Right way to wine taste in the Napa Valley

william harrison winery

Silverado Trail is less busy than Highway 29


In my humble opinion, there are three types of tourists who travel to the Napa Valley to visit tasting rooms. There is the “newbie” who’s had no experience in the rituals of the tasting room and thinks the Napa Valley is where all wine in California is made. The second type is the serious wine aficionado who is interested in finding new wines, tasting current releases, and wants to educate him or herself. The third type: “It’s a party!”

My biggest nightmare when I am enjoying myself in a tasting room is when boisterous partygoers walk through the door. Fortunately in the Napa Valley, this is happening less and less because of the very high tasting fees charged at Napa Valley wineries.

For those with little experience in the tasting room scene, I think it is best to have a plan on how to taste wines. Here are our suggestions.

Three wineries are enough for us in one day. Some experts say five is the max that one should visit.

Learn to spit if you are going to do a lot of tasting. This is what the experts do, so why not you? Practice at home. You can get a huge amount of information about a wine without swallowing it. You can detect the color and aroma for sure by looking at and smelling the wine. For tasting, let the wine sit in your mouth as you inhale with your mouth slightly open, and then exhale through your nose. What flavors do you recognize? Swish the wine around in your mouth so it hits all the sensory areas. Then send the wine delicately into your spit cup.

image of spit cup

Few wineries have spit cups. Bring your own!

Take some notes and write down whatever comes to mind about the wine. Is it harsh, floral, weak, too big, tannic, elegant or fruity? Then read the tasting notes and sip again. Do you detect anything different?

Avoid the popular wineries so you might be able to get a little more attention from the server, and ask how the wine was made. Stainless steel, neutral oak, malolactic fermentation? If you don’t know those terms this is your opportunity to learn. Ask your server to explain. They should know but if they don’t, you just might be in the wrong tasting room.

I like to purchase one or two bottles of my favorites and bring them home to try with food. What a difference! Most of the time the right food will bring out the best in a bottle of wine. On a few occasions I will taste the wine I purchased and think, why the heck did I buy this wine? This goes to show you how much your senses can vary from day to day.

Finally, if you have some extra time on your hands, you might want to begin your wine tasting in the Napa Valley with a wine tasting class. The Napa Valley Wine Academy has a course called “Prelude to a Sip.” It is geared to novice wine tasters and certainly should be helpful in your tasting room experience. Visit napavalleywineacademy.com for complete information on this course.