Archive for July, 2014

Tasting Room Etiquette – Tips and Tricks

Let me preface this whole post by saying that there is really no “proper” way to go about tasting wine. Wine is as individual as you are – that’s a part of what’s so great about it!

However, if you’re reading this, one of your goals for your next wine trip is probably to experience a bunch of really great wine without spending a fortune. This means that in the tasting room you really want the staff to be on your side.

Tasting room visitors can generally be lumped into three groups:Tasting room sign

  • Wine snobs (you might call them pretentious)
  • Booze tourists (they just want to drink – even better if they arrive in a limo or bus)
  • People with a genuine interest in wine (regardless of knowledge or experience)

Finding favor with the tasting room staff means that you really don’t want to be one of the first two.

But for the tasting room staff, dealing with a genuinely interested wine person is a treat – sort of like dealing with a friendly passenger at an airport. So you might be amazed at how often the rules are broken: what’s printed on the tasting menu magically no longer applies, minimums are waived and extra “off the list” bottles appear from behind the counter.

So, if you want the red carpet treatment, here are a few tried-and-true-from-the-trenches strategies to help:

Appearance matters, so consider dressing in business casual attire – I usually default to nice jeans and a polo or casual button down. Shorts are fine if it’s a really hot day, but screen printed t-shirts are a big red flag.

Carry a small notebook and pen (bonus points if you pilfered it from your hotel room) and take a few notes on the wines you taste. It’s a small detail that says you’re interested in learning, and I’m always amazed at how quickly tasting room staff take notice.

Bring a bottle of water. Seasoned pros always have water handy – it’s a smart idea anyways, and it sends the message that you’re responsible which inclines the tasting room staff to be a little more generous with their pours.

Browse around the tasting room before you approach the bar (booze tourists always want to hit the bar ASAP). It scores you a few brownie points because you seem interested in the winery – bonus points if the staff invites you to the bar for a tasting. We’ve found this to be especially handy if we show up just as they’re opening up shop – that way the staff doesn’t feel as rushed to get set up.

Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions, even if it’s for guidance on which wines to try. Most winery staff are passionate about their product, and they LOVE answering questions and helping you find something you’ll really enjoy.

Never make demands or ask for VIP treatment. This ought to be common sense, but I’ve been in the business long enough to know that common sense isn’t always so common.

As much as you may hate to waste wine, be in the habit of dumping what you don’t like. That’s what those buckets are for and nobody gets offended. Tasting room staff expect that most people won’t be in love with every wine they try.. in fact, the guy who polishes off every sample may get the hairy eyeball. On the other hand, if you’re dumping a bunch of stuff, this is where the “extra” bottles often come out – many tasting room staff are convinced they have SOMETHING you’ll like and they’ll rise to the challenge of finding it.

Don’t be afraid to say (politely) that you don’t care for a particular wine. Don’t insult them by calling their wine “bad” but there’s also no harm in saying “this one doesn’t do it for me” or “this one’s really not my style.” Bonus points if you can guide them towards your style, as once again, off-the-list bottles may start appearing for you. We had one pinot producer in Oregon bring our their entire reserve line for us when we identified one particular wine that we were in love with.

A note on spitting: Yeah, it’s gross, but wine professionals commonly spit out their samples rather than swallow them (due to the sheer quantity of wine they’ll go through in a day). It’s good practice at industry events and I’ve seen people recommend this practice to everyone. However, it’s rather messy, and honestly, in the dozen or so years I’ve been doing this, I can’t think of many occasions where I’ve seen people spit in tasting rooms. But if you’re driving and want to be cautious, bring a plastic cup with you to spit in rather than spitting straight into the bucket.

Over the years I’ve found these strategies to be worth their weight in gold. There will always be some tasting rooms whose staff are sticklers for policy, but if you employ some of these tips into your wine tasting routine you’ll be amazed at how much value will be added to your wine country experience versus that of the average tourist. You’ll have a lot more fun and the tasting room staff will be delighted that you stopped by.

What other tasting room strategies have you had success with? Add them in the comments and we’ll give them a try on our next wine trip!

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The Best Ways to find Free Tastings

Four years ago I launched a new section of the site devoted to free tasting rooms in wine country.  Given how many similar lists exist out there, I was surprised at the response.  But I guess I shouldn’t have been.  After all, for the wine lover what could be better than a free wine tasting?!

Wine’s a tough hobby for the budget-conscious.  I should know – I’ve been traveling through America’s various wine regions for over 15 years on a middle-class income; always slightly frustrated that some of my favorite once-free wineries now charge upwards of $40 per person for a basic tasting.  Tasting fees like that leave little room in the budget for buying wine!Tasting room sign

Adding to the frustration – nearly every free tasting room list on the web seems to be several years out-of-date.  I wish I were joking.. some of the more popular sites advertise free tastings at wineries long-ago closed or that have been charging for years.

That’s why an essential ongoing feature of Dirt Cheap Wine Country will be an up-to-date sleuthing of the free tasting rooms that are still around.  I’ll try to update it quarterly and only feature tasting rooms whose fees I can personally verify.

Personally, I want to express my gratitude for the handful of winemakers who still embrace the free tasting model, who are confident enough that their products can sell itself without sticking it to the customer.

There may be freebies lurking out there, and if you find them let me know and I’ll gladly add them to the next revision.

For now this is a North America-centric site and  I have lists up for Napa, Sonoma, Paso Robles and Oregon.

For 2019 I’ve added Washington and am working on SoCal and New York.  Virginia will be coming on line in the very near future.

Useful as my list is (at least I think it’s handy!) there are plenty of other ways to score free tastings as well.  Let me introduce you to a few of them:

  • Coupons!  Both digital and paper coupons still exist, but they’re dwindling in favor of “Passports” (which I’ll take about in a minute.)


  • Winery Referrals.  Similar to hotels, many wineries participate in informal referral networks.  A quick, “hey can you recommend any other wineries we ought to visit while we’re here?” will often reward you with tasting coupons for wineries that weren’t on your radar.  I’ve discovered some really fantastic wineries this way, and even joined a few of their clubs.  (I’ve also landed in a few regrettable ones….)


  • Yelp! & Foursquare Check-ins – Many wineries offer free tastings if you check-in using the Yelp! or FourSquare smartphone apps.  Unfortunately, there’s no central list of these offers and they change routinely, but many people do mention the free tastings in online reviews so if you’re planning in advance you’ll need to scour Yelp! reviews.  While you’re at the winery, look for the Yelp! or Foursquare logo on the door or near the tasting counter.


  • The VISA Signature/Infinite card.  If you have a VISA credit card (sorry debit card fans, it’s credit only) pull it out and look for the word “signature” emblazoned across the front of it.  If you see “signature” then congratulations! Show your card at any of 50 or so wineries in Sonoma County and you’ll receive 2-for-1 tasting and a purchase discount.  See the list and details here.


  • Passports.  Many wine regions have begun offering “wine passports” or “wine passes.”  They’re annual in nature and priced between $40 and $100 per person.  Generally I’m not a fan, as they seem to have been contrived purely as moneymakers for “winery guide” sites that needed a way to monetize.  The “deals” they offer can generally be found elsewhere for FREE  without paying an annual fee.  That being said, there are two passports that I DO think are a great value:
    • Oregon Wine Pass – At $60 for the year, this is a deal since each passport is good for -2- people.  80-ish participating wineries, mostly smaller labels that you may or may not be familiar with.
    • Napa Valley Tasting Passport – Not exactly a steal, but at $99 for the year I think it’s a pretty fair value for Napa.  Includes tastings at a well-thought-out list of 35 wineries.


  • Buy a bottle.  Recent marketing studies on how to best run a tasting room have indicated that a fee-waived-with-purchase model works better than giving away free tastings.  As a result, many wineries are switching to that model.  A single bottle purchase will often waive the fee (although, those same studies indicate that a 2-3 bottle minimum purchase to waive the fee is ideal, so some wineries go that route.)


  • Wine clubs.  Many wine clubs offer reciprocal benefits to their members at partner wineries or other wineries owned by the same company (not to mention, at their home winery as well).  As a club member, you may not even be aware of these benefits.  Here are three of the best examples I know of:
  1. Foley Family Wineries – Club members at any of these wineries enjoy free tastings at: Acrobat, Chalone Vineyard, Eos, Firestone Vineyard, Foley Estates, Foley Johnson, Foley Sonoma, Kuleto Estate, Lancaster Estate, Langtry Estate & Vineyard, Lincourt Vineyards, Merus Wines, Roth Estate Winery, Sebastiani Vineyards & Winery , The Four Graces, and Three Rivers Winery
  2. Wilson Artisan Wineries – Club members at any of these Northern California wineries enjoy free tastings at: Wilson, deLorimier, Matrix, Soda Rock, Pezzi King, St. Anne’s Crossing, Jaxon Keys & Greenwood Ridge.
  3. GEMS of Napa/Sonoma – Club members (minimum club spend may apply) at any of these Napa and Sonoma wineries enjoy free or heavily discounted tastings at: Chappellet, Robert Biale Vineyards, Flora Springs, Frog’s Leap Winery, VGS Chateau Patelle, Robert Craig Winery, B Wise, LaRochelle, Medlock Ames, Hall Rutherford, Patz and Hall, WALT, and Vineyard 29.

What are your favorite strategies for scoring free tastings?  Put them in the comments and I may add them to future revisions!