Visiting a Tasting Room: A Newcomer's Guide

Tasting at Iron Horse Vineyards
Tasting at Iron Horse Vineyards

A young friend of mine mentioned that she and her husband were planning a trip to Sonoma County to go wine tasting. She is a fairly new wine drinker, and he doesn’t drink wine but is happy to tag along for the joy of the vacation. My friend said she was unsure how to behave in a tasting room, wondering what to wear and what was expected of her.

I realized that, not that many years ago, I was new to the tasting scene and even today, sometimes feel awkward in a tasting room. My advantage is age. If I’m not enjoying myself, I’m gone. I understand how intimidating this scene can be to a newcomer, so I told her some things I thought were important. By important, I mean of course, important to me.


  • Schedule no more than four wineries in a day. Three is better. You might want to hit a number of rooms but after numerous tastings, your taste buds and alcohol limit have peaked.
  • Have a designated driver, or if you can afford it, a wine tour or private car. Enjoy the scenery without the pressure of a potential DUI.
  • Go on a weekday if at all possible. You’ll get lots more attention.
  • It’s fun to dress up. If you want to, go ahead! That said, there’s no requirement to go to Saks first. You’re on vacation! You know what you feel good in. Wear that.
  • Do leave the colognes at home. Strong scents really disrupt the enjoyment of good wine, and you’re bound to get the “fish-eye” from the other guests.

Entering the Tasting Room

  • If I walk in a tasting room, am handed a glass, receive a pour and the host disappears, so do I.
  • Tell the tasting room host you’re new at this. Ask questions. If hosts are too busy to answer, there are lots of other quality tasting rooms where the employees are happy to tell you why you should spend your money there.
  • If you feel out of place or are getting the vibe that you’re not extremely welcome, leave.
  • If you feel the host is happy to see you there, is excited about what the winemaker is wanting to share with you and is interested in you, stay there. You won’t regret it.


  • Expect to pay for tastings, but the price should come off the price of a bottle, should you choose to buy one. If it doesn’t, I’d pass.
  • A tasting pour is a sample. Just a small amount of wine, enough to figure out if you like it. Don’t ask for a “fill up.”
  • If you want to sample numerous wines but don’t want the room spinning before noon, pour your excess wine in the large buckets (usually placed in intervals on the tasting counter) before the next sample.
  • If you want to taste but not drink, ask for a private spittoon or spit cup and napkin. Roll the wine around in your mouth and spit discreetly into the cup.
  • Eat and hydrate. Many rooms provide bread or water crackers, and there’s usually water for drinking and rinsing your glass between samples.
  • I want the host to share with me what he knows. I’m not there to impress him with my wine expertise or to give him a coherent and opinioned judgment on each sip. So don’t worry if you don’t have experience. This should be his opportunity to shine and impress you!
  • Do you like the wine? If the spirit strikes you to exclaim that you can taste the roses in the Gewürztraminer, then great! If not, then saying “It’s good!” or “Not my style,” is just fine. This isn’t a test. You’re here to enjoy yourself.


  • Most wineries have wine clubs. Wine clubs give you several benefits, including discounts, free tastings, winery tours, the opportunity to taste new wine releases and to get regular shipment of those wines the winemaker is excited about. Joining a wine club means you like the style of wine they offer and want to be part of that winery’s “family.” If you walk into a tasting room and the first thing you’re hit with is why you should join their wine club before you’ve even tasted the wine, look at your watch and say, “Whoa, look at the time!” Outta there.
  • You’ve paid for the tasting. You are not obligated by law or honor to buy a bottle if it’s not to your liking or your budget. Smile, say “Thank you,” and wave goodbye. However, if you want to cuddle the bottle in your arms and a small tear escapes your eye at the taste, bring that bottle home with you along with your fond memories of your stay in lovely Sonoma County.

Do you have any additional tips about how to feel comfortable and enjoy yourself in a tasting room? We'd love to hear from you in the comments below!