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Jun 11, 2013 12:18 PM

Wine tasting at wineries

I am very excited about my upcoming trip to Napa. Someone mentioned that most of the wines we taste probably will need to be cellared a few years before they're ready to drink. So here's my question: When tasting wines before their prime, what am I looking for? How can people tell that a wine will be good in a few years?

Also, I have visited numerous wineries over the years without making appointments. I usually split a tasting with my companion. However, at the wineries we plan to visit, all require appointments and need to know how many are in our party. My feeling is that in these cases, it would be inappropriate to split tastings as they expect to make a certain amount of money for their time. What are your thoughts?

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  1. There's lots of posts on Napa wine tasting in the SF Bay Area board. Be sure to check those out.

    1. I can't taste wines way outside their prime. Ha! I wish I could be more helpful there. I know when the wine is closed (e.g. it has a spicy/peppery/maybe alcoholic nose and is mouth puckering on the palate), but at that point I'm not really sure what else there is to do except - try to aerate it more by swirling it in the glass a lot. If you have an appointment for a whole hour, just state hmm this is really closed to me right now and try and wait on it. Try to warm it up with your hands.

    A lot of times they'll either offer you cheese to absorb the tannins or they'll have decanted it or have an aerator on the bottle to help.

    All I can say is if you don't like it - don't buy it. Never rely on assurances that you'll like it later.

    2. Just tell the winery when you make the appointment that ya'll want to split the tasting. Some Napa wineries will say that it's per person and you can't split - but many are OK with it. There's no hard and fast rule but usually, the ones that come with a fancy tour or food pairing can't be split, but the wineries that just have to do appointments for permit reasons couldn't care less. Just ask.

    10 Replies
    1. re: goldangl95

      Yes, I have done extensive searches on the SF board. Most of the wineries I am visiting I discovered from Chowhound.

      I wasn't sure anyone would be able to answer my question about tasting young wines, but I thought I would give it a try. I realize it is certainly something I can bring up at the wineries while I am tasting. The wineries we are visiting are so highly recommended, I just don't want to pass up buying something just because it's too young right now, when it will be wonderful in a few years. I guess it can't be too much of a problem, however, since wineries seem to do just fine selling wines in their tasting rooms.

      We are doing a tour at Far Niente and a seminar at Joseph Phelps, so I know those are per person. It was the smaller wineries off-the-beaten-path we were thinking about, such as Keenan and Schweiger up on Spring Mtn. My understanding, and I could be wrong, is that they don't have dedicated staff at their wine tasting rooms all day, so when we make an appointment, we are taking staff away from their other duties.

      1. re: brandygirl

        Yeah it shouldn't be a problem for just a tasting but again I would just mention it when you schedule or call them and say - we are splitting just want to make sure it's not an issue.

        So far, I've only run into this issue once. I booked with a winery on Howell Mountain - there was no info on their website about the tasting fees - on the phone they mentioned the $45 tasting fee. The description of the tasting appointment was not extravagant - and all the wineries on Howell mountain require appointments so I assumed we could share.

        When I got there, they said it was $45 pp regardless - didn't matter if you shared (and you had to buy 3 bottles in order to waive 1 tasting fee). It resulted in some awkwardness as I had booked for a group, and we would have gone somewhere else if we'd known the tasting fees would be so steep.

        It's up to you if you want to spend money on a wine you don't like - betting that you will like it later. I don't like all high quality reds and it's a lot of money to spend e.g. ($75-150 a bottle) on something that you need to age 2 -5 years and still might not like.

        Maria Lorraine's suggestion about seeing if you can taste older vintages if everything of the recent years tastes too closed is a good one.

        1. re: goldangl95

          Since I have all along planned on not splitting tastings, if we can share, I consider that a bonus. I won't be shy about asking to share. Thanks for your input.

          1. re: goldangl95

            Interesting. I seldom buy at the winery, and have had all tasting fees waived in several AVA's, especially Napa. We always share, and have never had any issue. I have always booked individually, and never through any distributor, or retailer. I am just an individual with their wife in tow.

            As for library wines, after a bit of conversation, I often find that those appear, especially if it is not during the tourist crunch - a time that we are seldom in the wine country for many reasons. All that I have ever brought "to the party," has been a deep interest, great respect and a friendly attitude. I have always enjoyed the company of the wine makers, and the staff, and care as much about their wines, as they do. Most love to share with those who respect their wines, and appreciate them. Maybe I have always just been lucky, but enter a wine tasting room on a cold, rainy Feb. morning, and you will make great friends for life - friends who love their wines.


            1. re: Bill Hunt

              I sadly, have not had the same experience in Napa in the past two years. The service has been gracious, but I honestly have not experienced the routine waiving of tasting fees without bottle purchases.

              There is often some flexibility. For example, in the Howell mountain tasting I describe above that happened in January. The policy was $45 pp (regardless of sharing). One fee was waived with every 3 bottle purchase. The bottles were in the $85-110 range. In the end, our group of 4 bought perhaps 6 - 8 bottles - they waived all the tasting fees.

              So, flexibility happens. But there were awkward moments - e.g. when our host announced whether we shared or not we would each be charged the $45 fee.

              1. re: goldangl95

                This is greatly the exception, thankfully -- bozo guest treatment at the winery described by Goldang.

                1. re: goldangl95

                  Sorry that there have been differences. I have never had anything but the warmest of welcomes, and full accommodation from all Napa wineries. Now, and please remember, I am never there during "tourist season," and am often the only person in the tasting room - or maybe WE are the only people in the tasting room?


            2. re: brandygirl

              We often split tastings too, and will often go with one "reserve," and one "regular," sharing the two. There has never been an issue. I have never been charged for any tastings in Napa, none along the Santa Barbara - Monterey Central Coast, only a very few in Sonoma, one in Santa Cruz, and two in the Amador/Sierra Foothills, though I have offered my credit card. The charge was almost always waived.

              We also usually taste by appointment, with but a few exceptions.

              Far Niente should be nice. Last time there, I was with about 12 sommeliers, or food/beverage managers. I found it interesting that I was the only one, who really liked the young Chard (all others went for the older offerings), and the older Cabs (all others went with the youngest). Different palates I guess?

              Jos. Phelps is a favorite of ours, and we have done maybe a dozen tastings there. All have been a bit different, and unique. One day, while picking up a bunch of their Viognier and other Rhône varietals, we killed time by doing the offered tasting. The person leading that, asked us, and one other couple to stick around. He had a young PhD candidate, doing a special tasting for his thesis, and we agreed. That was great, and fun. Before we could leave and pick up our wines, the assistant winemaker asked us to stick around a bit longer. He brought out his personal wines, from his recently acquired vineyard - the first public tasting of his wines. Again, great and unique. Finally, we had to leave, as we needed to get back to SF that evening. One tasting, similar happened. After the "regularly scheduled" tasting, we were detained. Then, we were hosted to a 10 year vertical of Insignia. That was special, and I have no idea why we were singled out - remember, I am the guy, who was 1:12 twice, at Far Niente!



              Most of all, keep your reservations, and do not sweat the details. You will be fine. Do not hesitate to involve the host(s) in conversation, and especially about the wines. They will appreciate that more than someone just picking up a half-case, or a casual tourist, looking for a buzz.

              1. re: Bill Hunt

                Boy, would I love visiting wineries with you!

                Once in a while the server may bring a wine out from the back to try, but I've never had any kind of experience like you describe.

                My tasting fees have only been waived when I purchase wine, and even then, not always. Just the other day I drove up to the Santa Ynez Valley with a few friends for a day of tasting along Foxen Canyon. At our first winery, Curtis, we were there for a while having a nice conversation with the staff. I bought a couple bottles yet was charged for the tasting. That is rare, though.

                But I don't mind paying reasonable tasting fees. The first time I went to wineries for tasting was in Napa. It was so long ago that the wineries didn't charge tasting fees back then, and I don't think any required appointments. While it certainly was nice not having to pay for the tasting, I felt a little awkward if I didn't care for the wine and would buy a bottle that I didn't want. Therefore, with a modest tasting fee that is waived with purchase, I usually save money!

                1. re: brandygirl


                  I have no real "trade" affiliations, and unless someone at the winery recognized me from a previous visit, or from "way back when," I cannot explain the hospitality.

                  Once, at St. Clement, the tasting room host DID remember me from a cold, rainy Feb. visit, in June (not normally when I would be there), but that was the exception.

                  With Jos. Phelps, I was a member of their "wine club," and had been to the winery maybe a half-dozen times, but I doubt that anyone recognized me from then - could be wrong, but just cannot imagine it.



          2. 1. Tasting wines before their prime; how can you tell if the wine will be good?

            You're referring to red wines that have been oaked. Most likely you will be served several vintages of the same wine, and at least one vintage that is ready, or near-ready. This lets you see what a wine that is too-young will become.

            A longer answer to your question is found here, and that has to do with how does one evaluate a red wine when it mostly tastes like oak and nothing else:

            Using older vintages to judge a newer one works well if the wines are from the exact same vineyard or type, and the vintages have been fairly similar. Unfortunately, the 2010 and 2011 vintages were weaker than usual in Napa, so they may not resolve in the same way as prior years. But taste those vintages anyway to see you if you like them (not all the wines are weak). The 2007-2009 reds are tasting well. The Reserve wines will always be a year or two older than the regular releases, so they will be further along in aging.

            Ask questions. The white wines won't be an issue.

            2. Making appointments for how many?

            You always make appointments for the number in your party, not for the number of persons who will be tasting. The reason is seating, to make sure everyone has a place to sit. Those who are not tasting will still have glassware, and will be served water.

            Other reasons are staffing (to make sure there is an employee designated for your group), and space (to make the sure the tasting room bar is not crowded with your group alone).

            You can say when you arrive at the winery, "There are eight of us; five are tasting." It is perfectly fine to split a tasting between two (not more) people. Don't worry about the winery making money; they do.

            Another reason you give the total number of persons in your party is because the number of tasters in your party can very depending on the day or the winery.

            E.g.: One person is a designated driver one day but a taster the next. Another person is tasting that day, but not at a winery whose wines he dislikes or feels merely so-so about. Another person drinks only red wine and the winery makes only white. Yet another person doesn't want to over-indulge after a couple of previous winery visits. So the count will be different each day and at each winery.

            6 Replies
            1. re: maria lorraine

              Thanks for the link to the barrel tasting discussion. I will try to taste the Reserve wines if possible; that is a good idea. Thank you. I'm travelling with my sister, so it will be just the two of us tasting. From what you and goldangle95 say, it seems to be not so much an issue to share tastings, which is good to know. I don't want to be rude or disrespectful. It sounds like we can always ask. If they say 'no,' it's really no big deal for us. Thank you.

              1. re: brandygirl

                IRT your itinerary and tasting: Far Niente's wines are like silk, no need to "extrapolate" to figure out what they might be after aging. Phelps' wines run the range from delightfully friendly summer wines (love these) that are ready to drink from Day One to inky wines that require a good deal of aging (Insignia). Also try their dessert wines. Keenan and Schweiger also offer rather resolved wines, so the issue of aging won't be an issue. You might try one other visit while on Spring Mountain. You sound quite respectful and curious -- you'll do fine.

                1. re: maria lorraine

                  That is good to know, thanks for the information. You just reminded me that I did have a Joseph Phelps Eisrebe once, given to me four or five years ago, and it was delicious. I had completely forgotten about it!

                  And I have other wineries I'm visiting--I'm spending an entire day on Spring Mountain and am so excited. I actually posted my complete itinerary on the SFO board a short while ago.

                  1. re: maria lorraine

                    <<You sound quite respectful and curious -- you'll do fine.>>

                    I completely agree. That goes a very, very long way - more than many can possibly imagine.

                    Good tip,


                2. re: maria lorraine


                  As always, great points, and well worth passing on.

                  Prognosticating the development of a wine is a bit science, a bit art and then a lot of guessing. We do a lot of barrel tastings, and I am always amazed how those same wines taste upon release. I have gotten many right, but have just flat missed the boat on some others - dang, they tasted so good, or so harsh from the barrel - and look at 'em now!

                  [Caution - male chauvanistic alert here] It is like meeting the "plain girl" from your high school class, who has really bloomed. It happens to me all of the time.

                  Your link does provide a lot of very useful info, and even a novice wine taster should benefit from it.

                  Still, few of us are trying to establish a profile of a wine, for purchase in quantity, for our restaurant, or wine shop. Most are there for the knowledge and the enjoyment of the experience. I am in that boat, though I might be looking for a few personal cases for my cellar.

                  Even the "experts" can get it wrong. I think back to the 1985 vintage for Port. Almost every writer and critique deemed it "the vintage of the decade," or even "the century." It turned out to be good, but never rose to great. They were enjoyable, but never lived up to their hype. I was very glad that my wife likes her Ports young, as we finished most of many cases, before I realized that they would probably never realize their stated potential. One just never quite knows.

                  One thing that I did not see, and feel might be worthy of a comment, is the number of tastings in a day. I limit myself to no more than four, and feel that three is probably more of an ideal - one in the AM, then lunch, and finally two in the PM. I have had days, where one in the AM and one in the PM worked out perfectly. Heck, I have had days, where I arrived, tasted, was invited to lunch with the staff, then did more tastings, so really only one extended tasting that day. Trying to squeeze in too many tastings, even with a car and driver, can ruin much of the fun. Now, "trade tasting" are another matter, but I no longer do those with any frequency. It's like judging a wine competition - not as much fun, as many might think.

                  Just some personal observations.

                  Thank you for your comments,


                  1. re: Bill Hunt

                    You are right about limiting the number of wineries. Usually four is my limit also. However, on this trip, I am spending one full day on Spring Mountain and have reservations at five wineries. It is too much, but on the other hand I cannot decide out of the five which one to skip--there are just too many wineries and not enough time!

                3. The vast majority of California wines are made to be drunk upon release.

                  Only a tiny fraction are made to require aging before they're ready to drink. Unless you sought them out you could easily spend a week tasting and not encounter any of them.

                  There are French and Italian appellations where that's more common. Some years ago I went to a tasting of a bunch of Côte-Rôties that had just been released and probably needed at least six years to come around. They were uniformly closed, dumb, and quite unpleasant. I think to learn to judge wines in that phase you'd have to taste them regularly over a number of vintages so you could eventually relate the mature wines to what they were like when young.

                  18 Replies
                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                    That is good to know. I have two wine refrigerators filed with bordeaux that need aging. What I am short on is wine to drink now!

                    1. re: brandygirl

                      In Napa Valley, you will find many wines -- especially the Cabernets, Merlots, Syrahs and Petite Sirahs -- that are not ready to drink.

                      They need time for the oak to resolve. Drinkability depends a great deal on the varietal and winemaking.

                      There are also many wines, including Cabs, that are ready to drink. Those wines that are ready to drink can often use one to three years of aging to become even better. Ask about aging a particular wine at the winery.

                      1. re: maria lorraine

                        There are certainly a lot of California reds that don't drink well on release, but I'm skeptical that they'll develop in the cellar the way wines from the mid-90s and earlier did.

                        Ripeness, alcohol levels, and in some cases percentage of and time in new oak have increased so much that they're starting from a very different place.

                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                          I'm sharing my experience on releases in the past 5 years, especially.

                          ...and 20+ years of living in Napa Valley. I often taste vintages as far back as 1960.

                          1. re: maria lorraine

                            I'm describing my experience with vintages back to the 60s.

                            If a 2009 tastes pretty good to you in the tasting room, it might taste better in a few years.

                            If it tastes hot and cloying and makes you want to rinse your mouth, you probably won't like it much better after it ages.

                            If it's tight, hard, and closed, it's hard to guess if you haven't had long experience with similar wines.

                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                              I don't quite agree with this, but do not wish to argue with you.

                          2. re: Robert Lauriston


                            IMHO, most of them have developed, and many very nicely.


                            1. re: Bill Hunt

                              It's a matter of taste. Obviously many people like the new-style wines or they'd stop making them like that. I prefer the old school.


                              1. re: Robert Lauriston


                                I completely agree. That is the beauty of wine - to each, their own. I like this, you like that. Zin likes this, and ML likes that. Such beauty.

                                I have greatly enjoyed wines from around MOST of the globe, and try not to pass premature judgement, until I have sampled.

                                Over the decades, I have been fortunate to taste the wine of GR, IT, FR and the US, from about the 1960's, with but a very few before that.

                                Some of the 1985 US Cab-based wines have shown very well against similar from FR. The Ridge Monte Bello '85 was a hands-down winner vs some 2er Cru Bordeaux in a blind tasting for my International Wine & Food Society chapter tasting. We did not trot it out against the 1er Cru offerings from that vintage.

                                As you so correctly assert, it IS "a matter of taste."


                                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                  Robert, that article you cited is five years old. Since that time, many more winemakers have reverted back to making more refined, lower-alcohol wines. It seems their own palates have changed!

                                  1. re: ChefJune

                                    People keep telling me that things have changed, that California reds are now balanced and lower in alcohol, but to my palate that's true only relative to the most egregious excesses of 2002-2008. It's still mostly the usual suspects that are making Cabernet Sauvignon in the style I like.

                                    Could be some of that change is still in the pipeline. Lots of current high-end releases are from 2008 and earlier.

                        2. re: Robert Lauriston

                          <The vast majority of California wines are made to be drunk upon release.>

                          That is true, but those are not likely the wines one goes to wineries to taste. At least I surely don't. I find many of the tete de cuvees of Napa wineries (and Sonoma and Paso too) benefit from a number of years on their sides...

                          1. re: ChefJune

                            I agree. When talking about "the vast majority" of CA wines, one is mainly talking about "bulk wines."

                            I would never try to compare "California" wines, with the high-end offerings from Napa. That is, no more that I would compare a Vin de Table Français with a DRC offering. That would never be even close to fair.


                            1. re: Bill Hunt

                              Obviously cheaper wines are all made to be drunk upon release, but the same is true for virtually all higher-quality wines as well.

                              Only a handful of California wineries make wines that need to be laid down for some years before they're ready to drink. A minority of those are aged by the winery (e.g. Kalin Cellars) and released when ready.

                              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                <<Only a handful of California wineries make wines that need to be laid down for some years before they're ready to drink.>>

                                Not in my experience. The most expensive Cabs, often the Reserves (since we're discussing Napa Valley) almost always need a few years. The Insignia needs 10 at least. Others usually need 3 to 7 years for the oak to become integrated, and for other flavors to come forward.

                                Even less expensive wines need a bit of time to resolve. True, there are some wines that are ready to drink upon release, but those often benefit from a couple years of aging too.

                                1. re: maria lorraine

                                  I taste aged high-end California Cabernet Sauvignons fairly often, and outside of the usual old-school suspects the post-1996 vintages always seem unbalanced and unpleasant to me.

                                  It's clear from your posts here that you're some sort of industry insider. I wonder if your opinions aren't being swayed by that.

                                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                    I was sharing my many years of experience with when Napa Valley wines are ready to drink, and whether or not they could benefit from aging. As the Reserve Cabernets and Cabernets are the most expensive wines that Napa Valley has to offer, it's important to drink them at their most beautiful, which usually means several years of aging after purchase.

                                    I taste a lot of Napa Valley wine, but I am beholden to no region or winery or winemaker. I do seek out excellence and beauty, at all price points and from all points of the globe.

                                    1. re: maria lorraine


                                      While not so much, as in years past, we have experienced the exact same thing - many (most?) higher-end Cal Cabs do benefit from a few years in the cellar.

                                      Talking to winemakers, like Staglin (3 - 5 for the Chardonnays and 4 - 8 for the Cabs) and Schrader (two recent examples) yield the same suggestions, with which I agree. Even some of the Rhône varietal producers in the US, suggest 3 - 5 years, before drinking.

                                      Just my experience,


                        3. I just returned from my trip to Napa. Tasted some incredible wines and bought far more than I expected.

                          At most of the wineries on our trip, reserve wines were not available to taste, so I could not tell what the red wines might taste like in a few years. When starting each tasting, I asked if the red wines were ready to drink now or if they needed aging. A few said they are ready to drink but could be aged, but most wouldn't really answer my question--they said I should taste and decide for myself if they were ready.

                          Most of the red wines I tasted were, in my estimation, not ready to drink yet--or maybe they just needed to be enjoyed with food, especially the Cabs, which I tend to only drink with meals.

                          The tasting fee/splitting was not an issue anywhere. We bought wine at each winery, so the fee was waived except for the Joseph Phelps seminar, which was expected.

                          Thank you to all. You helped make our trip fabulous!

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: brandygirl

                            Thanks for the report.

                            As for "aged wines," (either red, or white), the appreciation is tied to the taster. Some folk appreciate some age, where others do not - and for the exact same wines. It's very personal.

                            I love a Vintage Port with a good 20 years of aging, while my wife loves hers young (a "Wine Cougar?"). Different appreciations, for different folk.

                            When it comes to US red wines, I am probably more tolerant of young ones, but there are exceptions. With US whites, there are more, that I DO want to drink near the release.

                            With Euro-wines, there are more whites, that I like to age a bit. For instance, I think that the '05 Montrachets (especially the 1er Crus) are drinking beautifully now. Not so many US Chardonnays from '05 fit that bill. Still, I have encountered some US whites that DID taste great, with some cellar age. They might not have needed it, and did change into different wines, than when they were young, but still very enjoyable, at least to my palate.

                            It's personal.

                            Most of all, sounds like you had fun, and THAT is what is should be about.


                            PS - When I would travel to Napa, to clean out my wine locker, and stop by a few wineries, I also found that I ended up buying more new wines, than anticipated. That just happens!