What to expect when visiting a winery on a wine trail

by Tom Joe Hops ‘r Better Winer

As more and more people delve into tasting wine, we’ve been asked quite a few times on the expectation when visiting a winery. Well, this is as personal as trying on new clothes and everyone has their own tastes, but I will try and describe what I would expect… including what is most critical and what can be “optional”.

My Expectations For A Wine Tasting

Regardless of anything that I will explain, when I walk back out to the car, I want to have that same feeling after watching a great movie, with great actors – satisfied. And not just satisfied for myself, but wanting to tell the next person that THIS was a great wine tasting experience!

So what does it take for me to get involved and lose myself in the “movie”?

Opening Scene: Grounds and Scenery

Especially when driving yourself or with a group, the first scenes of the winery & vineyard normally set the tone for how you expect the experience to unfold. If the vineyard is non-existent, you may immediately think that grapes are trucked in and that nothing is “local” to this winery. If you see a wonderful view of an immaculate vineyard with an impressive winery or wine-tasting room, then you are going to expect something extraordinary.

        

Many wineries DO bring grapes in from surrounding vineyards, some from sister vineyards in other states, so this is something that we can learn more about from talking with the wine pourer or the vintner. Just part of the interactive experience when on a wine trail!

I expect the vineyards to be well maintained and accessible for strolls. With many of the smaller vineyards, they can be very close to the winery and thus close enough to walk to and look at the grapes – always cool!! If I do not see any vineyards then there’s a huge gap missing in the movie that I was really expecting, and the rest of the scenes will really need to distract and blow my mind to make me forget.

Main Character: The Winery

The winery usually doubles as the tasting room & where the wine is fermented and sometimes bottled & stored. For the larger wineries, you may only experience the wine tasting room and there may be tours to see the winery and “cellars” (I’ve not been disappointed going on a tour yet!)

        

[pullquote]The more times I “need” to be impressed, actually lessen’s the wine tasting experience.[/pullquote]

The wine tasting room should be “showcasing” the winery and their wines. From the outside you should start getting the “anticipation” of what you are going to see as you walk inside; as you walk inside, you should be  “duly impressed” with the decor and layout of the room – not being impressed is going to dampen my experience, just a tad… not so much as to walk out, but just enough that I need to be impressed again. The more times I “need” to be impressed, actually lessen’s the wine tasting experience I am looking for.

What I am looking for immediately is “the bar” – where we will be cozying up to start the wine tasting! The “perfect” bar is where you are close to fellow trailers for the sociability portion of the experience, but with enough room for your party (usually two of you, but more fun with four people!!). We have found several wineries that like to segregate (and I use that word decisively) so that there are very limited interactions with other patrons… while this is fine with groups that what to be separated (business functions, bridal parties etc.) it does remove a key component that I’ve come to expect.

After “sussing out” the bar, I immediately look around and try to get a gauge on how the owners have built the room… this provides me with an impression on how they approach their wine (which may or may not be true). I like open spaces for people to gather and chat (or wait for room at the bar) and I really like to peruse the wine accessories & artwork, if any. When people are trailing for the first time, they WILL get the wine bug and will usually want to either get a souvenir or an addition for their home; having wine-related accessories (especially associated with the winery) is very important for establishing a link with clients.

Once the bar and decor has been inhaled, I look around and see what is “special” about this place… and this could be anything from antique works, a bar that can divide into two (what a cool idea!), or something that is “out-of-place” (the original wooden wall to the horse stables!)… and these pieces are what build the storyline for a wonderful (or not so wonderful) wine tasting experience.

        

Main Story: The Wine Tasting

Okay – I hope you’ve understood that there is more than “just tasting wines” that goes into a wine tasting experience… but having said that, the wines are the main story in the experience, and I do forgive you if this is all you really want when you are visiting wineries (but you’d better be part of a tour bus stopping 5 minutes at each winery or a bridal/groom party!)

I am not a stickler for a specific way the wines are presented and poured, so long as it is consistent with the “story” for the winery. You’ll find places that start with whites, then blush/rose, then red wines (the most common practice), and others starting with dry, then semi-dry, then semi-sweet, then sweet – perfectly fine either way for me. I don’t even mind if they rinse my drinking glass out with water or clear it out with a spot of the next wine I’m drinking (though the latter is very classy!)

Before the tasting begins, I must have a wine listing cheat-sheet that lists the wines I’m about to taste, with the wine description (the grapes used and the tasting expectation), an area for my tasting notes and, preferably, the price per bottle (so that I can quickly calculate if I can afford the wine that I liked best!!) In addition to a wine listing, I expect the wine pourer to give a brief history of the winery and the owners (who’d have thought that a South African is making wine in Texas?!) – this allows me to understand how long the winery has been in business and how well the wine is received both locally, regionally and nationally.

Before going forward with the first pour… let’s get one thing absolutely clear: YOU ARE YOUR OWN JUDGE OF A GOOD WINE – regardless if it received 3 gold medals in the last 3 years, has a rating of 98 in Wine Spectator, or is the vintner’s best reserve wine. You, your nose and your mouth will determine whether the wine you are about to taste is worth the praise.

If you are a new winer, and this is your first pour, ask the pourer how you should experience this first taste. Though I let most things “slide”, I do think that when you are going on a wine trail specifically to taste wines, the following is good practice:

  • Swirl the wine in the glass – this gives you an idea of the color & thickness of the wine… but it primarily “releases” the aroma of the wine for you to breathe in & enjoy. Not sure how to swirl? No worries – you can either just leave as is (since the pouring of the wine usually aerates it fine enough) or the pourer shall educate you – ask, ask, ask!
  • Breathe in the aroma – wine tasting is 80% in the aroma! In fact, you can go on a wine trail and have a wonderful time without a drop of wine touching your lips! You want to make a mental impression of the first thoughts that come to you… do you smell “sweetest”… is it “earthy” (or “dirt”, as my wife likes to say), what herbs can you make out, or what fruits does it bring to mind? Is there a smell that you “know” but just can put your finger on it – welcome to wine tasting!
  • Taste the wine – when tasting wine, do not take a sip (you should only get an ounce or two of the wine anyway) but take enough to allow the wine to easily flow over your entire tongue – this is going to allow you to experience the full impact of the wine. Remember the aromas that you breathed in, you are going to experience them again, but they are now going to be “paired” with the taste of the wine – a magical combination that you are going to love (or hate, or feel “so-so” about)! And with the aromas, what are your first thoughts? Sweet, dry, syrupy? Remember, there is no wrong answer here – it is YOUR thoughts that are going to determine whether YOU like THIS wine. And, because wine is both a science AND an art, as your experience grows, you may grow to like (or dislike) this wine in a future wine tasting… so appreciate this time as it may never happen again!
  • Speak your mind – if you are unsure, ask your party or the people next to you (if they’re on the same wine as you are)… ask the wine pourer… this is where you learn the most. Don’t be afraid to taste something different from others in your group… and remember, something can be sweet to you but dry to them and never the twain shall meet; this is the passion of wine! And why we travel this trail together… to become educated and to learn the same language.
  • Document the experience – write down YOUR rating and experience on the wine listing immediately while it’s fresh in your mind (remember, no wrong answers, and in your own words – as you gain experience the words will start looking like a sommelier review!) In addition, using your own rating scale, write a code next to the wine to indicate whether you consider this wine “worthy” of buying in the future. You can use my scale (because it is absolutely fool-proof!) or come up with your own.
    A = Good enough to buy a case
    B = Great wine – no hesitation in purchasing
    C = The wine is okay, good for family & friends and other occasions
    D = Palatable – would drink if someone got it for me
    E = Uggh!
  • Rinse & repeat – if there is still wine left in the glass, you have 2 options:
    a) If you like it, go through the previous steps again to try and recreate the same experience (which is normally hard to do, but fun anyway)
    b) If you did not like it, pour the remaining wine into the spittoon on the counter (you will NOT hurt the wine pourer’s feelings)
    If you really did not like the wine or it left a “powerful” taste in your mouth, feel free to eat some crackers (which are normally available) and drink a little water so that you are ready for the next tasting.

[pullquote]It really is a wonderful “hobby” and “pastime” to experience with your spouse, friends and strangers![/pullquote]

Okay – are you an expert yet? What!? Of course you are – you are your OWN expert!! Writing down your experience and ratings is the first step to really appreciating the wines you are tasting. And remember that your taste IS going to change over time as you become educated in the subtleties of wine. It really is a wonderful “hobby” and “pastime” to experience with your spouse, friends and strangers.

Supporting Characters: Wine Pourer & Owners

There’s a reason there’s an Oscar for Supporting Actor/Actress – it’s because these people are the glue for the movie and make everything believable. As with any wine experience, the vintner, wine pourer and other staff that provide outstanding customer service makes the entire wine experience enjoyable and, more often than not for me, tilt the scales one way or the other. A wine pourer’s attitude is more important than knowledge; their appreciation for how the history of the winery came about is important, but not a show-stopper – their attention to the taster is critical and goes a long way.

    

The Ending: The Wine Smile

Having visited so many wonderful wineries, I’ve always walked out with a smile!! And as I write this sentence, I’m smiling now just thinking about the great experiences that I’ve had with my wife on our wine trails… it’s an experience unlike most other activities, and it’s definitely one that must be experienced personally.

When you walk out of the winery and you have a smile, THEN AND ONLY THEN is when you have had a good “wine tasting experience”! Treasure each and every smile – they are plentiful around the world… and they become more treasured as you find those wineries that may not meet our expectations. Oh, and though experiences tend to be similar, my smiles can be different from yours… and that’s okay! We like different movies, but it’s okay to go to let the other person pick the next movie – you never know when your taste may change!

   

Before I leave, I just want to leave a few tidbits not covered above:

  • You are not expected to get drunk at wine tastings! The pourings should be enough to allow you to taste the wine and form an opinion – that’s it! If you like the wine, buy a bottle and bring it home!
  • On the trail, try to visit 3-5 wineries daily – anything less than 3 and you will be looking for other stuff to do; any more than 5 and your taste buds will be overwhelmed and wines will start “tasting the same”.
  • DO NOT FORGET TO EAT LUNCH! Wineries normally open around 10am and close near dinner time so you can cover a lot of wineries if you want. However, even though you are being poured 1-2 ounces per wine, they can add up during the day so having food in your stomach is a really good smart idea! If fact, find a winery that provides lunch and you can have a tasting and follow it up with lunch with a glass of your favorite wine.
  • DON’T DRIVE DRUNK (or even if you feel a little under the influence!) – My wife and I usually share our little tastings – this allows us to experience the wine, but not the alcohol (unless my wife likes it and she finishes off most of the tastings!)
  • If you’re on vacation, get a memento from each winery! My wife and I started buying ceramic coasters from each winery – over the years the mementos bring back wonderful memories. Of course, you remembered the camera, right?!

I enjoyed writing some of my thoughts for a good wine experience… and I know that you may have similar ones (or disagree with some of mine), and maybe have different ideas that I have not covered – please leave a comment and let me know!!

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