Your first time wine tasting can be just as intimidating as your first time shooting. We have the four rules of gun safety to help guide us at the range, but there are no standard rules of wine tasting to easily guide wine newbies… until now! Here are my totally-made-up-but-still-amazingly-practical four rules of wine tasting for newbies, along with some little tips from me to you.
1. Ask Questions
The folks working the tasting room are typically what I would refer to as Wine Nerds. Most of the time, they are extremely passionate and knowledgable about wine, and they will be excited to share their passion and knowledge with you! If you’re lucky, and this happens a lot in Willamette Valley, you might find the person pouring your tasting is the winemaker themself, a member of the family that owns and operates the vineyard and/or winery, or someone that is super involved in growing grapes and/or making wine. Use this to your advantage and leverage their knowledge! You can learn SO much from these Wine Nerds – I sure have.
For starters, let them know right of the bat that you’re new to wine/wine tasting and ask them to help guide you. They will surely be up for the task! Not familiar with a term they use? Ask them what it means! Don’t be afraid to ask any little thing that is on your mind – there is no such thing as a dumb question when it comes to wine, and there is so much to learn.
Here’s few questions I like to ask:
- Can you tell me more about the vineyard/property?
- What was the growing season like for this vintage?
- If it’s a blend of different varietals or different clones, what percentage of which grapes were used?
- What was the wine aged in? And for how long?
- What food might you pair this wine with?
- How long should I age this wine? Can I enjoy it now, or should I wait?
- Is there anything unique about this wine?
- Can you tell me more about your wine-making philosophy?
These types of questions can spark very interesting discussions and can teach you so much! You may even want to bring a notebook to jot down what you learn. Often times, Wine Nerds are even more willing to share details if they know you’re interested enough to take notes.
Pro Tip: plan ahead and book a private tour/tasting. You’ll get a more in-depth learning experience, one-on-one time with a Wine Nerd, and a better venue for Q&A!
2. Take Your Time
There is no need to rush! Sure, you can gulp down your tasting in one go, but that’s not what this is about! Save your chugging for keg stands on Saturday night – wine requires patience! Slow down and give yourself the opportunity to experience all there is to experience. Before wine ever touches your lips, there are a few things to observe.
First, what color is the wine? Is it red? White? Is it a dark, saturated color, or is it light and pale? Can you narrow it down to more specific hues? Make observations about what it looks like.
Next, take a big whiff. Stick your nose (just your nose, not your mouth!) inside the glass and inhale. I like to close my eyes when I do this – I feel like it makes me look like I know what I’m doing. Feel free to do the same. Make observations about what you smell. It’s okay if you don’t know anything about wine – your observation may be as simple as, “It smells like red wine!”, but if you take your time and give it some thought, you might be able to pinpoint some other characteristics. Does it have a fruity aroma? Floral? Spicy? Are there any aromas that stand out or remind you of something else? Think broad strokes here – no one expects you to spew poetic tasting notes. Don’t overthink it too much, but take it slow.
Finally, take a sip. Let the wine dance across all areas of your tongue. Make observations about how it tastes and feels in your mouth. Does the taste match what you smelled? Or is it completely different than you thought it would be based on the aroma? Can you hone in on some flavors like you did with the aroma? Does it feel soft and delicate, or big and bold? Does it coat your entire palate and linger, or does it quickly glide over your tongue and disappear? Again, broad strokes here.
Remember, what you taste and smell can change as the wine opens up. This is why taking your time is so important! You might not be a fan of something the first time you taste it but it might taste fantastic 10 minutes later… or you might still not like it, which takes me to Rule #3.
3. If You Don’t Like It, Don’t Drink It
You are absolutely not obligated to drink everything that is poured for you at a tasting! You won’t be offending anyone if a particular wine is just not your style (as long as you aren’t bashing that wine in front of the people that have worked so hard to bring it to you). If you truly don’t like it, just casually pour it out in the dump bucket (also known as a spittoon, if you’re into fancy terminology). These vessels are typically placed strategically around the tasting room.
That being said, I’d encourage you to refer to Rule #2 before you decide to dump your tasting. If you don’t like it on the first go, set it aside for a few minutes. Chat with your friends, pet the winery dog, have a glass of water and a snack, find a Wine Nerd and ask 473 questions, give the wine a few swirls, THEN go back for another taste. Still don’t like it? No problem – dump it! Save your alcohol and calorie consumption for something you enjoy.
4. Designate A Driver
This one’s fairly obvious, but so important! The last thing you want during a fun day of wine tasting is to put yourself and others in danger. Make sure you have a safe ride, whether that be a gracious friend who sacrifices wine drinking to drive your wine-drunk ass around, a ride share service, or your best friend’s brother’s teenage cousin-in-law with a learner’s permit. Don’t risk it, plan ahead, and be safe – it’ll make the whole experience far more enjoyable!
Pro Tip: Book a wine tour that will take you to several wineries so you won’t have to worry about transportation at all! This is a great way to experience wine tasting for newbies and Wine Nerds alike, and you won’t even have to select the wineries to visit – all the work is done for you! There are so many options: town car with your SO, party bus with all of your friends, or even a helicopter – make the experience your own!
Now go out and give these 4 rules a try, or use them to guide a wine newbie in your life. Make sure to tell me about your experience in the comments below!