8 Tips to Demystify Wine Tasting
Traveling to wineries is big business and a favorite travel choice of many of our readers. One of the top notch destinations on everyone’s wine tour list is California, and more specifically Sonoma County. That is why we have this guest post from our friend Jim at WINEtineraries. He wanted to share some of his expertise and his 8 tips to demystify wine tasting.
Tip #1: Minimize Time and Distance Between sStops on Your Itinerary
The first thing to realize is that Sonoma County covers a sizable chunk of real estate. At 1,768 square miles, it is 46% larger than the state of Rhode Island! This fact alone makes it imperative to do some advance planning to avoid spending more time driving between wineries and other attractions than you spend enjoying those wineries and attractions!
Tip #2: Decide Whether You Are Going to Do the Driving or Hire a Driver
There really are only 2 practical options for getting around Sonoma County: driving yourself (renting a car from your arrival airport or, if your visit is part of a road trip, your own vehicle) or hiring a driver/touring service. One of the most important safety tips for wine tasting is this: If you want to participate fully in more than a couple wine tastings per day and don’t have a designated driver in your party, it would be a smart idea to hire a driver/touring service. 5 that come highly recommended by wineries and previous customers are suggested in the “Sonoma County for Oenophiles” (wine lovers) guide.
Tip #3: Focus Your Tasting On the Wines You Like
U.S. Highway 101 transects Sonoma County from Petaluma in the south to Cloverdale in the north. Intersecting east-west highways (12, 116, and 128) take you, respectively, through the Valley of the Moon to the town of Sonoma, to the coast and scenic Highway 1, and to the northern end of Napa Valley.
Sonoma County’s diverse geography and climate create 18 distinct wine-growing regions — known as American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) — which are frequently referred to as “appellations.” If you have some specific wine preferences, reading up on Sonoma County’s AVAs can help you decide where you want to concentrate your time.
Tip #4: S-t-r-e-t-c-h Your Wine Tasting Dollar
Free wine tasting is increasingly rare. A wine tasting may run anywhere from $10 to $100 or more, depending on whether you are sampling the winery’s “standard” lineup or its “reserve” (smaller production) wines, whether the wines you taste are paired with food, etc. Thus, it is more important than ever to know how to get the most out of your wine tasting dollar.
The “Sonoma County for Oenophiles” guide includes:
- Links to 4 wine tasting passes that will save you anywhere from $30 to $100 per day (based on visiting 3 wineries/day),
- A list of 50 wineries where you can get 2-for-1 or discounted tasting/purchases just for paying with a credit card you may already have in your wallet or purse, and
- Links to 2 food and wine pairing experiences designed just for — and available only to — purchasers of the guide. This will save you $40.
Tip #5: Schedule Your Visit Around a Wine Tasting Event
Among the best tips to upgrade your wine tasting experience is to plan your visit around one of Sonoma County’s annual wine tasting events. Here are some of the best:
- Winter Wineland happens in January (tentatively scheduled for January 15 & 16, 2022). Participating wineries usually offer something “extra” – they may highlight a varietal, offer a “vertical” tasting (multiple vintages of the same wine), serve small bites, etc.
- Barrel Tasting traditionally has been a 3-day event held the first 2 weekends in March. In 2022, it will be a 4-day event, on March 3-6. As the name implies, you can taste wines before they are bottled and buy “futures” — often at a significant discount.
- Passport to Dry Creek Valley is scheduled to return April 22-24, 2022. Passport features food and wine pairings in what I find to be the most beautiful valley in Sonoma County.
- At Taste of Sonoma (Labor Day weekend), attendees circulate among dozens of wineries offering food and wine pairings at a single location (Kendall Jackson Wine Estate & Gardens in 2022). Visa Signature card holders get ticket discounts, access to the Visa Signature Lounge at the event, and preferred seating at event seminars and demonstrations.
- Wine and Food Affair (first weekend in November) is my favorite wine tasting event. Participating wineries highlight one or more wines selected to pair with a “small bite” to demonstrate how food and wine complement each other. Once the program is announced, it is possible to plan your own progressive meal, beginning with an appetizer at your first winery of the day and ending with dessert at your last!
Tip #6: “Chat Up” Your Tasting Room Host / Wine Educator
This person is much more than a human dispenser of fermented grape juice! Being chatty often results in extra pours and, in any event, makes a lot of sense. The educator knows a lot more about the wines on the tasting menu than you do. And when you’ve finished your tasting, ask for referrals on other wineries that match your taste preferences. Referral passes often offer free or discounted tasting!
Tip #7: Consider Joining a Wine Club
At the risk of stating the obvious, wineries offer wine tasting in order to sell wine, and they all offer some way of continuing to get their wines (assuming you enjoy them!) once you leave the tasting room.
Typically, wineries offer a 10% to 25% discount (the higher the number of bottles to which you commit, the bigger the discount) on purchases as a club member. Some offer an even bigger discount on the day you join. Ask about customization (whether you can select the wines in your club shipments) and shipping costs (which add to the per bottle price). Often, this is the only way of getting the wines you tasted once you return home.
Tip #8: Ask About the Impact of COVID-19
What the long-term impact of COVID-19 will have on Sonoma County tourism is anyone’s guess. So, it is important to mention steps local and state government — as well as the hospitality industry — have taken to protect the health and safety of visitors and staff. When planning a visit, you are advised to consult the Sonoma County Tourism Coronavirus page and the “What’s Open” page on the California.gov website for the most up-to-date information.
Thanks to Jim for sharing these 8 tips to demystify and improve wine tasting experiences. If you are interested in planning a wine tasting trip, we hope you found these helpful.
And if you really love wine, look for opportunities to live and work at a winery with unlimited drinks!
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Thanks for a great article!
Your lodging concierge is also a tremendous resource for free/discounted/varietal-specific tastings with wineries they have close relationships with. Are also usually wineries close to the property you are staying, checking off boxes 1-4 above! Beringer, for instance, is a quick walk over the bridge from a great Hyatt point redemption, Alila Napa. They will hook you up with up to 4 different tastings. For Sonoma, use your $200 Capital One Venture X credit towards a cute airbnb bungalow just off the square for multiple easy tastings. Those operators also always have relationships with nearby wineries for $0 to heavily-discounted tastings. Sometimes with the smaller boutique producers, too, usually resulting in making new friends over good stories & juice!
Thanks, Pam, for going out of your way to add some valuable information!
Well done and interesting article!