Wine Country Etiquette

Whenever you go some place new, there are always unwritten rules you discover when you get there…the ones you wish you knew about beforehand. The first time you went to New York, why didn’t someone tell you black was the way to go? Bright color? Save it for an accessory…your scarf, your bag, your shoes (but never “all of the above”). Where was that rule book when you needed it? And then there was the first time you went to Italy. Why didn’t someone tell you that to be able to sit down and eat at a caffe or trattoria, you have to pay more? It was embarrassing when the proprietors gestured at you to leave…wasn’t it?

What about Wine Country? Are there unwritten rules or is there “unwritten Wine Country etiquette” you should be aware of before you go? As with traveling anywhere, the answer is yes.

Many people who go to Wine Country for the first time are surprised to discover some wineries they want to visit are open only by appointment. How do you know which ones? Very simple…go to the winery’s website. Almost every one has a “visit us” tab. This is where you find out if a winery is open to the public or if it is open “by appointment only.” You’ll also see the days and hours of operation, which is important, since some wineries have limited hours (e.g. 11am-4pm) or are closed certain days of the week. If you’re part of a large group in a limo or a “party bus,” be aware that some wineries–because they are smaller, have limited staffing or already have several groups scheduled that booked in advance–will not be able to accommodate the size of your group. Limos and large groups = advance reservation.

There’s nothing like a scenic, relaxing Wine Country picnic. You check online and find the perfect spot…a winery with gorgeous grounds and picnic tables. Some may allow you to reserve tables in advance for a slight fee, which can be worth it on a weekend day if you are going “in season” (May – Oct). When picnicking at a winery, know the expectation is that you buy and drink wine from that winery, in exchange for the use of their picnic grounds. Some wineries police this and will ask you to leave if they see you picnicking on their property with wines that are not their’s.

If you have children with you, check in advance to make sure the winery is “kid friendly,” meaning there are other things for them to do or see there. If you want to bring Fido, check ahead regarding the winery’s policy on dogs.

Should you tip at a winery? If you have a positive experience–your host was informative, friendly and accommodating–absolutely! You tip at a restaurant or a wine bar when you have a positive experience. Why wouldn’t you tip in response to a wonderful experience at a winery? The absence of a tip cup signifies the winery doesn’t “divide and share” (it’s not Starbuck’s!) You simply hand the tip to your host when you are leaving. The tip is not based on your purchase…it should be based on your experience. If the tasting was complimentary, unless your experience was a negative one, always tip.

Also, remember the term is wine tasting. A tasting room at a winery is not a bar. You are a guest there. If it’s apparent that you or someone in your party has been doing too much tasting, it is the right (and responsibility) of the tasting room host to refuse to serve you…for your safety and for the sake of the tasting room’s license.

And, finally, unlike you first trip to New York, there is no “preferred color” to wear when wine tasting. However, there is a saying that if you wear white, you are a very confident wine taster (or one who will soon discover Wine Away red wine stain remover!)

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Planning your trip to “Napa” – Part 2

You’re going to Wine Country! You’ve checked with everyone you know and have compiled a list of wineries to visit. So what are your next steps?

First, determine how long you are going to be there. You will want to spend a minimum of two days in Wine Country: one day in Sonoma and one in Napa. Yes, they are different and each one is a “don’t miss!” You will find some incredible Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay in Napa. Do you really need to go to Sonoma, too? The answer is “yes!” Sonoma is the closer of the 2 counties… in fact, it’s less than an hour’s drive from the Golden Gate Bridge. Sonoma has more appellations (wine growing regions) than Napa, which means more of a variety of grapes grow there. If you are a fan of Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Syrah and other Rhone varietals (e.g. Pinot Gris and Viognier), Sonoma is a “must visit.” Part of the fun of wine tasting is being open-minded and trying new varietals you’ve never tried before. You’ll experience new wines you’ve never heard of… and discover many you like. Napa is, for the most part, more formal and reserved. Sonoma is more casual and laid back. Napa resembles parts of France’s Wine Country, while Sonoma is more like Italy’s Wine Country. Napa can be more expensive (almost all of the wineries have paid tastings, most ranging from $20-$25 per person). There are wineries in Sonoma that still offer complimentary tastings and those with paid tastings will generally run $5-$15. Bear in mind that if you have a large group, you need a reservation at any winery…whether Napa or Sonoma.  If you want to do a tour in addition to a tasting, it could cost slightly more.

How many wineries should you plan on visiting? To be able to enjoy yourself, relax and appreciate each one… no more than four each day. This brings up how vast Wine Country is, which surprises many first time Wine Country visitors.  Once you’ve compiled a list of wineries that have been recommended to you, as well as those you would like to visit, it’s time to pare down your list.  Part of the consideration should be proximity.  Yes, all those wineries look like they’re close on a map. However, Texas doesn’t look that big on a map, either.  Map out your trip.  Don’t “eyeball” the mileage. Check the distance and the time it takes to drive between wineries. Traffic can be heavy in Wine Country, particularly on the weekends, and many of the roads are two lane.

Do you need appointments?  At some wineries, yes, so make sure when you plan your trip, you check online or call ahead to inquire. There are wineries where tastings are “by appointment only.” And if you have a large group (8+), you should always call ahead to any winery to make an appointment, even if it is open to the public. And while hiring a driver is a good idea when wine tasting, some wineries do not allow limos or limos buses.

The final step? Go and enjoy!

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Planning your trip to “Napa” – Part 1

So you’re planning on going to Wine Country… where do you start?  As a first step, check with friends (yes, include Facebook friends), family members, neighbors, work associates and anyone whose opinion you value to ask for suggestions if they have been to Wine Country.  You may also want to do some research yourself online.  There are countless travel sites where people post suggestions, even itineraries (e.g.  the Forum section of  If you’re going to Northern California, be aware that Wine Country is more than “Napa.”  You will miss out on some wonderful wines if your trip takes you only to Napa.  Napa has the reputation, the glitz and the pizzazz that notoriety brings.  Napa also has many extraordinary wines.  However, don’t compromise your Wine Country experience by leaving Sonoma out off your plans.  Sonoma is more laid back,  quaint and some people describe it as “friendlier.”  And there are wonderful wines in Sonoma, too.  If you want Cabernet Sauvignon (or Cabernet Franc or Meritage) or Chardonnay, Napa has countless choices.  However, if you want to experience incredible Pinot Noirs, Zinfandels, and wonderful Rhone varietals (Syrah, Viognier, Grenache, Mourvedre), Sonoma should be a part of your itinerary.

Above all, it’s important to be open-minded to take advantage of all your Wine Country trip has to offer.  If you drink only Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay, this is the time to branch out and experience new wines.  How many varietals (different types of wine grapes) are there in California?  Believe it or not, there are over 100 in the state.  This is your opportunity to try new wines!  The upside is you may find new wines or blends you like.  And the downside?  There is none.  If you try a wine and don’t like it, you simply pour it in the dump bucket.  No harm…no foul.  

On a related note, if you’ve tried a certain varietal in the past (or even earlier in the day) and didn’t like it, don’t let that stop you from trying that varietal at another winery.  You may be surprised to discover you like a Zin at a winery you visit, while you didn’t care for Zins before.  Wines will taste different depending on where they are grown (e.g. Napa vs. Sonoma or an appellation within a county, like Dry Creek in Sonoma) based on different soil and climate (sun, rain, temperature), as well as the winemaker’s winemaking style.

In Planning Your Trip to “Napa” – Part 2, we’ll get into the actual planning (“the mechanics”) of your  trip to Wine Country.   How long should you plan on spending in Wine Country?  How many wineries should you plan on visiting in one day?

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“I only like sweet wines” (what does that mean?)

A woman at a wine tasting looked me in the eye and matter-of-factly stated: “I only like sweet wines.”  Sweet wines?  Did she literally mean dessert wines with higher residual sugar?  Or, could she mean something else?

When I asked her what she liked and didn’t like in a wine, her reply was that she didn’t like dry wines and she particularly didn’t like “dry, sour wines that made her mouth feel like she’d swallowed cotton balls.” 

I asked her to humor me by trying a couple of wines.  If she didn’t like any one (or all) of them, she could simply pour the remaining amount from her glass into the dump bucket.  She looked at me warily, but with her friends goading her on, she agreed to the proposition.

What wines did I pour?  I chose wines that were not dry, ones without heavy tannins, opting for more “fruit forward” wines.  I started out with whites, first a Viognier, and then moved to a drier European-style Rose (yet, one that was still “fruit forward”).  And then we really went out of her comfort zone…and proceeded to try a couple of red wines.  Again, I stayed with reds that were more “fruit forward,” carefully choosing three.  She approached the first with trepidation, preparing to grimace before she even took the first sip (she actually made a face before the wine made it out of the glass into her mouth).   However, once she took that tentative first sip and swallowed, she looked at her friends, and then at me, and reluctantly admitted she liked it!  No one was more surprised than she was.  She approached the next two red wines with less hesitation.  And guess what?  She liked them all.  She was thrilled.  Her horizons had been broadened, she found several new wines she liked, and best of all, she discovered new terminology to use when describing what she likes in wines.

One of the most enjoyable surprises about wine tasting is what you think you like…or don’t like…isn’t necessarily the case.  If you allow yourself to be open-minded, you will discover wonderful new varietals you’ve never tried…or, wines from a winery that produces varietals you’ve tried (and not cared for in the past) in a style you find you appreciate and enjoy.

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Is there melon in that wine?!

When people new to wine or with limited wine experience first read tasting notes and hear wine descriptions, they are often confused by references to flavors described in different wines.  Some sound like a fresh fruit salad, while other descriptions are even more perplexing. 

I was conducting a wine tasting and had just explained the flavors in the first white, when one of the participants approached me, explaining she couldn’t possibly taste the wine.  When I asked her “why,” she explained she was highly allergic to melon.  She couldn’t taste it for fear of an allergic reaction…and she needed a fresh glass to replace the now tainted one. 

Was melon actually added to that wine?  What about the other fruit flavors mentioned on the tasting sheet for the same wine? (apple and pear)  And what about other wines?  People who are new-to-wine are even more surprised when flavors like coffee, chocolate and spice (e.g. clove, anise, vanilla) are mentioned.  Why would  “those” be added?

Do winemakers actually add these items to wine?  The answer is that wine is made from grapes…and only grapes.  However, all the different flavors is what makes wine so fascinating!

What accounts for all these other flavors?  They come from the varietal itself, where the grapes are grown (the soil), how much sun and precipitation the vines receive, what is in or around the vineyard (e.g. lavender, eucalyptus), whether the wine is aged in stainless steel or oak barrels (and is it American or French oak?  New or Neutral oak?).  And, a significant factor is the expertise and individual style of the winemaker.

The wine described above (with flavors of apple, apple and pear) was a Pinot Gris.

So let’s look at a couple of other wines for varietal characteristics:

1.  Sauvignon Blanc can be very “citrus-y” (grapefruit)…or, it can be grassy and herbal (the latter is prevalent in Australian Sauvignon Blanc).

2.  Zinfandel classically displays smells and flavors of berries (raspberry or blackberry).  Depending on where it’s grown, it can also have more complex flavors.

3.  Syrah  has a “peppery” quality, usually combined with black cherry flavors.

4.  Pinot Noir is a challenging one to “narrow-cast,” since it’s such a complex varietal.  Its flavors depend on where the grapes are grown (e.g. Carneros, Sonoma Coast, Russian River, Willamette Valley)…however; you will always note cherries, spice and an earthiness.

So, we established there was no actual melon added to the wine in question.  As the woman with the severe allergy said:  “I might not be able to eat melon, but I can enjoy a hint of it in this Pinot Gris!”  It’s always a worthwhile endeavor to take the time to appreciate the aroma and flavor in a wine…and to try to identify them to fully appreciate the tasting experience!

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