Husband and I went on our first wine tasting trip for our honeymoon about 6 years ago. We took 10 days and had a road trip up the cost of California, stopping in several of California’s best known wine regions. Since then, we’ve managed to fit in short weekends in wine country about once every year – mostly in Paso Robles and Santa Barbara, since those are the closest to home. Each time we went tasting, we honed our skills for not only appraising the wine, but also how to do wine-tasting right. That is to say, we figured out the best method for tasting lots of wineries, buying only the best bottles for our needs, doing it all on a budget and not getting slobbering drunk by noon.
Here’s a quick beginners guide of what I’ve learned and my tips for getting the most enjoyment from your wine tasting trip….
1. Know the basics of the region
It will help tremendously when you’re tasting and trying to decide if a wine is actually exceptional, or just mediocre if you know a little bit about what to expect from each region. For example, wines from the Santa Barbara area are going to be softer, and a bit more delicate than wines from Paso Robles, where it’s hotter and the flavors tend to be much bolder. It’s also good to know what grapes each area is known for going in – That will usually give you a sense of why there is more of one particular grape on your tasting menu than any other. Knowing this will also help you plan where you want to go, based on your own personal tastes or what wines you’re interested in learning about.
2. Bring a picnic
Before you depart on your tasting tour, stop by the market and load up on provisions. My favorites are plenty of bottled water, assorted cheeses (your palate will be in the mood for that) crackers, a loaf of some delicious bread, and deli meats like salami and prosciutto. We actually have found several little shops in wine-region areas that put together plates of all this that you can grab and go before hitting the wineries. Vivant in Paso Robles is one of our favorites.
Then the trick is to actually snack all day – in between wineries in the car. You could still stop and eat a more complete meal mid-day, but keep up the snacking throughout. This of course keeps your energy level up and helps to soak up the alcohol you’re consuming.
3. Share a tasting
Most tastings cost about $10. (When we went on our honeymoon six years ago, most in Paso Robles were free, can you believe that!) Rather than each person in your party having their own glass, just partner up and share one! You will still get more than enough of a taste and it will help in keeping you sober (more on that in a bit.) Plus it saves on the cost and gives you more money for actually purchasing a bottle you can enjoy at home.
Ok, so if you’re goal is to go wild and get plastered with your friends, then feel free to skip this point… But if you’re actually interested in tasting lots of wines, then spitting is essential. This is one of those things that I hardly ever see people doing and I don’t understand why. Well, I guess I do understand – It’s awkward. And it feels strange to take a sip of expensive wine, only to spit it out, but here’s an illustration of my experience and why I find spitting so important…
The first time I went wine tasting, I wasn’t driving, and I drank every sip I tasted. We went to about 5 wineries and by the end I was wasted. I had to go back to our hotel and sleep it off before our dinner reservation at 8pm. I didn’t realize how much I had drank over the course of the day. When you add up all the tastings, it’s average to have about a full glass worth of wine at each tasting (even if you’re sharing.) Which means that after 5 wineries I had drunk 5 glasses of wine – Which is a lot for someone of my size.
Even though I remember having fun, I also can’t remember everything I tasted, which can easily happen. Afterwards, I felt bad that I had essentially missed tasting so many incredible wines because I had allowed myself to drink too much. And I had to waste valuable vacation time sleeping off my buzz, which is not my idea of fun.
So now, regardless of if I am driving or not, I regularly spit during tastings. On one of our most recent trips, Husband and I were able to visit 10 wineries in one day, and neither of us got tipsy. It was so much more fun than getting plastered by noon and having to go back to bed!
Some tips for spitting
– Position yourself near a spittoon on the bar, or ask for one right at the start of your tasting
– Bring a small cup (just a plastic one will do) that you can spit into discreetly. Then you can pour that into the spittoon and it’s not nearly as obvious or awkward. The last time we did this, we were asked by several wineries if we were “in the industry.” So even though you may feel awkward, take pleasure in knowing that this technique makes you look like a pro!
– Make sure you allow yourself enough time to really taste the wine before you spit. Try to breath some air in while it’s on your tongue to liven up the flavor, swish it in your mouth and then spit.
5. Ask Questions
This is your chance to get some insider scoop on the wine industry, so don’t be afraid to ask questions to your wine pourer… We’ve gotten some of the best winery recommendations and learned more about wine from the pourers than anywhere else!
6. Buy Wisely
Firstly, don’t feel obligated to buy anything! But if you are looking to buy, be sure to go for bottles you really love. Also, consider what you have! Husband and I always try to get a variety of varietals when we get home, so try to buy a variety. Also, ask if you can pick up your bottle at the end of the day, so you don’t risk it getting ruined in the heat of your car… You could also bring a cooler if you know you’re going to be stocking up on your favorites!
7. Walk around the vineyards
I think, vineyards are some of the most beautiful places on earth. Most tasting rooms allow you to explore the property, so go for it! It also is a wonderful backdrop for pictures of your trip!
8. Make a Dinner Reservation
This may seem like a no brainer, but after a day of tasting, you’re going to want to have a satisfying meal. Most wine-tasting towns are small (part of the charm) so the number of good restaurants are limited… Make sure you get a table at one of them! The Hitching Post in Buellton is a favorite, as well as Artisan in Paso Robles.
9. Drink Water and Wear Sunscreen
You don’t want to risk dehydration or getting overheated. Make sure you drink plenty of water throughout the day, and since many tastings happen outside, make sure you lather up with sunscreen before heading out.
10. Savor the Experience – Have fun!
Ultimately, wine tasting should be fun, relaxing and tasty! Savor each glass and enjoy the luxury wine tasting brings! Cheers!