Wine Tasting 101

Since we had never even seen the film Sideways, let alone attended a wine tasting, we definitely did some homework before leaving for Napa.  After booking four separate wine tastings in advance (one for each day of our three-night/ four-day stay), we will even admit to checking out a YouTube wine tasting video in hopes of gleaning the basics of etiquette that may have been required of us.  The video told us to swirl our glass of wine before smelling its bouquet so that you release the full aromas of the wine.  (Just remember to swirl the glass while it is situated on the table; otherwise you risk making a small tornado of Pinot Noir all over your shirt!)  It also mentioned something about “legs” and the glycerin that falls down the sides of the glass, but we ended up turning that information into more of an inside joke rather than really understanding what it meant!

Of course, once in Napa, there were many others attending the tastings that were also wine tasting virgins like us.  In retrospect, we could not have picked a better place to have our grapes popped since, in terms of wine making, Napa Valley is brimming with so much history, artistry and passion!  We much more on our second tasting and tour of the winery at Robert Mondavi (see “sights”).  Even though the wine was not as good as the other places we checked out, the tour was so informative, taking us all the way from the vineyard to the fermentation plant to the barrel vaults to the bottling room.  We highly recommend this tour if you are a wine tasting novice.

Now if you want a little leg up on your Napa Valley wine tasting experience before you leave home, you would do well to check out these simple rules.  First and foremost, and we feel this one is plain common sense, make sure you have eaten a full meal before going into any wine tasting.  Even though the legal pour for a “taste” of any wine is supposed to be only 1 oz., the hosts will usually be a bit more generous, sometimes giving you up to 2-3 oz. of each varietal up for offer.  Do the math: 2-3 oz. multiplied by five different wine varietals equals up to 15 oz. of wine!  A typical glass of wine is 5-6 oz., which means that at any sit-down tasting you are subjected to, at the very least, two full glasses of wine!  That, of course, is if you don’t use the spitoon!  The what?

Yes, there are several ways to approach tasting wine.  Many of the pro’s choose to taste many wines in one day, and use a spit bucket to limit their alcohol intake.  This allows you to sip the wine into your mouth and have it glide over your tastebuds without swallowing.  Then, after cleansing your palate with a cracker or some water, you can move on to the next vintage.  (Most sit-down tastings will have separate glasses for each varietal, or at least one for reds and one for whites, but if not, make sure to cleanse your glass with some water before moving on to the next taste.)

Rule number two is to keep an open mind.  Your “Set of Drifters” are not typically white wine drinkers but after multiple tastings, we realized that if you are drinking the right wines (of higher quality grapes and older vintages), you just may find new varietals that you never knew you would ever enjoy!  After tasting each selection, make sure to use your pen or pencil to notate whether or not you liked it, or perhaps what qualities about it that you enjoyed.  Your host will start spewing a bunch of descriptions that you may find ridiculous, but keep in mind, they are trying to sell you this wine!

We ended up buying two bottles of white wine before ever plunking down a dollar for a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon.  This took us a little off guard, but when educated on the types of food and desserts that can pair with each varietal of grape, you will soon be surprised that your view of wines in general has expanded and improved.  (We will certainly never go to a bar and just order the “house cab” ever again!)  Nonetheless, don’t feel embarrassed if you end up liking a vintage that is not the “estate” label, or a wine that is younger than another vintage up for taste.  Remember to trust your instinct and only buy what you will want to drink later!

Set of Drifters tip:  You may feel the need to tip your tour guide/ wine tasting host.  This is not necessary, however do note that wine tasting hosts do receive a commission on the bottles of wine that they sell to patrons.  So, if you like a wine that you tasted, and you can’t get it anywhere else, indulge and buy it from the winery while you are visiting.  It’s the gift to yourself that will keep on giving when you finally return to your daily routine back home, and it will remind you of the wonderful time you had relaxing in this beautiful locale!

Robert Mondavi Winery - 7801 St. Helena Highway, Oakville, CA  94562, (707) 226-1395

Driving in Napa Valley

Getting to Napa and driving within the valley is pretty easy... in the off-season (November - March).  Only about an hour and a half from San Francisco or the East Bay’s bedroom communities, a day-trip to Napa is entirely possible, but not recommended if you really want to relax and enjoy yourselves.

Probably the most important thing you want to think about is driving safely.  Remember, with winery after winery dotting each side of the main highway, you are going to be tempted to test the limits of your own sobriety.  If you are driving, we recommend being smart and taking turns with your partner or friends.  It’s even better, perhaps, to limit your crew to one wine tasting a day, peppering the rest of your time with the valley’s other top attractions (balloon rides, art galleries or spa treatments).  Of course, if you are looking solely to taste wine, and there’s nothing wrong with that, then this is pretty much your utopia!  To avoid getting caught by the coppers, try spitting your tastes to limit alcohol consumption (see above), or just throw caution to the wind and hire a driver for the day!  There is also a popular wine train that escorts you up and down the more popular stretch of Highway 29; just make sure you are sober enough to stumble up and down the platforms!

If you are driving, there are a few things you should know.  Highway 29 is the main artery which connects the slightly more urban burg of Napa with its rustic sister villages to the north.  Charming Yountville is the first town to the north, followed closely by Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena, and eventually Calistoga.  (Within each town are several other smaller wine districts called “appellations,” each designated by special geographical features that bear different strains of fruit.  For example, the “Stags Leap District” is a part of Yountville that houses a number of wineries known for strong Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.)

If you are traveling on Hwy 29 during the high season, don’t even think about making a left turn; you will be waiting a very long time with the other yahoo’s who don’t realize they have screwed up royally.  Instead, map your day’s wine and food tasting activities out in advance so that you are only making right turns the entire time.  This basically means that you would start the day out driving to the furthest point in one direction and then meander back to your original destination, making planned stops along the way.

Another great option available to you is the scenic Silverado Trail which somewhat parallels Highway 29 to the east, but without all of the stop signs, stoplights, or traffic.  This is the route the locals take, accessible via a series of crossroads that canvas the various vineyards in the valley.  Chances are, if you have done your research, you will be visiting some of the wineries and eateries along the Silverado Trail anyway, but if not, keep this secret road in mind, especially if you need to make a quick retreat out of town and want to avoid the stop-and-go traffic in the summer months.