Twenty years ago, we needed to go west or overseas to enjoy tasting rooms. Now they're here, there and everywhere, and better than ever.
What hasn't changed is that there are certain ways to make the experience more enjoyable for all concerned. A few that I've picked up on my wine excursions:
Prep work: Don't wear perfume or cologne; it will affect — potentially ruin — others' experiences. … Don't go on an empty stomach … Bring along bottled water for all hands. … Come equipped with an answer to the question "What do you like?" It might be a varietal or a style; terms such as "fruity," "vibrant," "big and bold" and "rustic" are acceptable answers. … Practice swirling a glass and spitting wine if you're uncomfortable with either (more on spitting below). … Bring your ID, even if you're 40. … And if you're bringing kids, have stuff for them to do while the older set is partaking.
Advance notice: If you have an appointment, show up on time. It's easy to fall behind on Wine Country excursions. If you're going to be more than five minutes late — or if the size of your party has changed — call ahead. Even if you don't have an appointment but do have a large party, call and let them know.
Share and share alike: Tastings generally include four to six wines and range from free (increasingly rare, alas) to $25 a person. That can add up quickly, so couples should share the tasting more often than not. Bonus points for this practice: It keeps your palate fresher and your driving skills sharper.
General decorum: Definitely chat up your pourer, asking about the wines (he/she is there to edify you — and sell wine) — or the winery or the region, but don't smother/monopolize them if the tasting room is busy. … If you have a new pour and people are waiting behind you, step away and let them in. Then you can savor the wine (especially the aromas); be sure to jot down notes on the tasting sheet. … Be engaging, and you might get an extra pour or two. … If you connect well with the pourer or fellow tasters, ask what local restaurants and/or other wineries they like. … If you really liked a particular wine, a nice way to ask for more is "May I please revisit that one?"
Spit takes: It's never a bad idea to spit, unless you just love the wine and/or have a designated driver. Ask for a spit cup rather than using the bucket, which often is out of reach anyway. A little practice (with water) can help. Some basics from the Wine Spectator's Dr. Vinifera: "Start with a small amount … Use your tongue to guide the stream, and the muscles in your mouth and cheeks to force the wine out. Don't go too hard too fast, or it will come out in a spray like a comedic 'spit take.' Don't go too slow and lax, or the wine will dribble down your chin. Find a happy medium where you're directing the flow, and at the end, give it a little extra force so that the last couple drops end up in the bucket and not on your shirt."
Goes without saying, but … Never reach for the open bottles. … Use your indoor voice. … Don't try to show off your wine knowledge; there likely is someone in the room who knows a lot more than you do. … Use the dump bucket — don't be obsessed with getting your money's worth — but don't drink out of it.
In these parts: Ask where the grapes were grown (many wineries cart in grapes from out west) and try unfamiliar stuff. … At small wineries, you might be talking to the owner's family, so be especially Minnesota Nice. Even if you don't like the stuff, keep it to yourself; it's their livelihood.
Don't stay: If you arrive and see a limo van or bus outside, then discover there's a cadre of tipsy bridal-showerers or other rowdy revelers inside, leave. (Trust me, you're not going to enjoy the wine in that scenario.) If you had an appointment, ask to reschedule it at a quieter time.
Buy a bottle or three — or not: At most wineries, your tasting fee will be waived if you purchase wine. But there is no obligation if you don't care for any of the wine; after all, a wine you don't like is worth exactly $0. For those in West Coast wine country: Unless you're consuming it on the trip, consider getting a shipping box, preferably for a case of 12 (some wineries will provide one if you buy a few bottles.) You then can ship it to a business address back home, or, if you don't mind the schlepping and have carry-on bags, take it to the airport and check it for $25.
Catch a lift: If you discover that you have been overserved — hey, it happens — do not get behind the wheel. Options abound, especially with Uber now a major presence everywhere. Just be sure to let someone know your car will be there for a while.
Follow Bill Ward on Twitter: @billward4.