It doesn’t really matter if you don’t know the difference between chardonnay and cabernet; trust me, no one cares. But if you want to learn how to wine taste, California’s wine country is the perfect classroom. Provided the tasting room you’re visiting isn’t slammed with visitors, the hosts will certainly show you exactly how to sniff, swirl, and spit. But if you’re left to your own devices, follow these tips:

Look: It may seem pompous to raise your glass in the air toward the light, but go ahead—then tip it to the side, and admire the wine’s color. You can actually tell a lot about the wine by its color, including the varietal, whether it’s a “young” or an “aged” wine, or how it was fermented. It takes time to understand exactly what to look for, but if you follow this practice for the wines you taste, you might just begin noticing distinctions between various varietals and vintages.

Swirl: Gently swirl the contents of your wineglass. This process aerates the wine and allows you to smell it better. It also creates an opportunity to learn more about the wine. The speed at which its “legs,” or drips, roll down the side of the glass can indicate whether the wine is higher in alcohol and/or sweetness (slower legs) or has less alcohol/sugar (quicker legs).

Smell: Stick your nose in the tilted glass and take a good whiff. Make up words to describe what you smell: barnyard, strawberries, cotton candy, whatever. Wines have distinctive aromas, and with practice you can begin to identify, but I’ve found the power of suggestion plays an equal hand. No matter whether you smell pineapple and stone fruit or plain old wine, it’s still fun to play the guessing game.

Sip: This part is pretty straightforward, but do it like the pros: Take small sips and breathe a little air into your mouth while the wine’s in there to further aerate it and spread the flavor across your palate.

Spit: Your choice, of course, but wineries keep a little spittoon on the bar that’s for your use. I hate this part, even though I spit fairly often, because it requires some finesse to do it right. Otherwise, you’ll be like me with a little stream of wine dripping down your chin—or quickly tipsy if you swallow all that you taste. Still, it’s another thing that’s fun to try.

Pace Yourself: Plenty of people saddle up to the bar and gulp down every last drop of every last wine—and you’re welcome to do the same (provided you’re not driving, of course). But know that even small sips at three or four wineries can add up to a sudden need to splay out on the back seat of your car for an impromptu siesta. So, if you want to have fun and make it to the dinner hour, slow it down.


Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.