Wine Tasting Strategies

Strategies for Wine Tasting in California Wine Country

Friends tasting wine at a cellar
••• Wine Tasting With a Sommelier. andresr / Getty Images

The area generally referred to as California's "Wine Country," Napa and Sonoma counties, has hundreds of wineries and covers an area of about three hundred square miles. A visitor could easily spend weeks here, tasting world-class wines and enjoying the restaurants and activities, but you can also get a good feel for the area in a one-day trip. We've put together some lists of wineries that offer the best visitor experience by area:

How to Make the Most Out of Your Wine Tasting Trip

Before you go wine-tasting, decide why you're going.

  • Do you want to learn more about wines and how they're made? Take one of our recommended winery tours.
  • Do you want to visit specific wineries? Search out their website, check their hours and find out if they require reservations (many do).
  • Or do you just want to have a nice day and drink a little wine along the way? See Casual Wine-Tasting below.
  • Do you want to buy or sample a specific type of wine? See our tips below for targeting specific wine types.

Casual Wine-Tasting

The easy wine-tasting approach in Napa Valley is to drive along Highway 29, stopping at a few places, perhaps those whose name you've heard, or ones that looks nice. Using this strategy, you'll probably have a nice time, but this random walk is unlikely to lead you to the best that Napa Valley has to offer, the special places among the hundreds of wineries you pass along the way.

We've taken the help of a professional Wine County tour guide to create a list of truly special, beautiful, educational and fun wineries. Click on over to the Napa Valley list or the Sonoma Valley list and in a few minutes, you can put together a wine-tasting trip you'll never forget.

Targeting Specific Wine Types

If you want to sample specific types of wines such as chardonnay or pinot noir, you might as well taste the best.

A one-month paid subscription to the Wine Spectator online costs less than $10 and will give you access to an excellent search tool that can help you zero in on places to visit. The specific vintages listed may be out of stock, but if a winery shows up often, they probably know how to make that type well.

After you've picked a winery, check its wine tasting policies and hours. Don't be shy about calling for an appointment if it's required. Often, it's not the winery being snooty, but rather the conditions of their license that doesn't allow drop-in visitors.

If you goal is to sample and buy, looking for some great new finds, try some of the wine tasting bars in downtown Napa or elsewhere that offer a wide variety of wines from boutique wineries that don't have their own tasting rooms.

Wine Tasting Tips

  • Most Napa Valley wineries charge at least $20 for a bar tasting, or even more. You will usually chose three to six wines from a list of ten or so, getting a small amount of each. If you're traveling with someone who doesn't mind sharing your glass, try these ideas to stretch your tasting dollar. Buy one wine tasting and both sip from the same glass, or get a taste of twice as many wines if you each pay to taste and ask for different wines.
  • Don't be hesitant to pour out the rest of a wine from your glass after you're done with it. The pourer won't be offended. In fact, they're likely to think you're a serious wine-taster and they might even bring out something special for you to try.
  • Professionals never swallow when wine tasting. There's a reason for that - they don't want to get intoxicated. Our simple rule for casual wine tasting: never go to more than three wineries in a day. Stop at more, and not only are you likely to get a little tipsy (dangerous for driving), but even if you don't, all the wines start to taste alike, and you may buy something you'll later regret.
  • To keep from getting dehydrated, take along bottled water. After every winery stop, drink at least the same amount of water as the wine you consumed.
  • It also helps to go wine tasting on a full stomach, which slows the alcohol absorption.
  • If you plan to buy some wine, you'll need to keep it cool. In as little as half an hour, even on a cool but sunny day, the inside of a car can get hot enough to "cook" that nice bottle of wine you bought. Bring along a cooler or a styrofoam wine shipping container to hold your bottles.