7 Wine Tasting Tips

I love to go wine tasting but am by no means a wine snob. In fact, despite the fact that I drink a glass of wine every day, I rarely spend more than $10-12 on a bottle and am always learning new things about wine. In fact, I am still learning wine tasting tips every time I visit California’s wine country.

wine tasting tips

I’ve been spending a lot of time in Napa Valley and other areas of California wine country lately, which left me thinking about all the mystery that surrounds wine tasting. I say mystery because there are a lot of things that people wonder about wine tasting, like “should I “chew” and spit the wine?” Most people who go wine tasting aren’t wine snobs either, and many don’t have the courage to ask what they might think are dumb questions.

Well, don’t worry because I’ll do the asking about wine tasting tips.

1. How much should I expect to spend to taste wine?

Wine tasting varies a lot. In California, lesser-known wine areas like Lodi have complimentary tastings! When the tasting is free, I usually buy a bottle. In contrast, Napa Valley is the most expensive area–most tastings are $15-20 per person and some are even $50 or more. However, there are some ways to get around those steep tasting fees, including visiting less touristy wineries and, if you’re in Napa Valley, opt for the $25 wine tasting card for tasting rooms in Napa.

wine tasting

At the Bogle winery near Sacramento, the tastings are free!

2. How will I know where to go?

Plan your tastings based on what types of wineries you would like to visit and how much their tastings are. If you choose carefully, you may not need to visit more than a couple. Decide what types of wineries you would like to visit: small and homey, large and decadent, with formal gardens, with art, with a tour, specializing in whites or red…?

Napa winery

The luxurious grounds of the Darioush winery in Napa Valley

After you’ve narrowed it down, ask at the tourism office–they always have detailed maps and plenty of suggestions. Then ask the locals. When you stop in for a tasting, ask the tasting room managers (the people pouring your wine).

3. What should I do? Swirl? Chew? Spit?

Wine tasting is a personal thing. Everyone has his or her own preferences, and what you smell, taste, and think about a wine is different from the next person. The people working at the winery know that. They also know that the way people taste wine differs, too.

The most common techniques to get the most out of your wine tasting experience are the following:

Swirl the wine in the glass for a few seconds to let it open. This allows oxygen to enter the wine which lets the “nose” of the wine come alive. Hold the glass by the stem and either pick up the glass and swirl it, or leave it on the counter and swirl it.

Stick your nose in the glass and consider the aromas.

Take a sip. Let it sit in your mouth for a second to absorb the flavor. Swirl it around a bit. Some people like to “chew” the wine, which enhances the flavors.

You can choose to swallow it or spit into the dump bucket on the counter. Both ways have their advantages. Spitting the wine allows you to drink more without it going to your head. Swallowing the wine allows you to feel what the wine is like going down. I personally like to experience how the wine goes down, and if I don’t want to finish it, I dump the remainder of the glass in the bucket.

Napa tasting room

The tasting notes and “dump bucket” at Taste at Oxbow tasting room in Downtown Napa

Take at least a couple more sips. My friend Sherrie, a.k.a. Big Nose Wino, suggests 3 sips–the first to get the previous wine off the palate, and the next 2 sips to find out if you like it. If you don’t like the wine after 2-3 sips, pour the remainder in the bucket.

If you feel like you’ve had enough, pour the remainder of your glass into the bucket (also called a spittoon). It is not considered rude! That’s what those containers are there for!

4. What are all those grape names they keep rattling off?

The names you hear can get overwhelming. In California, there are so many kinds of grapes (varietals) grown, but you should keep in mind a few important ones: sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot noir, zinfandel, and the Bordeaux varietals of malbec, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and petit verdot. Many European varietals are hot these days, such as the Spanish varietals tempranillo and albariño.

wine varietals

The grapes depend on the region, including the terrain and the weather. Napa Valley is known for its rich soil but cabernet is the star, and in hotter Lodi, zinfandel reigns.

Wines must consist of 75% of one grape to be called by that grape. For instance, if you are drinking a cabernet sauvignon, it may be 100% cabernet sauvignon, or it may be a blend of 2 or more grapes, but at least 75% of it is cabernet sauvignon. When tasting you will be told what the make up is.

 5. Should I buy anything?

Not necessarily. As I mentioned above, if the tasting is free, it is a courtesy to buy a bottle. If you find a wine you particularly like, buy a bottle. It makes a perfect souvenir of your trip or a great gift for someone you know who loves wine!

favorite wine

A new personal favorite, so I bought a bottle.

6. What is the best time of day to taste wine?

This depends on you. Many tasting rooms open at 10:00 because the earlier in the day, the fresher your palate is. If you taste later in the day, keep in mind that everything you have eaten and drunk affects your palate. However, if wine makes you sleepy, you may feel more comfortable avoiding daytime tasting.

7. What other tips should I keep in mind?

Drink lots of water. Those small tastings really add up, and you can quickly get dehydrated, leading to a headache and dry mouth.

If the tasting room offers a cheese or charcuterie plate, order one and have fun considering wine and cheese pairing.

Ask questions. The person pouring your wine is a resource of information about wine and the area. Take advantage of that.

wine tasting questions

The tasting room manager answers our questions at District 4 in Napa

Tasting Notes (a paper with information about each wine) and a map of the area: if you are not shown these, ask. They will help you understand more about the wines you are tasting and get more out of the experience.

What do you think about the mystery of wine tasting? What questions or tips do you have?

You’ll probably enjoy these related posts:

30 Things to Do in Napa Valley

Budget Travel Tips for Napa Valley

The Perfect Day Trip to Napa Valley

California Wine Country Find: Lodi

Off-the-Beaten-Path Wine Country: Murietta’s Well 

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33 Comments

  • Joe Becerra says:

    Good advice overall on tasting wine visiting wineries. We visit wine country very often. Everyone is different but for us we think visiting three wineries is about the perfect fit. Also packing a picnic lunch at one of the wineries is a must. Sip and savor over the day.

    • Jenna says:

      Great suggestions. I love getting picnic supplies at V. Sattui in Napa Valley, but certainly packing a picnic would be a wonderful idea. And I agree that 3 wineries is a good number for 1 day.

  • Great write up Jenna! I’m a fan of that first sip, the cleanser, being one that you spit. It’s a great way to save yourself a few calories and from drinking too much. That second sip is the first real sip. The third is the confirmation… of whether you liked it or didn’t. Cheers! Hope to see you again soon. Have fun on your trip!

  • Ayngelina says:

    I like places that are less formal, teach you something but aren`t too fussy about the wine tastings. Some places are so formal when I just want to have fun.

    • Jenna says:

      I agree. Some of the big ones are too busy and crowded to have time to teach you anything about the wine. However, I’ve always found the people in the Napa and Sonoma areas to be very friendly.

  • Suzy says:

    These are all great tips Jenna. I was just at a wine tasting in Mallorca (going in a post tomorrow) in this old villa. The atmosphere I think really makes the tastings. It was hard however to be tasting in the heat of the day, but I can see how your palette might be better first thing in the morning.

    • Jenna says:

      Yes, wine tasting in the heat is not the best. The last time I was in Napa, we tried a lot of chilled wines, which were very refreshing. Wine tasting in Mallorca must have been fun!

  • I always feel obliged to buy a bottle if the tastings are free… and i can usually find one that i enjoy! although if I didn’t like anything, then I dont feel bad about not buying either

  • JD DOWNIE says:

    These are great tips to a pretty novice wine taster. My wife and I live in Pennsylvania and are on a very limited budget. We just started this year and really had no idea what we were doing. We have been slowly learning. Pennsylvania has a large number of wineries and we have found that a max of three or four each trip is a good number.

    • Jenna says:

      I didn’t know about Pennsylvania wineries. I also recently learned that grapes are grown in the Midwest.

  • Great tips, Jenna. I love wine tastings and visiting wineries too. We do prefer the smaller wineries for a more intimate feel and getting to know the owners. We’ve learned along the way not to do wine tastings on a semi-empty stomach =) There’s a growing wine region here in northern San Diego if you make it down here. You’re so lucky you live near Napa. Safe travels!

    • Jenna says:

      When I get to southern CA again, I’d love to check out the wine area near San Diego! Thanks for the tip!

  • Andrew says:

    Good tips. I’m not much of a wine drinker, but it is nice every so often. Cool that you go tasting in Napa Valley. I’ve been a few times with my grandparents.

    Good tip on the water and spitting it out if you have had enough. Tasting seems like it can gradually build up and make it unsafe to drive after a while. Do they do wine tasting buses that drop people back home somehow?

    • Jenna says:

      There are tours that you can join so you don’t have to worry about driving. There is also the wine train and downtown Napa where you can walk to the tasting rooms. When we go, we usually take turns tasting or visit just a couple of places with a break in between so that we don’t have problems driving, but wine tasting does creep up.

  • Sophie says:

    I did a wine tasting in Italy last year, outdoors in the vineyard. Got a sunburn, but so worth it. Great tips, Jenna.

    • Jenna says:

      I didn’t go wine tasting when I was in Italy because I didn’t enjoy it then (I was much younger), but I will definitely do it next time I am there. The vineyards must be so beautiful.

  • Katie says:

    My additional tips:
    Don’t be intimidated by “appointment only” places; it’s not that they don’t want visitors, they may just have a specific permit. These places have often been some of my favorites and since they do get fewer visitors, the experience is more personal.

    Try to learn the lingo and speak up on what you like and don’t like. The better you can identify what you like (something “jammy” or “crisp” or “spicy) and what you don’t and can articulate it at the winery, the more the person pouring can help you find something you’ll love.

    At places that do charge, they’ll often waive the charge if you buy a bottle. If you’re on a budget, google “napa wine tasting coupons” or the specific winery name + coupons. I’ve found lots of 2 for 1 tastings this way. Otherwise, there’s no shame in sharing a single tasting between two people.

    If you really want to learn about wine, consider going beyond the basic tasting. Several places do more intensive (but still fun) seminars, offer food pairings or cooking classes, special vineyard excursions, wine blending, and even horseback riding through the vines.

    Plan your day carefully and start at the vineyard farthest from your day’s end point. If you plan to buy, pack a styrofoam cooler for the trunk. Even on cool days, the heat in your car can ruin a bottle. And bring your own bottle to dinner. Even with a corkage fee, it’s usually more economical that paying for one at a restaurant.

    • Jenna says:

      Great tips!! Thank you for sharing them! I honestly haven’t been to the appointment only places because of the extra work and a bit of intimidation, but I should try it sometime. There are just so many wineries around here… Good point about the corkage fee, too, because a lot of visitors may not realize that it’s so common to bring your own bottle to restaurants, and with glasses of wine being so expensive, it is definitely worth it.

  • I absolutely love wine tastings especially when they’re paired with some munchies so all that wine doesn’t go to your head. I love the photo of the Darioush winery…looks like a magnificent place to visit!! Great tips all in all my friend.

  • Tricia says:

    Jenna, really good pointers here! I’ve found it interesting to see how wine tastings compare from country to country. There’s so much to learn!

    Just a few days ago, we explored Croatian wine country. We made three stops (which was a good number for us – following pointer #7: pairing with cheese and other goodies, and asking lots of questions of these up and coming vintners). Having just been to Napa/Sonoma a few months ago, it was fun tasting Zinfandel in its ancestral homeland. 🙂

  • We visited Sonoma recently, and luved all their rich fruity Zinfadels. And to buy a bottle for $10 to $12? You’re so lucky in the U.S. – your prices are SO much lower than ours here in Canada. Plus you can buy wine in grocery stores (here? no way, says the government). But aside from that, our country actually makes some very good wines, and British Columbia (the Okanagan Valley) is a great spot for wine touring and tasting. You may be interested in our post on “Swirl, Sip, Swallow: British Columbia’s Beautiful Wines” – http://www.sandinmysuitcase.com/swirl-sip-spit-british-columbias-beautiful-wines/.

    • Jenna says:

      Yes, I’ve heard a lot about the wine country up there. I would love to visit someday. And now you’ve made me appreciate the price and availability of wine here!

  • Murissa says:

    Great post Jenna. Coming from Okanagan wine valley myself I agree with much of this although there are a few discrepancies. Here it is much cheaper to taste wine – sometimes $2 to $20 but in many cases this fee goes towards the bottle of wine you purchase.
    I am anticipating summertime to get back into the vineyards and wineries. The valley doesn’t seem to come alive until the wineries do.

    I am also with you when it comes to purchasing wine. So many people assume you are an expert because you go to wine tastings and such. But for me this couldn’t be further from the truth. I never assume I know anything that way I am open to learning more and asking questions. Buying wine in Canada I tend to never go over $18-22 although there are a few that are my favourites and priced at $50 but those are for very special occasions. But I even admittedly choose wine based on labels when I can’t decide.

    Really helpful post Jenna! Come to the Okanagan and we can do a tour & compare wine regions!

  • Brianna says:

    I’ve always enjoyed going to wine tastings whether its close to home or abroad. I am by no means a wine snob so I go into them just looking to have fun and learn a little bit about wine. We have a great wine country here in Virginia, I find the vineyards here are very laid back and don’t take themselves too seriously. Dave Matthews even has his own vineyard!

    • Jenna says:

      I know nothing about wine country on the East Coast but would love to visit it someday. I also like places where the wineries are laid back.

  • I would like to know if I can buy your book 3 day itinerary in Napa in regular book form? If so where can I purchase it?

    • Jenna says:

      Hi Leticia,

      The book is only available in e-book form. However, I offer trip planning services, so if you need help and are not able to get it through the e-book, feel free to send me an email and we can discuss options. (You can email me through “Contact” above).

  • I never thought of having a wine tasting earlier in the day. That makes sense that your palate would be more fresh. My wife and I usually go in the evening, we will have to try going earlier.

  • My husband and I have been wanting to go on some wine tasting tours so I’ll have to keep these tips in mind. When you say “consider the aromas,” are there specific smells that we should be looking for? It would seem that everyone has a different preference so it could just be a matter of finding the smells that are appealing to you.

    • Jenna says:

      I think “consider the aromas” refers to thinking about or noticing the aromas. Do you smell herbs, grass, leather, spices, etc.?

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