine country—and even easier to land a quick buzz by drinking everything offered to you. But things can get sloppy fast. And, hey, we’ve all been there.
I remember my first wine tasting in Napa Valley. My then-fiance and soon-to-be mother-in-law dropped by Heitz Cellars in St. Helena, California, which in the early aughts offered free tastings. I recall being timid and unsure of the protocol, so I drank everything: two-ounce pours of maybe ten different wines in about 20 minutes’ time. By the end, my knees were buckling, I was quoting Frank Sinatra (“Nobody was driving, officer, we were all in the back seat!”) and trying to convince the host I was looking to buy Heitz—much to the dismay of my future mother-in-law and wife.
Take it from me, here’s a bit of gathered advice and some common faux pas to avoid:
Why You Should Spit (But Not All the Time)
No, you do not have to spit every sip of wine. Wine tasting, after all, is about enjoying the wine. If I’m at Opus One, I’m not spitting. But if I’m at Cliff Lede, tasting through eight different Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, and Cabernet Sauvignon wines, and I know I’m heading to Opus One afterward, I’m going to be selective about the wines I want to experience but not drink.
The best excuses for not spitting I hear are: “It’s gross,” and “I was raised never to spit,” and “I just don’t know how.” Okay, so, let me get this straight—rather than learn the simple art of spitting wine (it’s expected and respected and easy to do), you’d rather down glass after glass so that by the end of your 10:30 a.m. tasting appointment you’re slurring words and on a fast-track to becoming royally obnoxious?
Perfume and Cologne
The biggest faux pas in wine-tasting history is wearing perfume or cologne to a winery. But why shouldn’t you wear your favorite Miss Dior Eau de Parfum or Hugo Boss “BOSS” cologne to a tasting? Because you, your friends, and anyone within ten feet will only be able to taste and smell one thing: you. Why does the Chardonnay taste like cinnamon and clove? You’re dripping with it, BOSS, and now it’s all I can taste. In wine country, let the wine fill the room with aromas.
Swirl with Confidence
Swirling wine is easy; all it takes is a little practice. So, before you get anywhere near Wine Country, here’s what I suggest: Get out a wine glass and a pitcher of water and do a little practice. Begin by placing your wine glass full of water on a smooth countertop, and with the thumb and forefinger pinching the base, begin swirling the glass. After you’ve gotten the swirl down, go wild over the kitchen sink. Swirl too hard and too slow, too wobbly, and start sticking your nose in the glass to sniff out the “aromas,” and all that jazz—get all the first-time jitters out of your system, and work on getting into a good rhythm and swirling speed.
Why do we swirl? Enjoying wine is all about two things: the aromas and the flavors. If you can’t swirl wine properly, you’re missing out on experiencing the lifted aromas that tease what’s to come on the palate. You’re also missing out on the ceremony of swirling, which serves the practical purpose of inviting oxygen to coax a wine into opening up and revealing more complexities.
Act Like You’re Interested, Even If You’re Not
There’s always one person in the tasting group who is along for the ride just to drink and catch up with a friend and is wholly uninterested in the actual tasting experience or learning anything about the wine at hand. If you are that person, and you’re talking over the host as they lead the tasting, hear me out: It’s actually disruptive to most of the group, so don’t be that person!
Grapes Make Wine
Please do not be the person who asks if the wine tastes like blueberries because the winemaker added blueberries to the wine. You can ask smarter questions than that. My three-and-a-half-year-old daughter knows that grapes make wine. Granted, I talk about wine a lot—too much if you ask my family—but do us all a favor before you go wine tasting: Learn a little about wine grapes so that you have some knowledge of what wine is made of. That way, when you’re told the red wine in your glass is made of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes, you can nod with confidence because you’ve read about those grapes. I’d drop everything and order a copy of Ten Grapes to Know by Master Sommelier Catherine Fallis, which covers the basics.
Don't Hog the Bar If It's Crowded
A little self-awareness goes a long way in wine country. It’s a busy day, and if your group is spread out holding court over a large swath of the tasting room bar, and another group is vying for even a bit of space, offer to make room. Even if it’s just you and your date, look for hooks under the bar to hang your personal belongings, leaving the seat next to you open for someone else, like maybe a lonely wine writer on assignment. If you keep your elbows to yourself and nicely ask him what he’s writing about all alone here in wine country, you never know what tips, tricks, and connections await.
She’s Dressed for the Club, and He’s Going to the Gym
Yes, some wineries boast a long bar and a big open space, mood lighting, and music, but that doesn’t mean you’re at a nightclub. Those stunning stilettos are actually a hazard on a tour of the winery—drains!—and if you’re touring a vineyard you’ll sink into the ground step after step. I’ve seen it first-hand. Flats are best, but if you must show off your Louboutins, just call ahead and find out if you’ll be sticking to the tasting room and solid ground, or going on a tour.
On the flip side, fellas, yes, you’re under-dressed if you’ve dressed for the gym. It doesn’t matter if the tennis hoody is from Lacoste or if that Under Armour t-shirt is super comfy, you should look nice at a wine tasting. “Wine Country chic” is what you’re aiming for. It’s about looking classy while layering a bit, because on a hot summer day, the temperature inside the wine cave is always around 56 degrees and you might be tasting in there for over an hour.
Leave Plenty of Time to Experience Each Winery
There’s nothing worse than having to cut short an appointment because you didn’t leave enough time in between tastings. These days, ridesharing options are more prevalent, especially in the Bay Area, but Ubers and Lyfts in Napa and Sonoma can be unreliable on weekends, especially when all of San Francisco heads to wine country and hundreds of smartphones are vying for the handful of drivers available. It could take half an hour to hail a car that you expected to get in five minutes—even longer if you’re tasting in the mountain appellations. So, if you’re planning to rely on ridesharing leave ample time between visits. Your best bet is to book a private car service or a designated driver.
If I come off as a bit harsh, or if I’ve struck a nerve, know that it’s only because I care deeply about your experience, and I’ve had my own share of embarrassing moments. A visit to wine country should leave you feeling wonderful, having ridden on red, white, and sparkling waves of joy—every tasting memorable, every moment unique, and best of all, no embarrassing faux pas.