There's an episode of Netflix's Friends from College where the group of 40-year-olds pile into a party bus to partake in the wineries of Long Island. By midway through, everyone is inebriated and miserable, muscling down glasses of wines they hate. It was both hilariously absurd and utterly terrible.
The characters' intent was obviously intoxication over appreciation. But, watching from the Niagara peninsula, smack dab in the midst of vineyards, I couldn't get past the frustration of how they wasted their time, fictitious or not. Tours and guided tastings are ubiquitous in wine regions, and each presents an opportunity. To that end, I called upon two friends, accomplished in the industry, for their expert tips.
Suzanne Janke, estate director of Stratus Vineyards in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., advises preparation before you go. "Do some research in advance. No matter how much you know about wine, there is always a nuance, a style, an approach that each vineyard employs that is worth discovering." Use this knowledge to choose tours that specifically appeal to you. Look beyond the grape, to aspects such as terroir, sustainability or history; an alignment of values or areas of interest will help you build a rapport with your guide.
Sommelier Astra Marchi, from Treadwell Cuisine, also in Niagara-on-the-Lake, is an advocate for small producers, and hands-on, family-run wineries. She also champions dropping in during the grape harvest, when wineries are not as crowded. "[You'll have] more attention from staff and there's greater likelihood winemaker is on property. We're excited to talk about vintage and varietals as we pull them in from the vineyard." If visiting in warmer months, she encourages packing an ice-filled cooler for both reds and whites if bottles are to be in the car for an extended period.
Resist the temptation to pack your schedule. Be intentional in your choices and remember less is often more. "Soak up a good amount of information at a few select vineyards and then put what you've learned into action by exploring the region as a local," Janke suggests.
Once you have set your agenda, let the professionals do their thing. Step back and let them take the lead on the conversation. Their expertise is an asset. Take advantage.
Case in point: I was in France over the summer as part of a planning trip for The Globe and Mail's river cruise next year. The scouting stops were often brief, and in those condensed experiences relying upon the guides proved essential in the discovery of the best an area had on offer. At M. Chapoutier, in Tain-l'Hermitage in the Rhône region, the host let the group sample a wine usual to their tours; it was after listening to our response that she then pulled another bottle, a 2015 Chante-Alouette. While young, it had a startling intensity. It was a wine that I never would have selected from their extensive list, and yet it was a highlight of the trip, and a bottle I've sought out in Canada (it is available in Quebec and British Columbia).
Another tip is to eat before tastings. Consider even stashing a few crackers in a bag to keep along, especially if you are accustomed to wine with food. And, don't be afraid to spit, or leave some wine in your glass.
Take notes, especially when tasting multiple wines or visiting multiple wineries. After a full day, details will get lost. (I am fond of using an app such as Paper by FiftyThree – with it, I can take a quick photo of a label, and type in any thoughts directly below.)
Marchi stresses the importance of keeping an open mind while tasting. "Try not to judge a wine on your first sip. Take some time with it. Consider that your palate is more sensitive in the morning versus afternoon or evening, and what you've had before tasting will affect your perception of what's currently in your glass. Think orange juice first thing in the morning after brushing your teeth."
Ask about prices or set a budget, if you are looking to take some wine home. When ready to buy, inquire about wine clubs or subscriptions offered by the winery; they will often extend special pricing or limited releases, and many will ship directly to your home, member or not.
If you're buying a bottle to cellar, Marchi abides by a rule of three. "Buy three bottles: one to drink now, one to drink when you think it's ready and one to drink when it's actually ready. I'm guilty of impatience, and wishing I had another bottle to open later." Ask the winery for guidance as to when a bottle will be at its peak. "Sometimes I write the year directly on the wine label or a quick note as a reminder."