Nothing ruins a romantic vineyard picnic in the Willamette Wine Valley faster than an aggressive swarm of Yellow Jackets now common in late summer and fall. Well, that and finding out when you get to the vineyard, that you should have called ahead to make sure they allow picnics. Oops.
Regional quirks in wine countries’ etiquette can vary around the world. Take tasting fees for example. In Haro, Spain a Bodegas Muga winery tour plus tasting is 10€. While in Napa a seated portfolio tasting at Duckhorn runs $35. Wine tasting in Piedmont, Italy where Barolo is king? Surprisingly there are not many tasting fees. However, in Italy, it’s considered rude not to at least buy a bottle of wine, or two.
These variations make it hard to know what to expect when visiting a new wine region or going wine tasting for the first time. In an attempt to answer common questions about wine tasting etiquette in America I interviewed the experts, wine tour guides who have made wine tasting their living.
- Fred Gunton, Owner A Nose For Wine Tours
- Helen Avery & Mark Treick, Owners Cellar Door Wine Tours
- Jack Cranley, Owner Backcountry Wine Tours
- Stefan Czarnecki, Owner Black Tie Tours
What to Wear to a Wine Tasting + Wine Tasting Etiquette Tips
Here are the answers to the most common wine tasting questions they get starting with what to wear to a wine tasting.
“Here in Oregon, we’re farmers so there is no pretension. You want to be respectful but casual comfortable is fine. For men, something like a polo or a button-down shirt is just fine. Ladies typically underdress. Keep in mind, if you’re going into a barrel tasting the temperature can vary from 55° to 95° back outside. Plus it rains a lot in Oregon, so come dressed in layers.” — Helen Avery & Mark Treick
“I would advise, not to wear white. People are going to be pouring, swirling, sipping wine all day, wine could splash. Also, leave the heels at home. We go into the vineyards and they [heels] just doesn’t work.” — Jack Cranley
“Perfume and cologne, just don’t do it. A large part of the wine tasting experience is about smelling. So don’t cheat yourself or the person next to you, out of the full experience. Also, this is a funny one but don’t wear lipstick. It’s really hard for the tasting room folks to get off the glasses. If you’re going to wear it consider applying it lightly. —Jack Cranley
Etiquette 101: The Basis
First of all, for those going to their first wine tasting, there are a few basic wine tasting 101 etiquette tips that work at all wineries.
“People who know their limits are respected more. Respect the power of alcohol.” — Stefan Czarnecki
“Drink plenty of water, I tell people there are bathrooms everywhere we go!” — Helen Avery
“When you drink your blood sugar level rises, so make sure to eat food along the way.” — Mark Treick
“Never assume it’s okay to bring your own food into a tasting room or to a winery. Always call ahead and ask.” — Stefan Czarnecki
Perhaps the golden rule that matters most.
“All you really need to know is, do you like it?”— Fred Gunton
With a few of the classic wine tasting etiquette 101 tips out of the way, it’s time to focus specifically on the Willamette Wine Valley in Oregon. Even though the Willamette Valley is quickly becoming one of the most exciting wine regions in the world, it’s still laid-back, friendly, and accessible.
Don’t Worry About What You Don’t Know About Wine
“Oregon is fairly casual. It has always been pretty laid-back since the late 60s when Hippies started organic wine here. Biodynamics, viticulture by the phases of the moon. It’s still part of Oregon today. In general, the places here are very accessible and friendly. People are super willing to share their knowledge. In Oregon, it’s not uncommon to get a wine tasting with the winemaker or winery owners. They are open to answering questions no matter how detailed. It’s not a matter of saving secrets it’s more about knowledge share. There’s very much a philosophy of all ships rise. So why not help the other guy.” — Jack Cranley
“We have a great community here. The people in tasting rooms here live in and have tasted wine all over the valley, so they are happy to connect you with their friends.” — Stefan Czarnecki
“There are a lot of people who are nervous about their lack of knowledge. Think of it this way. Compare wine tasting to beer tasting and you realize that worry is gone. I say, think of wine as food in a bottle.” — Fred Gunton
“It never fails, the guy who comes in saying he has the most knowledge about wine walks away gaining the least at the end of the day. Come in with a beginners mind and you’ll get more out of it.” —Jack Cranley
Don’t Assume Food is Provided, Ask
“Larger groups especially tend to forget to factor in gratuity, tasting fees, and lunch. If you’re not sure, ask.” — Stefan Czarnecki
“A lot of people seem surprised to find out that the majority of wineries do not offer food in Oregon. So make sure you have a good breakfast to start your day. We break our tours up. Typically, two locations in the morning and then a break for lunch and two in the afternoon.” — Jack Cranley
The average tasting room fee in the Willamette Valley is between $10 and $25. From large groups to private tours, here are tips on what to expect.
“Tasting fees are never collected upfront since they are often waived with a minimum purchase of around $50.” — Jack Cranley
“Larger groups often assume tasting fees will be waived automatically but it’s actually the opposite. Many smaller tasting rooms have to bring in extra staff to handle larger groups.” — Stefan Czarnecki
“We never include the tasting fees in our tour pricing. Our private tours with the winemakers or owner might have a $50 tasting fee or a minimum purchase depending on where we go.” — Helen Avery & Mark Treick
In other words, if the budget for a wine tasting experience matters, it’s always best to ask for tasting fees or minimum purchases upfront.
If all the tasting fees have you worried, there is an insider trick our experts shared to keep the money in the bottle, so to speak.
Save Money & Share a Tasting
“Sharing a tasting is always an option, especially if you want to go to between four and six places. So never hesitate to ask to share a tasting.” — Jack Cranley
“Wine tasting is not about offending anyone. You don’t need a full pour to taste the wine. You can either dump, spit or you can share a tasting.” — Helen Avery & Mark Treick
Speaking of spitting.
Sip, Spit & Dump
Even for those with a few wine tastings under their belt, both spitting and dumping wine remain an open issue. Here are a few tips from the expert to help make that split-second decision with confidence.
“In a typical 2-ounce pour there are three good sips. Always say yes, please always try it. That first sip, if you don’t like the taste, dump it. Only take a second sip if you’re interested in the wine. Spit when you’re done tasting it. Don’t feel you have to finish the pour.” — Fred Gunton, Owner A Nose For Wine Tours
Editor’s Note: Fred and I had a follow-up conversation after this article was initially published. He gave a little more insight on wine tasting I simply had to share! “You can’t recognize something you’ve never tasted before. So where the first sip you might determine objectionably, it may be more of a case of being unfamiliar with the taste of the varietal. The second sip in this case will allow you to more clearly evaluate what you’re tasting. And of course, after you do swallow, the retronasal aroma will be a much better aid in your evaluation of the wine.” This, by the way, is the type of information that firmly places me in the camp of a fan of wine tours owners who know their stuff. When going tasting for the first time, if you have the help of someone who knows wine, you get a true chance to understand and appreciate wine tasting. Fred Gunton is definitely someone I’m looking forward to learning more from myself.
“Don’t ask for a small pour. Let the tasting room staff do their job. There is a reason they pour out what they do. While tasting only takes half an ounce, it takes more than that to get the full sensory experience. To properly smell and taste the wine. Taking more into your mouth and swishing it around gives you the best mouthfeel and enables you to explore the tannins. It’s the only way to give your glands a chance to react to the acidity. Now, just because they pour you more doesn’t mean that you have to swallow it. There is an argument for spitting. Those spit buckets are not there for decoration. No one will look at you funny if you quietly and casually spit. There is, of course, a finesse to spitting. Don’t spit it out with force. Don’t lean over the counter and spit into the bucket. Pick up the bucket and quietly, casually, spit.” — Jack Cranley
“Not enough people spit! You get a one-ounce pour, you really don’t need that much to taste the wine. It’s really not about offending anyone. On our tours, we can visit four of five stops in a day. If you’re not spitting or dumping you’ll lose your palate before the last stop.” — Helen Avery & Mark Treick
For those new to wine tasting palate fatigue is basically the point of no return. Taste buds are exhausted and the ability to detect distinctions between wines is lost.
“Palate fatigue is a real thing. Wine tasting takes a mental shift for the day, this is not wine drinking. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Tasting tours start early around 10:00 and go to 5:00. You still have the whole evening to spend drinking.” — Jack Cranley
What are the signs of palate fatigue?
“A fuzzy tongue, dry mouth-feel. When you hit palate fatigue you’re done. Time is the only thing that will bring the palate back. It takes almost a full day.” — Mark Treick
The key with palate fatigue is to stop before you get there. So what can you do to prevent or delay palate fatigue?
“Not everyone fatigues at the same rate. Eat a little, make sure to drink lots of water, and space it out to give your palate a rest. Have lunch. Keep in mind this is wine tasting, not wine drinking. Go ahead take two sips, make your notes and move onto the next wine and revisit those you are most interested in.” — Fred Gunton
Tipping on Wine Tours
“For your transportation company, plan on 15%. More if you’re happy with the tour and want to show your appreciation. Gratuity at wineries is never expected but if you think your experience was great, it’s a way to reward someone for a good job.” — Stefan Czarnecki
“In larger open tasting rooms, if you feel someone has gone out of their way to give you a good experience and you want to say thanks, go ahead, give them $5. For smaller sit-down tasting rooms, if you’re happy with the service, figure 15% to 20% of the tasting fee. On a tour where you’re sitting down with the owner or winemaker, a tip is not expected. As guides we like tips, but we never expect them either.” — Helen Avery & Mark Treick
Wine Tasting Room Closing Times
“Tasting rooms are typically open till 5:00 but don’t show up right before. Be there by 4:30 at least. A wine tasting can take between 30 and 45 minutes.” — Helen Avery & Mark Treick
Now, for the best part, the character of the Willamette Wine Valley and how that affects wine tasting in the region.
In the End, Wine Tasting Is About You
“In Oregon, the important thing is to find the right guide for you. Ask yourself do you want to buy wine or do you want to go deep. If you want to wrap yourself around a glass of wine at a vineyard you can do that. If you want to find a little place where the wine owner is in the tasting room, you can do that too.” — Helen Avery & Mark Treick
“We are here to relax people and help them learn consciously so they can apply that new knowledge subconsciously. There’s really nothing incorrect to wine tasting. If you smell it and vocalize it, you can’t be wrong.” — Fred Gunton
In 2016, Willamette Valley was named Wine Region of the Year by Wine Enthusiast Magazine. It should not go unsaid that the ability to taste some of the world’s best Pinot Noirs in such an unpretentious environment is part of what sets the Willamette Wine Valley apart.
There is a lot of knowledge in the valley here. For those lucky enough to take a tasting tour tapping into that knowledge is easy and fun. Now, when it comes to tips on how to properly taste Pinot Noir, that’s an entirely different post, coming soon!
Special thanks to Fred, Helen, Mark, Jack, and Stefan for lending your time and expertise to this article.