The Napa Tasting Room Survival Guide

After combing through some common complaints on Yelp we offer a few suggestions on how to have positive tasting expereinces

Oh, the tasting room. Since the mid-1970s when California was famously “put on the map” of fine wine at the Paris Tasting, Napa Valley and its surrounding winegrowing regions have become burgeoning tourist destinations. To capitalize on the millions of tourists that visit the region each year — a region that is  essentially a farming community — wineries open tasting rooms; either at the wineries itself or on a main drag: The Route 29 Wine Trail. From the humble to the ostentatious, these tasting rooms serve as a place for visitors to taste wine, hear the stories of the wineries and of course, purchase wine.  (In many winegrowing regions, particularly in the Old World, the tasting room as we know it, doesn’t even exist. Instead, local wines are tasted at bars and bistros in town.)

In less-visited regions further from Napa and San Francisco  (Amador County to the East, Paso Robles to the South, Mendocino to the North) “tasting rooms” are typically nothing more than a slab of reclaimed redwood on top of a couple of barrels inside the production facility. And when you enter, the winemaker will appear from behind a fermentation tank or from beneath a piece of machinery and pour his wines for you. This is nice and all. But in Napa Valley and increasingly, Sonoma, The Tasting Room has become a production, with every winery competing with every other winery for hospitality, showmanship and wine club members. From Baccarat chandeliers and underground waterfalls to elaborate food pairings, The Tasting Room is no longer just a place to taste wine. It’s an experience.

And visitors to Napa Valley bring with them increasingly high expectations. Sadly, not only does the wine become secondary, but the experience itself often disappoints. Sometimes, it is the fault of the winery: an inexperienced and underpaid staff exhausted by saying the same things and answering the same questions about the same wines by visitors who are, at best, distracted, at worst intoxicated, day after day  often give off an attitude that is misinterpreted as “snobby” or “uppity.” The Tasting Room has become a necessary evil. But if you find the right winery, come with the right attitude and manage your expectations, it can be a great opportunity to taste wine in the very place that it was made.

Yes, you are being profiled

It’s a sad reality, but from the moment you pull into the parking lot (and even before, if you made an appointment in advance — inquiries about where you are staying and eating,  were not  just small talk ) the tasting room staff is sizing you up. They are there, after all, to sell wine (the bulk of their salary is, in fact, dependant upon it).  Is this disgusting? Yes. As one Yelper observed:

I know we look young and aren’t dressed half as preppie as most tasters in there, but treating potential buyers like scum is just not ok in my book.

True. It’s not. And there is nothing you can do about looking young. But dressing nicely,  not necessarily “preppie,” will certainly help you get better service. (And this doesn’t mean you need to “wear a Rolex” as yet another Yelper suggested.)

It may also help you taste better wine. At large wineries like Mondavi, the greeter must decide immediately upon entrance whether to funnel guests to the standard tasting room or the “reserve” room where smaller production and older wines are being poured. (This kind of tasting may also be referred to as a library tasting: a library being a place where older bottles of wine are stored, not an actual library, a fact which confused more than this visitor who left the following review on Yelp:

We had a reservation for the library tasting. When we arrived, we were escorted to a small, office-like room. Not a ‘library’ at all.

No books! Fortunately, she did enjoy tasting older vintages, but failed still to make the connection and left feeling disappointed.

Have a plan

Driving up and down the Valley going to random wineries that strike your fancy — either because you like their facade or because you saw Ryan Gosling drinking their wine somewhere, is not a good plan. For starters, most wineries only pour four maybe five, different wines. So if you know you don’t like cabernet, chardonnay, merlot and zinfandel and those are the wines they make, you’re going to be disappointed. It can also get very expensive, as the typical price for a flight of wine in Napa valley is between $15 and $30.  One Yelper, dissatisfied with the wines being offered, wrote:

This is a winery who believes their wine is the best and if you don’t enjoy it, that means there’s something seriously wrong with you.  This attitude is problematic because… well… it ended up with them not making a sale and me walking away with bad feelings and writing a negative review.  We both lose.

I would like to interject that EVERY WINERY THINKS THEIR WINE  IS THE BEST. That is why they make that wine. If you don’t like it, you don’t like it. But don’t walk away with bad feelings. There are plenty of wineries to visit.

It’s not the size that counts

A lot of first-time visitors to Napa Valley complain about the small pours: “I was expecting more of a full glass on the pour instead of a couple sips for the tasting,” writes one Yelper. A novice mistake, for sure, but this attitude of wanting to drink and not just taste persists for even more experienced visitors. First of all, by law, wineries with tasting room licences can only pour, legally, 1.5 oz of each wine per person. That is enough for a couple of sips. Secondly, the tasting room is not a bar. It is not a place to get drunk and act ridiculous and the person pouring your wine is not a server or a bartender. Treat the wines, and the person pouring them, with respect. Ask questions and say something kind about the wine (even if you don’t personally like it).

Good help is hard to find

The two biggest complaints on Yelp about wine tasting rooms in Napa Valley are 1) The “server” seemed bored. And 2) We were ignored. There is no good justification for either of these things. It’s poor hospitality. But keep in mind, that while there are the few very experienced, very knowledgeable “Wine Educators” (as tasting room sales associates are often called), many of them are either local kids who grew up in the area (guess what? There are a lot of tasting room jobs) or people interested in wine and just breaking into the industry. One Yelper writes:

Our host looked barely 21. When I asked what his background was, he replied that he has been majoring in finance and is interested in the wines. I expected someone with more savvy.

Don’t. At a different winery, a woman writes:

It was clear that the girl pouring our wine had memorized what she was supposed to say. She didn’t even volunteer the info to us.  I had to ask her questions in order to get her to give us her spiel.

Certainly, she had memorized what she was supposed to say. And if she sounded bored, it is because she was. It’s like a server at a restaurant reciting the specials except that the specials never change.  It’s not great; it’s just the way it is.

Food + Wine

Wine belongs with food. It is made, after all,  with the intention to be enjoyed as part of a meal. Which is why some visitors to wine country may be confused about just what is appropriate and to be expected at tasting rooms when it comes to eating. “As we sipped our wines, I had our box lunches carried over from the car,” writes one Yelper. “BAD IDEA. Our hostess exclaimed, ‘Ummm, excuse me? Since I’ve now seen these lunches, I can’t let you eat them here at the picnic table. We don’t have a picnic license.’”  There are plenty of wineries that encourage tasters to bring outside food and even have tables designated just for this purpose. Sometimes, you can even  purchase a bottle of wine and enjoy it with your lunch. But many either don’t have a “picnic license,” would prefer that you enjoy the food that they sell, or simply don’t want to deal with food at all. Call ahead and plan accordingly.

When tasting rooms do offer food, it is often intended merely as a way to educate guests about food and wine pairing and is not intended to be a meal. One Yelper was seriously perturbed by the size of what she refers to as “micro-cookies”:

When a friend recommended the wine and cookie pairing, I was expecting to receive a few decent-sized pours and a few decent-sized cookies. Instead, for $25 I received five very small pours and five cookies the size of a quarter.

Having experienced this tasting personally, I can attest to the educational nature of the pairing, which demonstrates successfully how food can change wine and vice versa. The purpose is not to recreate a stomach-busting trip to the local Mrs. Fields.

Crackers and breadsticks are often similarly misunderstood; these are offered merely as a palate cleanser.

A few “hot” tips:

  1. Limit yourself to four tastings a day, with a meal in the middle and plan for at least one hour at each tasting. (Read why here.)
  2. Don’t be afraid to make use of the spitoon. Four to six tastes at each winery is a lot, especially if the pours are heavy, as they sometimes tend to be.
  3. Hydrate: Keep bottles of water in the car and drink them. Not all wineries offer water. It seems strange, but it’’s often a logistical challenge keeping enough clean glasses in stock and often the tap water just isn’t very good, anyway. There is nothing wrong with bringing some with you. (Oh, and by the way: You don’t want to rinse your tasting glass with water since the water — the alkalines, minerals and PH — can cling to the crystal and affect your tasting more than would a different wine. Ask for a “French rinse,” in which the pourer will give you a splash of the next wine to swirl away the last; then pour it in the dump bucket)
  4. For large groups, make appointments: “You would think that at stop number four of a bachelorette party wine tasting trip we would all be feeling warm and fuzzy and enjoy just about anything.  Well, this winery successfully burst my good mood bubble.  All I can think is that maybe they have had a bad experience with a bachelorette party in the past?” (Ya think?)
  5. Don’t wear perfume or smelly lotion (as this will impact your senses and those of others near you). Please, just don’t do it.