Improving the Tasting Room Experience for Wineries and Visitors

By John ~ September 12th, 2012.

Over the past five years, I’ve written several posts giving tips for visiting wine country which included advice on being friendly and polite and respecting the time of the people working in a tasting room and on areas needing improvement in tasting room operations. Today, I want to update those posts as a result of the many tasting room visits I’ve made since those posts were written. First I’ll address my suggestions to winery tasting rooms and then give my tips for tasting room visitors.

Here’s my updated list of suggestions for wineries and their tasting room personnel:

  1. Make sure that you are open, and open on time, during the hours that you have advertised or posted that you are open. As our regular readers know, nothing ticks us off more than a winery whose tasting room is not open as advertised. And I know we are not the only ones it offends. Be sure to keep your hours up-to-date on your website, your area wine association’s website, your voice mail, on signage outside your winery, and all other places you advertise or have your hours listed. You are not being respectful of the time and money your visitors are spending when you don’t keep those hours, and it’s just not good business.
  2. Make sure that your tasting room personnel are friendly, attentive, and knowledgeable. Nothing is more off-putting than a tasting room person who ignores you or acts like a visitor is a bother. Why are you open other than to court visitors? Don’t assume that you know the knowledge level or the buying potential of a visitor. You may be surprised. An awesome tasting room server will sell a lot of wine today and in referrals to that tasting room in the future.
  3. Make sure that you clearly explain your tasting fee policy, if any, up front. Better yet, have it posted clearly and explain it. I’ve seen it get very awkward when it was not explained up front and a visitor has already finished tasting when the tasting fee is brought to their attention.
  4. Have a handout with tasting notes and a price list. Too often, tasting notes and a price list are nonexistent or either they are in a laminated copy on the counter but not on a sheet on which a visitor can make notes and take with them. Be sure to include your contact information (website, email address, phone number, etc.) so that the visitor knows how to reach you when he/she decides to buy some of your wine later.
  5. Have spit cups and dump buckets available. I have been amazed at how many tasting rooms do not even have dump buckets, much less provide disposable spit cups. Do you want to encourage drinking and driving?
  6. Have water and crackers available for tasters to use to cleanse their palates. This might seem like a small and somewhat unnecessary item; but believe me, visitors remember the wineries whose tasting room covers all the bases.
  7. Give your tasting room personnel some flexibility in wines to pour. Again, when I drive five hours to visit your tasting room that is 30 miles from anyone else just to taste a Cab you are noted for, pay a tasting fee, and then your tasting room person tells me you’re not pouring the Cab today, I get more than a little upset. My suggestion is that you give your tasting room personnel the flexibility to open that wine if they can see that the visitor is a serious wine enthusiast and not just a freeloader looking for a cheap happy hour.
  8. Cool your uppity attitude. Obviously, this suggestion does not apply to all tasting rooms as we have had many wonderful experiences and met some very friendly people on our winery visits. In fact, when the owners and/or winemakers have served us in a tasting room, most have been very down-to-earth folks who are very courteous and welcoming. Too often, though, we have encountered tasting room hired hands that cop an uppity attitude and talk down to visitors. Not smart and certainly not good for business.

Visiting wine country is one of my favorite outings. In general, the people are very friendly, the scenery is great, the atmosphere is refreshing, and most of the wine is good, too. However, there are some basic tips that can help you avoid problems and have great memories when you get back home.

Here’s my updated list of suggestions for tasting room visitors:

  1. Stay sober. If you plan to visit a number of wineries in one day, learn to spit rather than swallow. Most tasting rooms have dump buckets for this purpose. And believe me, you can tell just as much about the wine when you spit as when you swallow. Otherwise, you won’t have a clue what was good or not so good at the end of the day…and you’ll have a big headache in the morning.
  2. Have a designated driver who is not drinking or come with a tour group. Don’t be so naïve to think that you can taste wine all day and still drive safely. Either have one person in your party be the designated driver, or better yet, hire one of the wine touring companies in the area to take you to the wineries you wish to visit.
  3. Make notes about the wines you taste. Take good notes about what you like and what you don’t like. Don’t depend on your memory after you’ve visited multiple wineries and tasted several wines at each stop. Obviously, a tasting room that provides a handout listing the wines you are tasting makes note taking much easier.
  4. No cheese or chocolate while you taste wine. Save it for later. In one of our first wine country trips many years ago, we came across a winery where the winemaker insisted that we eat different cheeses with each of the wines we tasted. We were not only impressed with the cheeses, but the wines tasted good, too, so we bought more wine than we should have to bring home. Boy were we surprised when the same wines that tasted so good at the winery with cheese tasted terrible by themselves and finished at or close to the bottom in our blind tastings. Research at UC Davis has validated what we realized after our experience mixing wine and cheese:

    “Eating cheese ruins the flavors of wine and makes fine vintages indistinguishable from cheap plonk. While the two are often served together in the belief they make a sophisticated combination, scientists have discovered even expert tasters could not distinguish between wines after eating cheese.”

    And I believe that you can virtually ditto the above comments for chocolate.

  5. Be friendly and polite and respect the time of those who work at the winery. Remember, you are probably not their only visitor today. This simple tip can often result in service above and beyond the call of duty from the person behind the counter. And, even if it doesn’t, it’s just good manners.
  6. Buy only one or two bottles today of a wine you like. When you find a wine you like, just buy a bottle or two to start with, not a case. Then take your favorites home and compare them side-by-side in a blind tasting. Then buy a case or two of your proven favorites.
  7. Don’t put the wines you buy in the trunk of your car. When do most of us visit wine tasting rooms and go on winery tours? Why, in the heat of the summer, of course. Do you realize how quickly a bottle of wine is ruined by summer heat? I tasted a wine that had spent only six hours in the trunk of a car on a 90-degree day, and it was baked, totally ruined as a drinkable wine. This is also another good reason that we recommend that you only buy a bottle or two while at the winery instead of cases. At least then if you ruin your wine in the car, it’ll only be a few bottles. But remember, you want to get even the few bottles home safely so that you can compare the wines and give them a fair chance in a blind tasting. If you anticipate buying wine and must store it in your trunk, bring along an insulated box or cooler with ice packs to keep the wine cool.

If both the winery personnel and visitors follow these suggestions and tips, I believe that touring wine country will be some of the favorite times of your life, and the wineries will sell more wine.

Please share your experiences and any tips you have for visiting wine country in the comments.


Filed under: General Wine Information, Wine Travel

Reader's Comments

  1. Steve E. | September 12th, 2012 at 11:46 am

    Suggestions for wineries and tasting room personnel

    Be ready to be visited by everyone from a beginner to the most experience winemaker. And treat them with equal respect. This requires a level of knowledge and customer service that reaches all types. With so many tasting room options near me, there are only so many that I can revisit. A good winery experience will bring me back as much (or more than) good wines alone.

    Don’t be afraid to respectfully discuss wines that may not be as good as previous vintages. Everything is not the best ever produced of that varietal, from that winery. Or at least talk about the differences through its strengths – they may actually be something you would mark the wine down for while the taster’s palate actually enjoys it.

    Suggestion for tasting room visitors:

    When you’re done at the counter getting your next taste pour – step away. Don’t “occupy tasting room counter” when there are others trying to taste. If the tasting room is empty, then of course stay there and discuss with those pouring the wines. But if a tasting room is busy, you should step away from the counter and allow others to participate. I’ve left wineries before when I was unable to make my way to the front of the counter to actually taste their wines.

  2. John | September 12th, 2012 at 2:03 pm

    Thanks for your comments and suggestions. I hope you don’t mind if I use some of them the next time I write a post on this subject.

  3. Steve E. | September 12th, 2012 at 8:37 pm

    Use away, if you think they’re useful.
    I can’t agree more with your recommendation of having spit buckets available. It seems they’re harder to find in Woodinville, where wine tasting is a social event to some degree, than they are when I’ve been to the actual wineries in Yakima.

  4. Terry | September 12th, 2012 at 10:41 pm

    Speaking of giving the tasting room personnel leverage, one winery in Lk. Chelan has recently begun not giving tastng fee credit. Regardless of quantity purchased. Wow. Perhaps this change in marketing strategy is old news for those familiar with this winery, but it was a surprise this summer for us. We have purchased several cases in past years with credit given, but this year opted to drive a short way down the road and buy after being turned off by the no leverage policy. No taste, no case. Our group often splits a case, making it an easy sell for the winery. Naturally, the competing winery was thrilled to share their wines and offer the taste credit. Odd that the strategy was to sell tastes rather than a case at the other. Not an etiquette issue, but I wanted to share and encourage others to consider it ok to walk.

  5. John | September 13th, 2012 at 5:43 am

    Thanks for sharing your experience. Obviously it’s costing them some business, which hopefully have them rethinking this policy.

  6. AJP | September 13th, 2012 at 10:26 am

    John, Thanks for the great advice. Here’s a suggestion for visitors: Don’t wear perfume or cologne! This ruins the tasting experience for your fellow tasters.

  7. John | September 13th, 2012 at 10:42 am

    Thanks for the comment and another good suggestion.

  8. Sean | October 6th, 2012 at 2:36 pm

    “Make sure that your tasting room personnel are friendly, attentive, and knowledgeable.”

    John – you couldn’t have said it better than in #2 above.

    I just took my Dad and Father in Law on a trip to Walla Walla and we had a great time everywhere we went except one tasing room in downtown (north east end closer to Whitman). We had clearly bothered the tasting room attendant while she was busy doing, from what I could tell, nothing at all. When we walked in and over to their bar, she eventually made her way over to ask if she “could help [us]?” in the same tone one would answer the door for a door-to-door salesman whose just interupted Sunday dinner. And it only got worse from there. After less than 5 minutes, we left but hadn’t tasted all of their offerings. She was so surprised at this that she actually asked if something was wrong with wines. I told her “No, the WINE was fine.” Luckily this was an isolated incident. Everyplace else we went had terrific people. They really made all the difference.

  9. John | October 6th, 2012 at 7:05 pm

    Thanks for your comment. Wineries need to hear about real experiences like yours.

  10. Sarah | October 16th, 2012 at 11:01 pm

    Great article! As an owner of a Paso Robles wine tour company, we have seen it all. I also agree that above all, #2 is the most important. I have seen many people walk out without purchasing just because the staff did not have a good attitude. It’s a money killer every time.