With over 13,000 acres of vineyards and 80 tasting rooms, Sonoma Valley offers fantastic wine tasting options to explore. Specializing in wines like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel, there is sure to be a taste that works for you.
When you’re planning your visit, it’s always a good idea to not only understand a little bit about Sonoma Valley wines but also how to get the most out of your time here—and that starts with some tasting etiquette. Below are ten tips for your next tasting experience in Sonoma Valley. When you show up like a pro, you’re sure be treated like one!
Rule #1: Give yourself the gift of a designated driver
Driving under the influence is a bad idea no matter where you are. So do yourself a favor, and take advantage of all of the transportation options in Sonoma Valley! It’s a sure way to get where you want to go without any worries. Whether you ride the Sonoma Valley Wine Trolley, book a limousine or town car, or hire a designated driver to drive your own car, you won’t miss a beat. Also, if you want to up the ante on your fun factor, consider some less traditional modes of transportation like a VW bus or a motorcycle sidecar!
Rule #2: For the best experience, make an appointment before you arrive
While there are quite a few wineries that accept walk-ins, making an appointment ahead of time is a great way to ensure that you’ll get the time and attention you deserve. Feel free to consult the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau website to take a peek at your options ahead of time, then look at the individual winery websites to get a feel for the experience. Also, be sure to consult the FAQs on our website to determine the best winery or tasting room for the experience you want to have, whether you want to find a kid-friendly winery or enjoy a picnic while you’re there. Booking appointments is a great way to ensure that, no matter how busy a winery may be, that they have time devoted entirely to you.
Rule #3: Don’t drink on an empty stomach
Before you arrive at a tasting room or winery, it’s always smart to make sure you’ve had a good meal to start the day. Tasting on an empty tummy is the fastest way to over-imbibe, and believe the pros: there’s nothing worse than a wine hangover! When you drink responsibly, with food in your stomach, you can manage to taste more with less fear of indulging too much.
Wineries that serve food offer anything from wood-fired pizzas to gourmet sit-down tasting menus. Some wineries sell snacks and picnic lunches. And some wineries have picnic areas where you can bring in your own food while enjoying a bottle of wine. Consult the winery website or call them directly if you have questions about their offerings. Assuming you can bring your own food without speaking with the winery first is a big no-no, and please: never, never bring a bottle of wine from a different winery to drink on premise.
Rule #4: Refrain from wearing strong scents or eating strong flavors before your tasting
This probably sounds unnecessarily strict, but any wine professional will tell you that scented body products, from perfumes to aftershave, leave a cloud of scent around you that interferes with the tasting process not only for you, but for everyone around you. If you want to keep your tastebuds bright, also be careful to not brush your teeth too close to your tasting appointment. In that same vein, eating mints or chewing gum before your tasting can also be a detriment to your experience, as the strength of the oils used in those products cling to the palate and eclipse the taste of the wines. There’s nothing worse than an elegant Chardonnay that wreaks of Old Spice aftershave or Colgate toothpaste!
Rule #5: Tasting rooms are different from bars
When you show up to a tasting room, the tasting room staff will present you with a menu of options to choose from. Larger wineries tend to offer different tasting packages at different price tiers, while smaller wineries offer you a selection of anywhere from three to six wines to choose from. It’s common for most wineries to pour 2 ounces in your glass—that’s about a third of a normal glass of wine. So when you have three pours, that’s the equivalent of an entire glass. Because wine tasting is also meant to be an educational experience, it means that it’s polite to keep your voice low so that others can enjoy their experience, as well. Loud bar voices are off-putting in this setting.
Sometimes at the end of a tasting, the staff might ask you if you’d like to retry any of the wines you’ve tasted. This offer is at their discretion, and it is by no means mandatory. If you want to drink more of a particular wine after your tasting is complete, you may purchase a bottle. Best of all, when you make a purchase of two or more bottles, you’ll oftentimes be comped or discounted on your tasting fee.
Rule #6: Get curious
Tasting room hosts love it when you’re interested in their wines. Before they pour your selection, they’ll likely tell you a story about the wine first. They have a strong education in the wines they represent, and often times, they have great knowledge of other wines and wineries in Sonoma Valley. So, by all means, use them as a resource for all your juicy questions! Whatever they cannot answer, they will ask someone who can. So before you gulp down your taste, make a little space for listening first—it will absolutely improve your appreciation of the wines!
Part of the winery touring experience means learning about what happens in the vineyards and how grapes grow. It means learning about what happens in the winery and the amazing alchemical effect of turning grape juice into wine. And it means learning about what’s happening to your tastebuds while you’re tasting. Use all of your senses, let yourself wonder, and see where your curiosity takes you—you’re in the heart of Wine Country! Pro tip: read A Sonoma Valley Wine Primer before you go to get you started on a few basics!
Rule #7: Please be patient
The beauty of Sonoma Valley is that we enjoy a quieter and slower pace of life—that’s what locals love about living here, and that’s the pace most visitors love to embrace on their vacations here. But in the summer months, when the tasting rooms are busier, it’s possible that you may feel a little impatient. Our hospitality teams work hard to ensure you have an authentic experience. Please be patient, refrain from unnecessary urgency, and be sure that we’re doing everything we can to make sure you’re comfortable and happy. Once you embrace the pace of life here, you may never want to leave!
Rule #8: Pace yourself, know your limits, and drink lots of water
Depending on your personal tolerance for alcohol, it’s normal to feel the effects after your tasting experience. Couple that with another tasting or two throughout the day at different wineries, and then all of a sudden, you’re likely past your limit. Water should be available to you throughout your tasting, so be sure to ask for some when you feel you’re feeling woozy. More importantly, know that you don’t have to drink all the wine that is poured for you – it’s ok to dump the wine you don’t finish or which you don’t like. Pro tip: If you want to go the distance, taste the wine, swirl it in your mouth, and then spit it in a designated dump bucket or spittoon. You’ll still be able to taste the wine but without the excess alcohol.
As mentioned above, wineries and tasting rooms are places for great fun and enjoyment, but also for education and art appreciation. Please be on your best behavior so you can continue to enjoy all the fruits of Sonoma Valley without the literal— or proverbial— headache.
Rule #9: Please ask before strolling the grounds
When on a beautiful swath of land surrounded by stunning vineyards, it’s totally normal to want to stroll the grounds and have a look around. This said, vineyard and wineries are farms, and as such, are filled with dangerous equipment at every turn. Tractors, fermentation tanks, and other equipment are all accorded a healthy respect by winemaking professionals aware of their dangers. So, please ask before strolling the grounds, and don’t let kids or dogs roam freely. Some wineries offer larger tours of the vineyards or cellars, which can make for an outstanding educational experience. Look on the winery’s website or call them directly to find out what is available if that kind of tour is appealing to you. Bonus tip: some wineries like St. Francis Winery have self-guided tours of their vineyards along a marked route, while Loxton Winery in Glen Ellen will show off their crush pad during harvest. Check their websites for more details.
Rule #10: Thanks for the tip!
Tasting room staff work hard to ensure you have the best experience possible. If a tasting room host has been especially educational or helpful, please consider leaving them a tip. If you’ve had a great time, it’s customary to leave $5 per person. If you don’t purchase anything or if you’ve received a coupon or discount for the tasting, then it’s polite to leave $10 per person. Tips for larger groups over eight people are highly recommended.