Tasting Rooms and Winery Tours Overview
Some wineries in Napa and Sonoma have opulent faux châteaus with vast gift shops; others welcome guests with rough converted barns where you might have to step over the vintner's dog in the doorway. But it doesn't matter if you're visiting an elaborate tasting room complete with art gallery and upscale restaurant, or you're squeezed into the corner of a cinder-block warehouse amid stacked boxes and idle equipment: either way, tasting rooms are designed to introduce newcomers to the pleasures of wine and to inform visitors about the wines made at that winery. So don't worry if you're new to tasting. Relax, grab a glass, and join in for a good time.
At most wineries, you'll have to pay for the privilege of tasting—from $15 to $25 for a standard tasting of some or all of a winery's current releases and from $20 to $50 (and up at high-end wineries) to taste reserve, estate, or library wines. To experience wine making at its highest level, consider splurging for a special tasting at one winery at least.
In general, you'll find the fees higher in Napa than in Sonoma, though there are exceptions to this rule. No matter which region you're in, you'll still find the occasional freebie—though it's likely to be at a spot that's off major tourist thoroughfares and on some little-traveled back road.
In tasting rooms, tipping is very much the exception rather than the rule. Most frequent visitors to the Wine Country never tip those pouring the wines in the tasting rooms, though if a server has gone out of his or her way to be helpful—by pouring special wines not on the list, for example—leaving $5 or so would be a nice gesture.
Many wineries are open to the public, usually daily from around 10 or 11 am to 5 pm. They may close as early as 4 or 4:30, especially in winter, so it's best to get a reasonably early start if you want to fit in more than a few spots. Most wineries stop serving new visitors from 15 to 30 minutes before the posted closing time, so don't expect to skate in at the last moment. Some wineries require reservations, and still others are closed to the public entirely. When in doubt, call in advance.
Although you might have the tasting room all to yourself if you visit midweek in winter, in summer, during crush (harvest season), and on weekends it's likely you'll be bumping elbows with other tasters and vying for the attention of the pourer. If you prefer smaller crowds, seek out wineries off the main drags of Highway 29 in Napa and Highway 12 in Sonoma. Look for wineries that are open by appointment only; they tend to schedule visitors carefully to avoid big crowds. Keep in mind that many wineries require appointments not to be snooty or exclusive, but because zoning regulations or occupancy restrictions compel them to limit the number of guests they receive. At some wineries, calling from the driveway constitutes sufficient notice, but for others phoning or reserving online a day ahead really is necessary. If the urge suddenly strikes to visit one of the latter, though, it never hurts to call and see if there’s an opening that day.
Wineries tend to have fewer tasters early in the morning and get busiest between 3 pm and closing. On weekends, do what the locals do—visit on Sunday rather than Saturday. As many veteran tasting-room pourers will attest, Sunday is generally mellower. Saturday crowds include more people in weekend party mode and on bus and limo tours.
Finally, remember that those little sips add up, so pace yourself. If you plan to visit several wineries, try just a few wines at each so you don't hit sensory overload, when your mouth can no longer distinguish subtleties. (This is called palate fatigue.) Choose a designated driver for the day: roads are often narrow and curvy. You may be sharing your lane with bicyclists and wildlife as well. Although wineries rarely advertise it, many will provide a free nonalcoholic drink for the designated driver; it never hurts to ask.
In the Tasting Room
In most tasting rooms, a list of the wines available that day will be on the bar or offered by the server. The wines will be listed in a suggested tasting order, starting with the lightest-bodied whites and progressing to the most intense reds. Dessert wines will come at the end.
You'll usually find an assortment of the winery’s current releases. There might also be a list of reserve (special in some way) or library (older) wines you can taste for a higher fee. To create a more cohesive experience, tasting rooms sometimes offer "flights" consisting of three or more particular wines selected to complement or contrast with one another. These might be vertical (several vintages of one wine), horizontal (several different varietals from one season), or more intuitively assembled.
Don't feel the need to try all the wines you're offered. In fact, many wineries indicate at the bottom of the list that you're limited to four or five. (In reality, however, servers rarely hold you to this limit if the tasting room isn't too crowded and you're showing a sincere interest in the wines.) If you can't decide which wines to choose, tell the server what types of wines you usually like and ask for a recommendation.
The server will pour you an ounce or so of each wine you select. As you taste it, don't be afraid to take notes or ask questions. If you use the list of the wines for your note taking, you'll have a handy record of your impressions at the end of your trip. There might be a plate of crackers on the bar; nibble them when you want to clear your palate before tasting the next selection.
If you don't like a wine, or you've tasted enough, pour the rest into one of the dump buckets on the bar (if you don't see one, just ask).
Taking a Tour
Even if you're not a devoted wine drinker, seeing how grapes become wine can be fascinating. Tours tend to be most exciting (and most crowded) in September and October, when the harvest and crushing are under way. In harvest season you'll likely see workers picking in the vineyards and hauling bins and barrels around with forklifts. At other times of the year, the work consists of monitoring wine, "racking" it (eliminating sediment by transferring it from one tank or barrel to another), and bottling the finished wine.
Depending on the size of the winery, tours range from a few people to large groups and typically last 30 minutes to an hour. The guide explains what happens at each stage of the wine-making process, usually emphasizing the winery's particular approach to growing and wine making. Feel free to ask questions at any point in the tour. If it's harvest or bottling time, you might see and hear the facility at work. Otherwise, the scene is likely to be quiet, with just a few workers tending the tanks and barrels.
Some winery tours are free, in which case you usually pay a separate fee to taste the wine. If you've paid for the tour—often from $10 to $30—your wine tasting is usually included in the price. Wear comfortable shoes, because you might be walking on wet floors or stepping over hoses or other equipment. Dress in layers, because many tours take you to facilities where temperatures may be hot or cold.
At large wineries, introductory tours are typically offered several times daily. Less frequent are specialized tours and seminars focusing on such subjects as growing techniques, sensory evaluation, wine blending, and food-and-wine pairing. These events typically cost from $20 to $50, sometimes a bit more if lunch is included. If you're spending a few days in the Wine Country, it's worth making a reservation for at least one of these in-depth experiences.