Dining Sip Like a Pro: Expert Wine Tasting Tips

by Kara Newman | December 20, 2018

While at a recent wine festival, one big question loomed: Where to start?

Every table seemed to welcome another enticing bottle and another rich story to be told. You could be tempted to linger at the VIP rosé and bubbly suite — but that might mean missing out on the row of robust Brazilian reds — or stunning chardonnays from South Africa.

The seemingly endless array of options explains why Americans are enjoying more vino than ever before. According to a 2017 Wine Market Council Study, 25% of U.S. adults surveyed reported drinking more wine when compared to a couple of years ago — that statistic soared to 47% among young adults aged 21-29. And engaging tasting events have become a key way to learn about the difference between a pinot noir and a pinot gris.

So, how to get the most out of a wine-tasting experience? It all depends on the setting. Sprawling wine-tasting events — with rows of wineries in attendance — should be approached differently than a visit to a more intimate vineyard tasting room, or an evening playing host (or guest) for a tasting at home with friends. Here, experts offer insider perspectives on how to navigate these diverse experiences.

Attend a wine event or festival

Wine festivals and other large-scale events can seem daunting at first, but New York Wine Events founder Sam Kimball advises that a little advance strategizing will make a big event feel less overwhelming and more approachable. “Wine tasting is for curious people,” says Kimball. Wine-tasting events present a unique opportunity to learn while savoring the flavors of different regions.

Plan ahead: Before heading out, scan the program online or download an app to decide what you’d like to try. Will you make a beeline for your favorite California wines or explore a new region like New Zealand? “The key to a successful grand tasting experience is deciding how you can optimize your discovery flow at the event,” Kimball informs. Don’t try to sample at every table, instead, he advises, “Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize.” And don’t forget to hire a car service or find another designated driver.

Note what you enjoy: If you find a bottle you love, make a note or take a photo of the label. Kimball also recommends using an app for this purpose: to rate the wine on a scale of one to five stars or save it to your favorites list.

Ask the experts: At most events, the wines are poured by a sommelier, the importer, or — better still — someone from the winery. If the latter, “You’re talking to the source,” Kimball notes. “You get great little pieces of trivia that help inform your experience.”

Pace yourself: Pours should be no larger than one ounce, and no, you’re not offending the producer if you don’t finish what’s in your glass. “Don’t be afraid to either spit or take a tiny taste and use the spit bucket to dump out the rest,” Kimball recommends. “Because otherwise, you’re not going to last.”

Vino veritas:  More than 1,500 annual wine and food festivals are organized worldwide each year, according to Local Wine Events.

You’re talking to the source. You get great little pieces of trivia that help inform your experience.
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Visit a winery

Visiting tasting rooms at regional wineries can be a leisurely way to spend a day. However, don’t plan to pack in every winery in the area, counsels Gabriella Macari, director of education and marketing for Macari Vineyards, located in Long Island’s North Fork wine region.

Don’t over schedule: Don’t drink and dash, Macari advises. “I see people with ambitious schedules trying to fit in five or seven wineries a day. It’s completely unrealistic,” she says. Instead, she recommends planning to visit no more than two wineries per day, “if you want to enjoy the most a winery has to offer.”

Make a reservation: Sure, most wineries will accommodate walk-ins, but if you’re rolling with a larger group (six people or more), Macari suggests making a reservation, which could result in a more intimate experience. At her winery, for example, guests can book a table for a guided tasting with a wine educator, instead of hustling for space at the bar.

Know when to go: Weekends can be hectic; off-peak times to visit, such as midweek means less tasting room traffic. Macari also recommends that people come in at 11 a.m., when the doors open; “There’s always a rush around 2 p.m.,” she notes. And if you have only one time of year to visit, opt for harvest time (September through October). “Harvest is one of the most beautiful times of the year,” Macari says. “Seeing fruit on the vine is really amazing.”

Vino veritas: New York is one of the top wine-producing states in the U.S., according to a study by Grand View Research, behind only California, Oregon and Washington.

sweeping landscape view of a vineyard at sunset

Host a wine tasting at home

If tasting with friends in the comfort of your home sounds like your speed, you’re not alone: more than 80% of overall wine is consumed off-premises (not in a bar or restaurant setting), according to a study by L.E.K. Consulting.

Think small – and specific: The key to keeping an at-home tasting manageable? Hone in on a specific region or type of wine you’d like to explore, says Timothy Dillon, certified sommelier and sales associate at Vintry Fine Wines in New York. For example, if you love malbec, assemble a line-up of malbecs from Argentina.

Seek guidance: “It’s extremely important to find a wine shop that you trust,” Dillon says. Be firm about what you want to spend, and explain what you usually like to drink. A good wine pro will use that information to help recommend bottles for your at-home tasting.

Have fun with pairings: Whether it's a simple cheese and charcuterie board or a full dinner, it's good to have something to nibble on when enjoying wine. “One of my favorite things to do for New Year’s is to pair sparkling wine with fried chicken,” he adds. “Fried food and sparkling wine go together beautifully.”

Play with accessories: Go for classic wine glasses (not plastic, which can have a distracting odor, Dillon warns), but if desired, use accessories to showcase your personality. “The flair is where you get to have fun,” Dillon says. Decorative tags can help identify guests' glass or fancy bags can disguise the bottle shape and hide labels for a blind-style tasting. Above all, Dillon recommends, “Taste in your own fashion.”

Vino veritas: In particular, the at-home tasting trend has been driven by millennial consumers' desire to maintain affordability, according to the L.E.K. Consulting study.

a group of friends doing a cheers with glasses of wine
Kara Newman

is a wine and spirits writer based in New York, and the author of Nightcap: More Than 40 Cocktails To Close Out Any Evening.