WRITTEN BY PAUL GREGUTT
PHOTOGRAPHED BY BARRY WONG
ANYONE WITH EVEN a passing interest in wine will find it worthwhile to dedicate a little travel time to visiting winery tasting rooms. Whether you are on a wine-country tour or are simply taking a quick break on vacation, a half hour in a tasting room is sure to leave an indelible impression.
Generally, the winery will offer at least a half dozen wines for sale and sampling. These days it is increasingly common to be charged a small fee, but often that will be applied to any wine purchase. Tasting rooms are a great way for wineries to promote and sell their products, but too often they have seen busloads of visitors come in with absolutely no intention of learning or purchasing anything. Such sippy-loos detract from the quality of the experience for everyone.
Tasting through a lineup of wines provides a clear impression of the winemaker's style. If you are fortunate enough to find the winemaker behind the counter pouring, there is also the wonderful opportunity to have your questions answered at the source.
In truth, wines usually taste better at the winery, partly because they haven't had to travel far, but also simply because you are there, often surrounded by vineyards and barrels, soaking up the ambience of wine-making.
Here are some strategies for getting the most out of any tasting-room visit:
Plan ahead. Unless you just happen to spot a tasting-room sign and turn in on the spur of the moment, it's a good idea to do a little research ahead of your visit. Where are the wineries you want to see? Which have tasting rooms? When are they open? How difficult is it to find them? How much driving time will you need to go from room to room? Some of the better wineries are open by appointment only or keep very limited hours. To avoid disappointment, call ahead and ask when would be the best time to visit.
Don't plan to visit more than four or five tasting rooms a day. If they are close together, such as those clustered in Leavenworth and Walla Walla, you can park the car and walk between them, with a food break mid-day. If more driving is involved, have a designated driver.
Eat first. Start your tasting with a full stomach. This will greatly slow down the absorption of alcohol, even if you are spitting. On the other hand, be aware that when tasting with a full stomach, it is easier to consume more than you think you have because you will not immediately feel the effects.
Study the tasting menu. It will give you the lay of the land. Check to see how many wines are available, and which ones. Are there any wines sold only in the tasting room? Are there unusual specialties (a sparkling wine, for example) or seasonal offerings (such as a dry rosé)? Rather than blitzing your way through everything, do a little picking and choosing. You'll learn and remember more if you do.
Check the glassware. If the winery is pouring thimble-sized samples in thick-lipped tulip glasses, you're not likely to encounter very memorable wines, and if you do,
Taste in proper order. That is, dry wines before sweet, white before red. Don't let the winery dictate the order. Sometimes they get it right, sometimes they don't. In general, it's best to start with a tart white wine such as a very dry riesling, then a sauvignon blanc, then a chardonnay, then into the off-dry whites (rieslings, chenins and gewürztraminers). Next, move into dry or off-dry rosé, then lighter reds, heavy reds, and finally the sweet and late-harvest wines.
Do not rinse your glass with water. It only dilutes the incoming wine. Unless you are changing from a white wine to a red, or a red wine to a sweet one, there is no need to rinse between tastes. Just give the glass a good shake and wipe the rim with a paper napkin. If you must rinse, ask for a wine rinse.
Do drink lots of water. The general rule is to drink a glass of water for every glass of wine; I usually double that amount. This doesn't mean you alternate; but a bottle of water is a good way to wrap up every stop along the tasting-room trail. Chew a bit of cracker every couple of wines to clear the palate, especially when tasting through a flight of young, tannic reds.
Spit! Wine professionals do it, and you can, too. It takes just a little practice. Get a good mouthful of wine, swirl it around to distribute the flavors, then hit the eject button. I suggest you practice at home, with a glass of water and a small ice bucket. When spitting in a tasting room, beware of the dreaded backsplash from too-full dump buckets. I always shield my clothing with a notepad or piece of paper.
Do not wear strong perfumes or colognes. They will not only mask the scents of the wines, they will pollute the entire room. This is a real faux pas!
Ask questions. In intimate, owner-operated tasting rooms, go ahead and ask a lot of questions, make comments and express opinions. Take your time with each wine, and be sure to do as much sniffing as tasting. In a big, busy room, with staff trying to keep up with crowd demand, you may not find it as easy to chat. But any tasting-room server should be willing to answer a quick question about a wine that interests you.
Buy something. This is not mandatory, but it's a nice gesture, especially when the owner or winemaker has spent time with you. If you are visiting wine country in extremely hot weather, bring along a cooler to protect the wines while they're in your car.
Paul Gregutt is a free-lance writer who regularly appears on the Wine pages of The Seattle Times' Wednesday Food section. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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