I have a friend who used to order Cabernet Sauvignon at the bar when we were about 22 years old. She looked so cool and sophisticated, all dressed up with a fancy wine glass full of dark, mysterious drink when the rest of us were so ordinary with our fruity cocktails. One time I asked if I could try it and she was gracious enough to give me a sip. I was surprised at how much I hated it. Granted, the kind of place we frequented at 22 definitely was not serving the crème de la crème of red wine, but still, I couldn’t imagine drinking an entire glass of it.
Fast-forward to present-day, and it is my favorite thing. In between my 22nd year and now, a lot has changed. It’s true what they say, “Wine improves with age. The older I get, the more I like it!” I started drinking sweet, local Idaho wines like Riesling, and eventually my tastes changed. It took a while, but over time I wanted to learn more and more about wine, and now visiting vineyards and wineries around the world has become my number one favorite thing to do while traveling. If you’ve never been wine tasting, it usually goes something like this:
- You arrive at a gorgeous setting. I mean, do you see many ugly vineyards? I think not.
- A very friendly person (shall we call them the V.F.P.?) greets you. More often than not, this person is either related to the family that owns the vineyard or has been hired because they love working with people and wine. So they’re generally very happy, fulfilled people who love what they do, and more importantly, they love sharing their passion with you.
- The V.F.P. takes you on a tour, usually starting with the vineyard. You get to learn all about their grapes, the land they grow on, wine terms, like terrior, tannins, vintage, etc. If you’re like me, it’ll take no time at all before you forget them during the tasting session. But if you want to learn, keep wine tasting and you’ll begin to build a knowledge base and those terms will stick. It’s so interesting to see how different winemakers use varied processes to get the wine to taste they way they envision it by the time it is poured from the bottle. It’s an art, I tell ya!
- Sometimes, and only sometimes, the V.F.P. will let you taste right out of the tank or barrel, while the wine is young and still maturing. It gives you a neat perspective and appreciation when you get to the next part. See, here we are tasting wine on top of a tank at a winery in Argentina:
- At last, the tasting! You get to experience all the fruits of the winemaker’s labor. They’ll usually let you taste around 4-5 wines and unless you happen to be in California, the pours are quite generous. In my experience, a “taste” is close to half a glass. You’ll definitely want to partake of the free crackers or nuts they’ve likely set before you. The best part about this is that you get to be your own judge of what you like and what you don’t like.
Before you go wine tasting, make sure you know what you’re getting into. I remember planning our wine tasting trip in Mendoza, Argentina and was surprised to learn that you can’t just walk into most wineries there. You’d think that with over 1,000 of them they’d be open to the public in that way. But because wine tasting there is such a personalized experience, it would be impossible for them to accommodate everyone who wanders in. It’s more of a quality vs. quantity kind of thing. Like I mentioned above, there are over 1,000 of them and it can be difficult to find a particular place. That’s why I suggest going on a “wine tour” with a company who books the wine tastings for you (about 3-5 wineries), supplies a driver and a host or hostess throughout the day to facilitate things, and ensures you get back to your lodging safely. For our tour, we paid about $150 per person, but it was well worth it. It included door-to-door pickup and drop-off at our hotel, 4 tastings and a gourmet lunch with wine pairings. We were part of a small group of 7 people and it was lovely. There was a British couple, a French couple, and us, the 3 Americans. It was so very cliché when we looked at the table after our tastings – the French couple took small sips and left most of their wine in the glass, the British couple drank about half, and our glasses were completely empty. More than a few jokes about that observation were made at our expense. But I think, nay, I know we had more fun than everyone else!
In the United States, wine tasting seems to be a little less personal. You show up during their operating hours, buy a certain number of tickets depending on how many tastes you want, and then the person behind the counter pours them for you. If you get lucky, they’ll tell you about the wine and educate you a little about the winery. But unfortunately most of my experiences have been in crowded tasting rooms where you’re lucky to get more than 30 seconds of attention from the staff. That’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable, because it can be. What I do like about U.S. wine tastings is that they are inexpensive and you can taste a lot of different wines because the pours are smaller. You get to be in charge of your own experience. If you find yourself in a busy tasting room, I recommend tasting three or four wines, and then buying a bottle of your favorite one and heading outside to a table. A bottle will probably only cost you about $10-$20 and you can enjoy it while relaxing with a beautiful view of the vineyards. (Definitely share it with your companions, and make sure you have a designated driver.) In the U.S., I much prefer to visit smaller wineries rather than the big, commercialized ones whose labels you see on bottles in grocery stores across the country. If you don’t have wineries around you, look into tastings at wine shops. They’re very knowledgeable and have a wide variety of wines to choose from.
European wine tastings seem to be a hybrid between the Argentine and American experiences. Sometimes you need to make an appointment and sometimes not. If you have your heart set on visiting a particular winery, call ahead and learn the protocol. One of the cool things about wine tasting in Europe is the history. Some vineyards are hundreds of years old and lend a great deal of meaning to the local area. The aesthetics are also spectacular, and you may find yourself with 360-degree views of hills covered with vines, topped by castles.
As far as price goes, it’s not uncommon for the tasting to be gratis if you make a purchase at the end. They may not tell you that upfront, but it has happened to us on occasion. If it’s not free, you can expect to pay around 10 Euro. And be prepared for generosity, especially in Italy. Some places will keep pouring until you let them know you’re content. Again, a designated driver is important.
When you go wine tasting, there may be wines you don’t enjoy. That’s completely okay, and quite honestly, to be expected. It’s part of the process of learning what you like and what you don’t like. Don’t be afraid to try new things, and to ask questions. I still have so much to learn about wine, and especially pairing wine with food. It seems a little ambiguous to me even now, but I try not to get intimidated by it. Sometimes I laugh at wine bottles, because they’ll say stuff like, “rich, intense berry flavor with notes of Arabica and spice.” I might taste some of it, but usually I don’t get all the nuances. I just drink what I like. As far as pairing goes, many labels will tell you exactly what kind of food to serve with that particular bottle. Unless I’m at a good wine shop, I don’t expect the store clerk to know those things. Some big grocery store wine “experts” have led me horribly astray. So I simply do what the bottle suggests.
Most of all, I love wine tasting because it’s so peaceful. You don’t have to do anything but soak in the surroundings and enjoy all of the effort that has been poured into your glass. And it’s always so cool to pull a bottle of wine from my rack at home and remember the experience I had on the day I tasted it at the vineyard.