Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Wine Tasting for Beginners

So, you want to go to a winery, but you’re intimidated by the potential presence of the wine snobs?  Relax!  You can do this!  Everyone starts somewhere, and you have made the wise choice of doing a little bit of research to make your day less stressful, because really, there should be no stress in wine tasting.  There are three main steps to get through when going on your first wine tour; 1) Choose the wineries that you want to go to, 2) Choose the wines you want to taste, and 3) Decide to make (or not make) a purchase.

Choosing the Wineries:

A lot of first timers will choose to go on an official guided wine tour.  These tours are a very good option for several reasons.  First, they eliminate any need to pre-plan a route as most tours come with a set itinerary of wineries that they visit based on day of the week and time of day.  You merely book with the tour operator and they do the rest.  Second, they eliminate the need for a designated driver.  And third, they keep you on schedule.  There are also defined limitations to tours with an operator as well.  The most glaring is the loss of flexibility and control over your day.  For that reason alone, if you have access to a designated driver and are a bit of a control freak like me, I recommend planning your own tour.

If you decide to go it alone (with friends and a DD, of course), your next job is to choose the wineries you intend to visit.  You can plan on hitting 3-4 wineries in one afternoon, depending on the number of wines you sample at each winery.  Is there any winery that you’ve been dying to visit?  Do you have a favorite wine that you would like to re-sample?  Is there a particular area of Niagara you would like to visit? (Grimsby? Jordan? Lincoln? Niagara-on-the-Lake? Pelham?)  Once you have a general idea of where you want to be, choose some of the medium size wineries to start at and get your feet wet.  Going to the medium sized guys gives you some familiarity with “the process” without feeling intimidated by the potential marketing and sheer size of the larger wineries.  Finish the day at one of the larger wineries, perhaps with a light meal on their patio.  Save the smallest wineries for your second or third time out.

Choose the Wines you want to taste:

You have selected the wineries and are about to walk through their doors into a delicious new world.  Once you go through, we all know that there is no turning back.  What next?  Once inside, there will be the inevitable wall of wine for sale.  Many choose to peruse this wall, aimlessly wandering about, waiting for someone to guide them.  Don’t be that guy/gal.  Once inside, do a quick scan of the room, note any wine promotions that may be of interest, and make your way to the tasting bar/counter.  At the bar, your server will provide you with a “tasting menu”, the list of wines that are available for tasting that day.  Not all wines are open every day, they could never maintain quality tasting that way.  If you have particular preferences on what you drink and they are on the list, ask for them.  If not, ask the server what the winery is known for or if they have a “signature” wine.  Don’t be afraid to let them know you are a beginner, they will be gentle.  When tasting, don’t gulp, please sip.  But don’t worry about swirling or gurgling or assessing the bouquet, etc.  That will come with experience.  Beginners aren’t expected to do that.  Relax!  Your server will walk you through the rest of the tasting process.  They will talk about foods that pair well with each wine, whether they want to drink it in the summer on a patio, or with a big fat steak, etc.  (Note: Prepare to be hungry by the end of the afternoon.  Planning a stop at a local grocery store to purchase various cheeses, smoked salmon, and steaks on the way home is an excellent idea.) 

Deciding to Make (or not make) a purchase:

Once you have finished tasting, your server will ask if you want to purchase any of the wines you tasted.  If you decide not to make a purchase, you will be asked to pay for your tastings, told to come back soon, and sent happily on your merry way.  If you decide to purchase one (or more) of the wines you tasted (or ones you didn’t taste, too), your tasting fee will normally be waived.  You will pay for your bottles, and again, be told to come back soon, and sent happily on your merry way.  Obviously, the goal of the winery is to sell you wine, but most wineries are very respectful of the large amount of tasters that come through their doors, and there is little sales pressure.  If you have no interest in purchasing any of the wines you tasted, there really is no need to do so.  On the other hand, if you can envision yourself repeatedly enjoying a particular wine, there is no better time to buy a case of it!  (Frequently, wineries will throw in some sort of small freebie if you do.)

Once you are taken with the notion that you want to visit some wineries, there really is no reason not to go.  If chance or good planning lands you in the Niagara region, take advantage of the opportunity.  Book a tour, or choose a few wineries on your own, get yourself through the front door and taste!  There are 81 wineries in the Niagara region, each with its own unique flavour or location.  Take an afternoon and explore.  If you are still unsure of yourself or how to get started, I would be happy to walk you through the process!


  1. Of course you would be happy to walk someone through the process!

  2. Now Zubes, old or new, I'm *always* there for a friend in need... :)

  3. You will walk some one through the process as long as you are not the DD:p