Wine Tasting 101: The Do’s and Don’ts

Wine Tasting 101: picture of a glass of wine being poured outside on a wood table

Heading off to Sonoma or Napa wine country? Here are some wine tour tips that will help you have a great time!

As a tour guide, I had the pleasure of meeting people from all over the world with all sorts of levels of experience in wine. As I used to tell my groups, at the end of the day it’s just fermented grape juice. That said, there’s a whole lot to wine!

Benefits of a Wine Tour vs. Driving

When you drive you just don’t get the same kind of experience for many reasons. When you take a tour, with transportation, you can kick back and relax and drink as much as you want and not have to spit the wine out. The tour guide will often take you to a range of places and often they will gravitate to places that treat you well. If you go with a great wine tour company, like my former employer Terrific Tours, they will often take you to places that will give you a special tour or experience as they know many of the winery owners and employees. A guide will also plan the day out so that you get a mix of styles and they’ll keep you on pace to see a good amount of wine country.

How to Wine Taste

First of all, there is no right or wrong to tasting wine. If anyone tries to tell you that you’re doing it wrong, politely remind them that it’s fermented grape juice that’s been around for some 8,000 years. Kidding aside, everyone has a different palette and therefore everyone can like different things, or get different flavors out of the wine. With that in mind there are some things you can do to enjoy the wine even more.

Five S’s of Wine Tasting

I have some pretty funny stories regarding people’s responses at the end of a day of wine tasting when I’d ask them, “Does anyone remember the 5 S’s of wine tasting?” Think I’ll leave those alone. But yes, the Five S’s of wine tasting are a great way to enjoy the experience of being in a winery and focusing on the wine. As a pro tip, ask the person behind the bar to remind you of the five S’s, this will get your group to focus for a second rather than you trying to get everyone to stop talking for a second. Wine tasting is an inherently social activity. Asking the host will also show enthusiasm in the product and is my second pro tip — make friends with the staff! So you’re already savvy, here are teh five S’s of wine tasting:

  1. See the Wine
  2. Or sight, whichever. When they pour the wine in your glass, take note of the color. The best way to do this is to hold it up into the light against a white background. The color won’t tell you much unless you’re a pro, but it might inform you about the varietal or viscosity of the wine.

  3. Swirl the Wine
  4. The wine needs oxygen to fully open up and live to its potential. Often times the bottles in tasting rooms are getting opened up right in front of you and haven’t had time to breath. Try placing the glass firmly on the table then lightly swirl the wine in a circle. This will aerate the wine and allow its chemistry to change. I often tell my groups that this is the most important takeaway from the day.

  5. Smell
  6. The swirling action will allow the bouquet of the wine to billow out of the glass. Stick your nose in with the glass at a slight angle. Nostril to the top is best as you create a slight distance between your nose and the alcohol. This will also help inform the next S…

  7. Sip
  8. The smelling will activate your taste buds and get the prepared to taste the wine, but if it’s your first taste of the day then don’t expect much. Swish the wine around your mouth like it’s mouthwash and coat your palette. This will help get you through your palette’s alcohol shock and ready for a day of tasting.

  9. Savor!
  10. Don’t just throw it back, savor that beautiful juice! I like to splash my touch around my palette and bring in a little air. It helps you taste some of the earthy accents. Try naming a few of the flavors you pick up. It’s hard at first but the more you try the better you’ll get at making your own wine tasting notes. Then after you swallow or spit, take the next 30 seconds to make your opinion on the wine. Did it linger, fade, or leave you wanting more? At the end of the day the most important thing is did you like it?

Tips for a Successful Winery Visit

There are bunch of things you can do to make sure you have a great time at the wineries. Here are my favorite tips from years of taking tours to over 200 wineries in Sonoma and Napa.

Call Ahead

If you have more than two people with you it is a good idea to call first — ESPECIALLY if they are a smaller winery. Often times just a heads up in the morning, or the day before, will reserve your group a spot at the bar or a special table.

Make Friends

The best wineries have staff that love their jobs and want to have fun with you while you taste (the reason I love family owned wineries more than the big guys). So make friends with the staff. Ask questions about the winery, the wine, and the interests of the person serving you and they’ll be much more inclined to find that extra bottle of something special for you to taste, or maybe they’ll take you on a tour. Make friends is key!

Hydrate and Eat

A little water and food between stops goes a long way! Eat a big breakfast in the morning and make sure you hydrate, especially on those hot summer days.

Plan Your Lunch Ahead of Time

Lunch spots in wine country get crazy! Pack a cooler with snacks and call wineries to see if they’ll let you picnic, not a lot of them do. Or call your order in the day before and designate one person to go in and grab the order.

Do You “Tip” Your Server at a Winery?

The rule I always repeat is, “always appreciated, never expected.” Most tasting rooms appreciate bottle purchase and wine clubs even more, but if someone has gone out of their way to give you great service a tip is always a nice “thank you.”


Wine tasting is incredibly fun and an experience like no other — you’re out in a beautiful surrounding, usually with people you love, and enjoying great food and wine. Enjoy the day, be safe, and don’t forget to tip your tour guide 😉

Eat & Drink

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