Wine Country Uncorked: How to Pour, Sniff and Sip Like a Pro
You’ve booked your 100-point Vineyard Vacation, and now Jetsetter is uncorking the art of wine tasting and winery visits with our panel of experts. Sniff or swirl first? Sip or spit? Follow our oenophiles’ advice and you’ll pour, sniff and sip like a pro on your vino-soaked vacay.
Jetsetter’s Wine Country Uncorked panel, from left to right, top to bottom:
• Jim Goodman, Los Angeles-based co-founder of Cor.kz, an iPhone app providing information on more than 1,000,000 bottles.
• Nicole Kosta, Wine Director at Mandarin Oriental San Francisco
• Jimena Turner, Director of Education at Alamos Winery at the foot of the Andes in Mendoza, Argentina.
• Kevin Doucet, co-founder of San Francisco’s Dogpatch WineWorks, an urban winery connecting wine enthusiasts with growers throughout California and equipment to make their own custom wines.
What’s the biggest mistake people make at their first winery visit?
NK: Just showing up at a winery. When you’re traveling to learn about wine, connect with your hotel’s concierge or sommelier first, and if they can’t set up appointments ask for a contact. A local connection can help set you up with a more intimate experience or even secure perks like tasting an older vintage.
JG: Don’t pretend that you know something when you don’t. The people in wineries or tasting rooms are geeks — they want to talk about the wine and educate you. So let them do it.
JT: Exactly! Drinking wine should never be intimidating, and wineries open their doors so they can share their passion and knowledge. It’s also a great cultural experience — each winery is a reflection of the region’s people and their traditions.
Ok, let’s settle tasting etiquette once and for all: To spit or not to spit?
KD: I never spit after 6 p.m. Rules to live by.
NK: Absolutely spit if you are driving or in for a full day of tasting. But if you love a wine, sip it!
JT: Depends on how many wines you’re tasting — spit if you want to be sure to catch important aromas and flavors later in the day.
Give us your tasting ritual.
JT: First, bring an open mind. Throw away preconceptions of what you think a varietal should be.
KD: Keep it simple. Take a look at the wine – is it cloudy or hazy? If so, there’s something wrong. Then take a good sniff, but don’t try to analyze anything. All that matters is whether or not you like it. Is it pleasing? Would you want to go beyond a sniff and have a sip?
NK: Be conscious of the sip. Let it roll around in your mouth so it covers all your taste buds.
What’s your top tip for discovering new wines in your travels?
JG: I look for side projects by winemakers who have a day job making wine for a big high-end winery. I love a Napa Valley wine called Prime from Prime Cellars, but the winemaker is from Jarvis.
NK: I look for wines that are special and tell a story about the vineyard, winemaker or region. In California, it’s all about fun and innovation. At Mandarin Oriental San Francisco we’ve tried to capture that in our own Hirsch Vineyards blend of Prelation Pinot Noir (we’re on our third vintage). Another bottle that represents that spirit is Fatta a Mano Dolcetto 2009 from Mendocino.
JT: Yes, look for grapes native to the region you’re visiting, like Argentina’s Torrontés grape. Alamos’s Torrontés has citrus and stone fruit flavors and bright acidity that make it a delicious wine on summer nights. You smell the floral aromas when you open the bottle — it’s like a perfume.
What comes first, the bottle or the dish? And how do you choose when the restaurant’s wine list is thick as a novel?
NK: It depends how many bottles you’re going to drink. If multiple, I recommend starting with a bottle of bubbly or something light to get your palate excited, and then consider the style of food and pair accordingly.
JG: I find that starting with a nice single malt scotch sometimes takes the edge off that tough choice. But oftentimes, the best thing to do is ask the sommelier about their wine list.
KD: That’s why tastings at wineries and wine shops are so important — you’ll learn about the wines without any preconceived notions and then you’ll recognize wines and wineries when it’s time to order.
JT: Sometimes your destination will make the right pairings for you. In Mendoza we love our asado and our iconic Malbec grapes. The grapes grown in Mendoza’s high-altitude vineyards have thicker skins to protect them from the sun and it gives the wine a dark fruit flavor that goes perfect with steak and chimichurri.
We have three Californians here. What do we need to know about Cali Wine Country?
KD: The great thing about Napa is that you can really visit any time. If you’re looking for the great weather, go from spring to November. I actually prefer to go in the wintertime when the tasting rooms are less crowded and reservations are easier to get. And then — ahem — there are a lot of urban wineries in the Bay Area if you’re short on time or unable to go to Napa.
JG: Check out Sonoma’s Central Coast. One up-and-comer I love there is Dragonette. They do a couple whites and some Pinots from individual vineyards, which have a really interesting flavor. And they’re quite pretty.
NK: Sonoma Valley hosts one of my favorite wineries in the world, Hanzell, which makes outstanding chardonnays and pinot noir.
Leave us with juicy factoid to impress at our next dinner party.
KD: For vocab, I like beraison. In viticulture it refers to the grape post flowering and post budding. This is when the berries start changing colors and start developing sugars and the acid level goes up. Post-beraison is you get an idea of what the grapes are actually going to taste like.
JT: Grapes with thicker skins, like Mendoza’s Malbec grapes, generally have higher levels of polyphenols, including resveratrol, which has been linked to reducing several factors causing heart disease.
NK: The best year for Champagne in the last decade was 2002. It was a stellar year.