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January 11, 2016

Up Your Wine Game: Tasting Room Etiquette

Happy New Year to my readers!

This is something I get asked about all of the time. What is the proper way to taste wine? Do I smell the wine? Spit it? Swallow it? Do I tip? Can I ask for more? Is there a cost to taste? Etc?

I find that the more I progress in my studies my friends and family look at me as an authority on the subject. So I consider it a my duty to impart my knowledge:)

There are a couple different types of tasting rooms you might find yourself in. One is at a wine bar in the city, and the other is in an actual tasting room on a vineyard property in the wine country. Both would have the same rules of thumb, though the setup may be different. In general, at a wine bar, you get seated and a server brings you a wine (and food) menu. From there, you order as if you were at a regular restaurant. A tasting room is a little bit different. In general, you need to come up to the bar to be served.  First things first:

What is a flight? A flight is where you get a small taste of a few different wines that all have something in common. The flight might be: White Summer Sippers, Big Bold Reds, or a flight of Red Zinfandels. Each taste is usually 1-2oz and there are generally 3-5 tastes in a flight. Flights are a great way to try a few things you might not be familiar with. If you’re feeling experimental or just in the mood to sip, a flight is the way to go. If you’re not the experimental type, and are a creature of habit, then go ahead and order your wine by the glass.

If you’re in wine country at a tasting room, something like this might happen. You’re standing at the long wooden bar with a few others, and someone comes up and pours you 2 oz of a red wine that you know nothing about. What do you do? Stare at it? Pound it like a shot? Something in between the two? The best thing to remember in a tasting is to be patient. That person behind the bar could be pouring tastes for as many as 20 people and needs to keep all of their pours straight. There might be a bit of lag time between tastes poured, but that’s the beauty of being in a tasting room. You can chat with your friends, talk about who liked the wine you just tried, or make friends with others who are at the bar.

The pourer just poured the wine in your glass. At this point they’re probably going to identify what they just poured and give you a short tasting note on the wine. The tasting note is just a guide for you. If you don’t smell or taste what they talked about, you’re not wrong or a crappy taster or anything of the like. That is just what they’re suggesting that their wine is about. You may agree or disagree, and that’s ok. Now, if you’re me and you’re in a WSET Diploma Level 4 blind tasting exam and you get poured a wine that shows red berries (strawberries and cranberries) on the nose, then you sure as hell better get those red berries on the nose. There’s no room for disagreements. But remember, that’s not the real world. In the real world (at that tasting room with your friends) you can smell and taste whatever the heck you’d like! But, I recommend at least listening to what the pourer has to say. You might not know how to taste a wine and pick up that it’s sour cherries you taste. But if it’s suggested to you, and then you taste the wine, you might be blown away because you sure as hell taste sour cherries! It is pretty exciting once you can start discerning the different flavors of fruit, oak, spice, etc on a wine.

At a tasting room, you might find that a flight of wines has no charge. In that case, it is highly suggested that you buy a bottle. That is how the winery can offset the cost of giving away free pours all day. Now, if you don’t particularly care for any of the wines, then no need to buy a bottle. This isn’t a hard and fast rule. I would suggest to tip generously ($5/person maybe), say thank you, and be on your merry way. You might also find that there is a cost to the wine flight. $10-$15 per flight is the norm.

Here are the basics on tasting wine:

Swirl-swirl the wine in the glass. This will slightly aerate the wine and give it a chance to be in contact with oxygen. No need to be fancy and do the swirl mid-air. Put the glass on the bar, put your hand on the base, and move the glass around in circles.

Smell-stick your nose in the bowl (i.e. the part of the glass with the wine in it). Don’t be shy or afraid to do this. Stick it in and take a big whiff. The first thing you should smell is fruit (I’m not big on “shoulds”, but work with me here). If it’s a red wine, things you might smell are: cherries, strawberries, cranberries, blueberries, blackberries, raisin/currant, etc. If you’re smelling a white wine, you might smell: lemon, lime, pear, yellow/green apple, grapefruit, lychee, tangerine.

Taste-You’ve swirled and smelled, the next step is to TASTE! You have 2 options here. You can take a taste/sip and swallow the wine. OR you can take a sip/taste, swirl the wine in your mouth, and then spit it in a spitoon. Most people opt to swallow, as that is the most comfortable and what they are used to. Swallowing is fine, so long as you’re mindful of how much you’re drinking. With tasting, you might be going from sparkling to white to red, and you might be visiting multiple tasting rooms. With all this mixing, you’re bound to get drunk a bit faster. So just be sure to pace yourself. Spitting is a perfectly suitable alternative. I like to spit, because when I visit a tasting room, my goal is not to get drunk. I want to enjoy all the wines and be present for my tastings. Also, it’s a great idea if you want to be the DD. It doesn’t sound like fun, but I can assure you that you really do get the full winery/tasting room experience even if you spit. I actually enjoy it more. Plus, you can watch all the drunkos stumble out of there and know that you’re gonna be good to go for the rest of the day. The others will barely be able to get home, get their PJs on, and go to bed…..even if it is only 5pm.

Rinsing your glass? Ok, so this one is a pet peeve of mine. And sometimes I see wine bars/tasting rooms suggest it, and it makes my skin crawl. It is my opinion that you do not rinse your glass with water between pours. If you’re staying within the same category (i.e. sparkling, white, or red), then it is wholly unnecessary. If you do move between categories (i.e. you started tasting whites and are now moving to reds), then a little rinse is ok. But do not rinse it with water, have the pourer rinse it with the next wine you are drinking. 1 oz is more than enough. Swirl it around the glass to get the remnants of the previous wine, and then dump it in the spitoon. From there you can request a pour of that same wine to taste. You have now in effect, “seasoned” your glass with the next wine you are tasting. If you rinse with water, you’ll still have a bit of water coating your glass, so the next wine poured in there will be a bit diluted. And who wants diluted wine? In the end, I rarely rinse my glass while tasting, unless I’m doing a super serious tasting or maybe in a tasting group with classmates.

Tips? As a general rule, when I visit a wine country and go to multiple tasting rooms, I bring some $1s in order to tip the pourers. $2-$3 at each tasting room is sufficient. I look at it as a thank you for the pour and for the knowledge they shared. I used to pour at a wine bar, so I also do it because I always appreciated it. I can attest to the fact that hand washing scores of delicate wine glasses is a slow, tedious process.  Lastly, the ever important question:

Can I ask for more? Sometimes you are given such small tastes, that you want just a scoonch more to enjoy. Or maybe you finished your flight and are debating about buying a bottle of one of the wines. It is perfectly acceptable to ask for another taste. The proper way to ask is “May I revisit the ______”. This signifies that you would truly like to taste that wine again and/or are interested in purchasing a bottle. The one rule of thumb is to not ask for more tastes if A. you’re trying to get drunk or B. you are drunk. That’s just tacky. A pourer can spot it a mile away, and it’s just embarrassing. Remember, you’re wine tasting, not chugging beer. Pace yourself, enjoy the company and your surroundings, and sure, enjoy a little buzz. But whatever you do, don’t be that drunk one at the tasting room.

I hope you enjoyed this post about tasting room etiquette.  Stay tuned for my next post as I discuss the new unit we are studying: Spirits!

I hope you enjoyed this post. If you’re looking to Up Your Wine Game and Drink Better, consider booking a private in-person or virtual wine tasting experience.
Brianne Cohen Wine Educator
Brianne Cohen is a Los Angeles-based certified sommelier, wine educator, consultant, and writer.

Brianne has educated and entertained over 10,000 people through her in-person and virtual wine tasting experiences.

Brianne holds the WSET (Wine & Spirits Education Trust) Diploma certificate, one of the most coveted wine certifications in the world. When she’s not helping people Up Their Wine Game, she can be found judging at international wine competitions

Brianne aims to make wine approachable and conversational, to surprise and delight with unexpected wine finds, and to give people knowledge (and confidence) about wine in their everyday lives.

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As a wine writer, I frequently accept samples for review on my  website and on my social media channels. Please contact me at to discuss sending samples for review. I promise to always be honorable with the samples. I will evaluate all wines in good tasting settings and with no distractions.

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