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Grapevine: Before you taste, come up with a plan

Paul Gregutt

Taste Washington/ Seattle was held a few weeks ago, Taste Washington/Spokane is slated for June 21, and another big regional event, Vintage Walla Walla, comes on June 5 and 6.

Having attended more than a few of these taste-a-thons over the years, I have developed some strategies that can help you to have the best possible experience.

The sheer number of wines and wineries means you can’t taste everything. The lively atmosphere, nonstop socializing, appealing food and other activities claim your attention. Unless you do some planning, it’s too easy to slip into party mode and settle for having a good time, rather than a learning experience. But why do that, when you can just as easily have both?

Here is the approach I use.

First, I do a mental inventory of what is being poured. If an advance program is available, either in print or online, take the time to look through it before you get to the event. Taste Spokane will have more than 100 wineries and about 25 restaurants to choose from.

Your goal is to get the lay of the land. Which wineries are attending? Are there any special tastings, such as selections from specific vineyards or appellations, or older vintages? How is the venue laid out?

Once you have a general overview of the event, make a tasting plan for yourself. Are there certain wineries that you don’t want to miss? Visit them first, especially if they are high-profile (think closed mailing list, high Parker scores) and may run out of wine. Do you want to explore a particular type of wine, or winemaking region? If so, plan to taste no more than 20 to 25 wines, and keep them on topic.

Let’s say syrah is your main interest. A quick look at the wineries lined up for June 21 suggests that you will want to visit Amavi Cellars, Barnard Griffin, Cadaretta, Dunham Cellars, Milbrandt Vineyards, Otis Kenyon, Reininger, Saviah Cellars, Spring Valley Vineyard, SYZYGY, Va Piano and William Church with that varietal in mind. That’s a dozen wines right there – that alone would make for a full and interesting experience.

If you are content to browse, remember that the old rules about tasting white wines before red, dry wines before sweet are not absolutely essential. More often I see members of the wine trade opting to taste white wines after red.

Personally, the only rule I strictly follow is leaving the really sweet lines until last. It’s a bit easier on your palate if you don’t constantly switch back and forth from red to white to red, because that will tire you out more quickly. It also means you probably will be rinsing your glass frequently, which dilutes flavors. If you stick with the same varietal, you really do not need to rinse between tastes.

It is vital (and not that challenging) to eat before, during and after a big tasting. Food slows down the absorption of alcohol. If nothing else, munch on crackers and bread, and drink as much water as wine. The best strategy, truly, is to spit the wine. If you are planning to have more than a glass or two, it is really the best thing to do. If your expectorations are not that great, practice at home with water. I used to make it a habit to spit in the shower until I got really good.

If you find your palate tiring after a run of heavy reds, have a glass of sparkling wine or bubbly water to cleanse and refresh the taste buds.

Tasting a lot of wine, even if you have organized it into meaningful categories, won’t do much to improve your palate unless you are really paying attention. If you can attend these events with a knowledgeable friend, do so, and spend a couple of hours playing wine geek.

Chat with the winemakers, who are happy to answer questions and share their thoughts. If they start to run through the standard patter about barrel regimens and you are not interested, ask specific questions. What do they taste? What about the wine in your glass stands out to them? Did they do anything special to make it?

If you spend just a few minutes focused on every glass, giving the wine your full attention, at the end of the day you will have advanced your knowledge not only about the specific wines and wineries you visited, but about your own preferences.

The bottom line is this: To learn about wine, taste as much as you can, taste as often as you can, and pay close attention to what you taste. Remember that learning about wine should be fun. If it ever becomes boring or frustrating, it’s probably time to take a break and pop open a beer.

Paul Gregutt is a freelance wine writer based in Seattle. His column appears in The Spokesman-Review on the last Wednesday of each month. He can be reached at Visit for Gregutt’s blog and his latest tasting notes.