An Ordinary Guy’s Guide to Wine Tasting
Almost 90% of all American wines are grown, harvested, and refined in California, but there are local specialty vineyards in all 50 states. And that means that you have some options for investigating and supporting your local wineries.
So, if you’re looking for a fun date night idea, or the beginnings of a new hobby, here’s what you need to know about visiting your local vineyard.
Five Tips for Planning a Visit to Your Local Winery:
1. Start by figuring out where the local wineries are. This is as simple as Googling “[my state] vineyard” and “[my state] winery.” For most states where wine growing isn’t an extreme sport (shout out to the Solitude Springs Vineyard in Fairbanks, Alaska), you will have numerous options, and probably at least a few in your (reasonably) immediate area.
2. Note that most wineries have tasting rooms on site (if they’re licensed to do so), and several will maintain tasting rooms in the nearest major urban center, for those of you who can’t be bothered to drive out into the relative wilderness. Some tastings are free, but most wineries will charge a fee to cover expenses, and more formal tastings at established wineries can be pricey in their own right. If you’re on a tight budget (or if you’re feeling extra Bohemian), you should also remember that many wineries make appearances at various local summer festivals, where they often offer free samples to persons with age-appropriate ID.
3. It can be helpful if you know what kind of tasting you’re getting into, so here are a couple of key terms to bear in mind:
- “Tasting Flight”: a series of small wine samples tasted in sequence for comparison purposes
- “Horizontal Wine Tasting”: a sampling of several wines of the same vintage produced by different wineries (e.g. 2016 Chardonnays)
- “Vertical Wine Tasting”: a sampling of different vintages of the same wine from the same winery (Chardonnay from 2015, 2016, 2017, etc.)
- “Blind Wine Tasting”: a series of tastings offered with no information given about the wines, which are sometimes served in an opaque black glass. This tasting is designed to minimize psychological bias in evaluating the various wines.
4. If you’re the sort of person who likes to have everything planned to the smallest detail, you can read the reviews, check the wine awards listings, and weigh the relative merits of the different wineries before choosing the optimal tasting spot. Alternatively, you can make a pact with your date to visit several wineries over the course of several weeks and decide for yourselves which one you think is the best. (If you really like your date and/or really like wine, the latter method is highly recommended.)
5. Unless you have an unlimited budget, it may be a good idea to plan out how much you’re willing to spend on “take home” bottles of wine in advance. (For example, putting a specific amount of cash in your pocket may be advisable.) It is a not-very-closely-guarded secret of the wine tasting industry that generous sampling may exponentially affect the average wine drinker’s purchasing enthusiasm.
How to Survive a Wine Tasting:
If you don’t have a lot of experience with wine, the prospect of a tasting can be a bit intimidating, but the reality is that most small wineries are filled with people who are honestly excited about wine in general and their wine in particular. They will not require you to detect notes of pear and oak, or just a hint of smoky tobacco. They will, however, generally be very pleased if you try a sample and say something intelligent like: “Hey, that’s really nice!”
Having said that, it is traditional to think of wine tasting as a full-sensory experience. You see the rich color of the wine, you smell the rich aromas, you feel the smooth stem of the glass between your fingers and the smooth brush of wine against your tongue, you hear the distinctive chime of the glass as you toast your date, and then you actually taste the wine. (Seriously, though, that’s why people started clinking their wine glasses together. It was the most dignified way that they could think of to incorporate sound into the wine tasting experience—sort of the aural equivalent of beer drinkers yelling “Chug, chug, chug!”.)
At the sampling, remember that it is far more important that you actually enjoy your wine (and your date) than that you impress your fellow wine tasters with your amateur sommelier analysis, but if you want to feel ahead of the game, you should know that there are generally five steps to a wine tasting. For your edification, we will offer here the “dummy” and “advanced” interpretation of each step:
- The Color in Glass: Yup, looks like wine. Wine color is best judged against a white background; heavier wines will generally have more intensive colors and aromas. Subtle differences in color can also offer clues about the grape variety and ageing process.
- The Swirl: What? If you briefly swirl the wine in the glass and then hold it still, the wine will leave streaks (called “legs” or “tears”) down the inside of the glass. Sweeter wines are more dense than dry wines, so they will leave thicker, more viscous streaks on the glass.
- The ”Nose” (Aroma in Glass): Smells like wine, too! The swirling process also exposes the wine to more oxygen, which releases the etheric, ester, and aldehyde molecules that give the wine its unique scent. Aroma can also indicate whether a wine is light or heavy (heavy wines having a more intense aroma).
- The “Palate” (Flavor and “In Mouth” Sensation): Liquid, definitely liquid. Tastes like alcohol. If you gently roll the wine around in your mouth, it will hit all of the different flavor centers on your tongue. The temperature of your mouth will also release more of the wine’s aromatics, which will enhance your perception of the wine’s flavor.
- The “Finish” (i.e. Aftertaste): Still yummy. After the initial tasting, a different range of flavors will linger in your mouth, and those deserve separate consideration.
All together, the steps can be summarized as: see, swirl, sniff, sip, and savor.
If you’re curious, numerous organizations have published the common sensory descriptors for grape varieties. (e.g. Merlot: “black cherry, plum, tobacco.”) However, although memorizing these details may help you to feel informed, the knowledge will also definitely bias your tasting, and may take away from the process of discovery.
And unless you have a very specific interest in the science of wine, you’re also probably better off asking yourself a very simple question (such as “Do I like this?”) than trying to put formal names on each of the different sensations (e.g. “intense and supple, with a woody, round finish”). If you do want to go for the formal analysis, consider taking a wine tasting class, but also remember that psychological bias plays a huge role in your brain’s ability to interpret the flavor. If you know the wine’s geographic origin, price, reputation, or color, you are subject to a sort of “Emperor’s New Clothes” effect. Numerous scientific studies have shown that people taste the exact same wine very differently if they are told that it is, for example, cheap/expensive, French/Texan, red/white, famous/obscure, aged/new, etc. If you can set aside your expectations, your accuracy in evaluating a wine will improve dramatically.
A Brief Note on Spitting
Connoisseur wine tastings can involve dozens of wines, and so, to avoid impairing their judgement, some wine tasters will spit out the sample after they’ve assessed each wine. In fact, some wineries will provide spittoons or designated gravel spitting areas, but (when in doubt) it is a good idea to ask for the winery’s policy before spraying your sample on the floor. Rule of thumb: if you are only tasting a few wines, or you’re on a first date, spitting (however traditional) is generally best avoided.
Good luck and happy tasting!