Wine tasting tips for beginners: what to expect and how to have a great wine tasting adventure
Paddy and I love wine. We also love food, and the two go hand in hand. We are lucky to live in one of the top wine producing states in the US, Washington State. Wine tourism has boomed in Washington over the last 20 years, with new wineries and vineyards springing up all over the state. The highest concentration of Washington wineries are on the east side of the Cascade Mountains, and there are so many to choose from that it can be quite overwhelming. Wine tasting is one of our favorite tourism activities in our home state, and we’ve been on several wine tasting adventures.
We know a considerable amount about wine, but not a ton. We are by no means experts and there is A LOT to learn. We really enjoy drinking wine and pairing wine with food, but we don’t always know what we’re doing.
Here are some wine tasting tips for beginners based on our experiences:
1. You don’t have to know anything about wine
If you don’t know anything about wine, except that you kind of like it and are curious to know more, wine tasting is the best way to learn. Don’t be intimidated, and don’t feel like a failure if you can’t taste all the “notes of fig and honeysuckle” like the wine description says you should. It can take a while to develop your palate. Concentrate on finding out what you like and don’t like in a wine–reds or whites, sweet or dry, fruity or spicy, light or robust and smoky. Remember the types of the wines that you liked, and remember that not all types of wines are created equal. Some wineries might make a chardonnay that you love, while others may have ones that you aren’t so into. Just taste and learn. Don’t be afraid to ask the winery questions.
2. Wine tasting is a daytime activity
Wine tasting rooms are typically open between noon and 5:00 PM, with some opening as early as 10:00 AM and some closing as early as 4:00 PM. It’s generally not an activity to do after dinner, and will monopolize your whole afternoon, so don’t have any other plans that day unless they are in the morning. Also, you may end up needing a nap before dinner after all that wine…
3. You will most likely get a little drunk, so have a safe transportation plan
One of the downsides about wine tasting is that a lot of areas have wineries that you have to drive to. Since drinking and driving is not a good idea, you have several options to address this common conundrum:
- Have a designated driver–your DD can spit the wine out into the receptacle at the wine counter after tasting, or opt out of tasting altogether.
- Join a wine tasting tour or hire a driver. Many of these can be expensive or book out far in advance, so plan accordingly. It is nice to have a driver.
- Stay in a town with wine tasting rooms in walking distance from your hotel
- Drive to only one or two wineries, and/or have a picnic at one of them after tasting while you sober up. Many wineries are happy to let you sit out and eat some snacks while you sip. A lot of them don’t have food licenses so they have no problem with you bringing your own.
Our plan of attack is usually a combo of suggestions 4 and 5. We like to find a hotel in walking distance from tasting rooms, but drive to a couple in the beginning before we get buzzed to see some of the pretty vineyards and grapes. Some good Washington towns with ample tasting rooms in walking distance from downtown lodging are Leavenworth, Wenatchee, Prosser, and Walla Walla.
4. Tasting rooms generally have fees
Wine tasting generally isn’t free. Some wineries don’t charge fees, but most of the time you should expect to pay about $5-$10 per person at each winery to taste between 4-6 wines. Most will waive the fee if you buy a bottle, however. The winery wants to sell you wine, and if you plan on investing in a nice bottle, it’s great to sample beforehand. Most places take cards, but having cash is easier if you don’t plan on buying many bottles.
5. Take your time and experience each wine
Don’t just gulp it down. Take some time to sniff each wine, and swirl the wine around in the glass to oxidize the wine and release the flavor. Think about what you smell and then how the wine tastes at first, while you swirl it around in your mouth, and how it finishes when you swallow it. Think about what kind of food would pair well with it (steak? chocolate? fish?) It might take some time to develop your palate and really be able to differentiate all the complex flavors each wine has, but taking your time is the way to learn.
6. You are really only going to make it to four or five wineries in a day
When we first started wine tasting, we thought we’d be able to go to a ton of tasting rooms in one day but each time we find that we only end up getting to four or five. Wine tasting takes more time than you think it does. You might have to wait your turn at the pour counter, you may get into a lively conversation with your server (extra tip–your time with your wine server is a great opportunity to find out where the best place for dinner is that evening or any other local tips about the area), and tasting each wine takes time and shouldn’t be rushed if possible. Also, there is a strong possibility that you may be drunk after five wineries, and ready for a nap. We once went to a winery that had us taste all 12 of their wines. We were a little loopy at the end of that day.
Research the ones you think you might want to visit, or just ask a local which ones they like best and narrow it down from there.
7. If venturing out to vineyards out of town, pack a picnic
When Paddy and I first went on our first wine tasting adventure around Wenatchee and Leavenworth, we got hungry. I think I may have said something like, “I could eat the shit out of some brie right now” on the drive back to Leavenworth. But wineries generally don’t have food licenses and there was no great cheese and snacks around to go with all that good wine.
Many wineries that don’t sell food are perfectly fine if you bring a little picnic. Pack some fruit, cheese, salami, crackers, chocolate, or whatever you want. You may want to purchase a glass of wine as a courtesy to go with your picnic if the winery allows you to sit and enjoy their vineyard.
Wine tasting does not have to be as pretentious as some people make it out to be. Everyone who likes wine had to start learning about it somewhere. You also might find out that wine just isn’t your thing. Either way, it’s fun to learn and try new things, and a great way to spend a day with friends or a partner.