The do’s and don’ts of tasting-room etiquette.

Miss Manners would be horrified!
A young couple on a limousine tour of the Napa Valley became carried away by the romantic surroundings at Domaine Carneros, the Taittinger property known for elegant bubbly. Some minutes after sampling the Brut Cuvée, they were discovered in a storage room in flagrante delicto atop cases of Le Rêve, the winery’s dreamy tête de cuvée.

Or how about the man who approached the tasting counter at Fox Run Vineyards in the Finger Lakes one snowy February day without a stitch of clothing on? As he asked a series of alarmingly knowledgeable questions about Fox Run’s wines, tasting room manager Jim Clapp calmly said, “You know, the sheriff here in Yates County doesn’t look kindly on people walking around without any clothes.”

The man strolled out and returned a few minutes later, fully clothed.

Sam Sharp, a wine educator at Clos du Val winery along the Silverado Trail, will never forget a private tasting he gave to a group of young women who seemed, well, less than interested in the wines. One kept trying to kiss him, while another was more intent on sampling his underwear than the Palisade Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. “I thought I must be looking pretty good that day,” he says. Alas, he was the victim of a bachelorette party scavenger hunt.

These are extreme examples of improper etiquette that you, as a self-respecting wine lover, would never commit during your pilgrimages to wine country. Nonetheless, visits to wineries can be filled with pitfalls that might mar an otherwise memorable experience. And that does neither you nor the winery any good.

Winery “etiquette” might not be important if your goal is to taste as many wines as you can in an afternoon’s dash up Route 29 in the Napa Valley. But is that why you spent the money on plane fare and lodging, or that fancy dinner in San Francisco? Do you really want to be blotto when you show up for your long-sought-after reservation at The French Laundry? Why not ensure that you get the most out of your wine country visit?

We asked several wineries around the nation for advice on how to make a winery visit the best experience possible. For example, should one call ahead for an appointment? When is a purchase—of wine or a souvenir—expected? Should a customer seek a reference from a retailer or distributor to a favorite winery? And what are some of the really stupid things winery visitors have asked, said or done, so we can avoid those mistakes?

Know Your Spit Bucket
Not surprisingly, several responses featured spit buckets. Dedicated oenogeeks expect to expectorate when tasting several wines, in order to avoid inebriation. But many winery visitors are not experienced spitters, and this can lead to more trouble than shirt stains.

Every winery tasting room will have two or three items on the counter: a spit or dump bucket, a water pitcher so you can rinse your glass and dilute the wine in your system, and a bowl of dry, mealy crackers for clearing your palate. Don’t be embarrassed to pour wine out of your glass into the spit bucket; you will not be insulting the person behind the counter. If you’re self-conscious about spitting, practice at home (with water) before your trip. Watch out not only for dribbles but also ricochets. Most important, use the bucket; there are some very profitable carpet cleaning businesses in wine country because of tourists who shake out their wine glasses—or spit their wine—directly onto a tasting room floor.

Some people are unfamiliar with the routine. As one couple at a Kendall-Jackson tasting room listened to a description of the wines they were about to taste, the woman pulled a mint from her mouth and said, “Guess I won’t need this.” She put it in the cracker bowl.

And be aware of which is the spit bucket and which is the water pitcher. Luca Paschina, winemaker at Barboursville Vineyards near Charlottesville, Virginia, recalls one visitor who blithely picked up the spit bucket and asked, “Mind if I rinse my glass?”

“Good idea,” Paschina replied. “But you might want to try the water pitcher.”

Fox Run Vineyards, in Penn Yan, New York, used to sell water carafes with a grape motif in its tasting room. At least once a week, owner Scott Osborn says, someone would inspect the knick-knacks on sale, then proceed to the tasting bar and turn over a full carafe, looking for the pricetag. Water everywhere. Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Vineyards switched to less attractive, spit buckets for the same reason.

Call Ahead for an Appointment
Wineries differ in their advice on whether to call ahead for an appointment. In larger wine areas that are well established as tourist destinations, such as Napa or Sonoma, there will be enough wineries with open hours or regularly scheduled tours that you can point to a page in a guidebook and just go.

If you want more than the basic tourist experience at your favorite winery, splurge on a phone call, even a day in advance. Many wineries employ wine educators to conduct extensive tours by appointment. Appointments are always advisable for large groups.

In areas off the beaten path, definitely call ahead. “Visitors often receive better treatment if they set an appointment,” says Eric Dunham, crafter of fine Cabernet and Syrah at Dunham Cellars in Walla Walla, Washington. “It allows time to try and schedule the winemaker to be present, and in smaller wine regions, especially, it will be appreciated.”

Many wineries do not have public tasting rooms because of their licenses or limited facilities. That does not mean that they do not welcome visitors, however. Calling ahead may get you an appointment with the winemaker. The worst that can happen is they say no. Some wineries make special arrangements for small or large groups that go well beyond the typical winery experience. Swanson Vineyards offers “salon” tastings for small or large groups; there’s a charge, but you get more than an anonymous swig of wine at a crowded tasting bar.

One important consideration that several winemakers stressed: If you arrange an appointment and find that you’re running late, definitely call the winery to let them know.


What the Tasting Room Staff is Really Thinking When They Pour Your Sample
By Mort Hochstein

When you’re visiting wineries, be nice to those people who pour your tasting samples or show you around and answer your questions. Remember, while they’re being so polite and attentive, they’re also taking notes on your behavior. And they tell some wonderful stories when the tasting room doors are closed.

Self-proclaimed wine critics can be especially vulnerable. After pouring a number of wines and listening to a vociferous visitor attempt to impress his friends by telling them about all of the flaws in each, a server announced the next wine with a cheerful smile and proclaimed, “Try this one; it’s even worse.”

There’s always a problem of how to keep visitors moving through the tasting rooms. Some people just never want to leave the tasting rooms; they’re affectionately known to staff as “the campers.”

A winery executive once gathered his staff together and asked them for ideas on how to gracefully suggest that guests may have lingered too long. The best suggestion, he recalls, came from a part-timer who proposed: “Give them a change of address card.”

Staffers have developed other code words to identify distinct types of tasting room visitors. Among the most common are limo trash, describing those visitors who are driven around all day in a limousine, sometimes for sheer indulgence and sometimes to avoid being caught for driving under the influence. Limo trash, servers lament, act as if they think they have a license to drink too much, talk too loud, park wherever they want, usually right in front of the tasting room door, and offend other visitors around them.

Then there are corkheads or eno-dweebs, a (sometimes) term of endearment for visitors who want to talk about wine, wine or wine, and absolutely nothing else, to the point that even the winery staff have to stop themselves from hollering, “Get a life.”

There’s one story that recurs whenever staffers get together, from Napa to New England. The visitors have been given the full show, a tour through the plant, barrel cellar, slide or film presentation and then return to the tasting room for a final briefing. One guest, often the one who has been particularly vocal in boasting of his trips to wineries around the world, asks his tour guide: “I have one question. What are all of those little bushes in straight rows up and down the hill?”

Another self-proclaimed expert asked a staffer for “some really good Charbernet.” The server, not wishing to embarrass the guest, responded: “Would that be the white Charbernet or the red Charbernet, sir?” There are also frequent requests for “Cabaret.” Sometimes, it’s best just to point.

And when closing time comes and the visitors are gone, the tasting room staffers often chuckle over inscriptions in the guest book. One visitor had written: “Is Barbera the right wine for Rigoletto?” And another signed off very nicely: “Some wine for my men. We ride in the morning.”

The “Mercy Purchase”
You walk into a winery and the total stranger at the tasting station pours you samples. Are you obligated to buy a bottle? Or a souvenir glass? Or a cork-puller? T-shirt? That obnoxious doormat that says, “We Serve Only the Finest California Wines—Did You Bring Any?”

Generally, no. The wine poured to casual tourists is part of the cost of doing business for a winery. Some wineries charge a nominal fee for a tasting, while others charge for a “reserve” tasting of older vintages or special bottlings. (These are generally worth it, by the way.) Even if you don’t pay a cent for the tasting, you are not obligated to make a purchase. The winery hopes the goodwill created by its hospitality will lead, intangibly to be sure, to future sales or favorable word of mouth.

An exception: If you have called ahead and the winery has arranged a special tasting, some purchase on the spot may be called for.

“I would never presume that someone has to purchase to taste,” says Dunham. “How could someone justify buying a $45 bottle of wine without knowing if they like it or not?” On the other hand, he says, “if someone scheduled a tasting and I barrel-tasted them extensively, they should probably purchase something.”

If you like the wines and want to purchase a bottle, ask if the winery makes any that are not in wide commercial distribution. Why carry something home if you can pull it off your neighborhood shelf? If you’ve sampled several wines and feel you should buy something but your luggage is getting full, go for a less weighty souvenir.

And if an acquaintance ever offers you a taste of a “mercy purchase” while recounting his wonderful trip to wine country—ask what else he brought back in his suitcase.

Don’t try to finagle an introduction
Wineries offered conflicting advice on whether a recommendation from a retailer or distributor will help get you special treatment. Some said an introduction (in advance) would help them “go the extra mile,” while most said it would not make much difference. It depends on the winery, its relationship to the retailer and your importance to the retailer.

Besides, given the vicissitudes of the three-tier system, the wineries are more likely to know a distributor, while you’re more likely to know a retailer. That makes for extra phone calls to people who don’t know you and probably don’t care whether you get to taste the reserve Cabernet. Unless you bought a case or two of the previous vintage.

Remember the Golden Rule
“Be nice to people,” advises Michael Milwee, a Washington, D.C., attorney who scours California’s back roads in search of unexplored wineries on his trips home to the Golden State. (He claims to know which ones close latest in the day.) “Act serious about what you’re tasting at least until it’s clear the person behind the counter doesn’t care.”

Ask questions about the wines, the history of the winery, even the personality of the winemaker. Provided you’re not swallowed up by a large crowd, your interest will demonstrate that you’re not just there for free wine and might even coax an extra cork from its bottle or a bung from a barrel. Charm goes a long way.

Asking questions can be dangerous for the novice, of course. Guides at Robert Mondavi Winery, who have heard everything, are fond of explaining, “We plant roses at the end of the vine rows so we can make rosé.”

It is possible to be too serious, of course. Winery hosts roll their eyes when someone pulls out a notebook or—egad—a PalmPilot and starts scribbling notes. These unsavory types have a reputation for being smug and hypercritical about the wines. Then again, people wearing T-shirts proclaiming, “I’m the Dump Bucket,” or, “Drink Naked,” are not much better.

A final word of advice: Pace yourself. Start early, while your palate is still fresh, and limit yourself to two or three wineries per day. This will give you maximum time to enjoy the experience and reduce the chance that you’ll forget some of these etiquette guidelines and do something really memorable.

Notes Eileen Crane, crafter of those passion-inducing bubblies at Domaine Carneros, “Fountains generally are not for swimming, with or without a bathing suit.”

Published on July 1, 2002