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7 Tips for Sonoma Wine Tasting

Follow these tips to make the most of your Wine Country experience at places like Francis Ford Coppola Winery.

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There’s never been a better time for one of Sonoma County’s favorite activities, wine tasting. It’s casual, mostly inexpensive, and you can make up your itinerary as you go along. You can even find free wine tasting. And don't forget to order the free Sonoma Wineries Map with over 400 wineries here.

Don’t worry too much over the musts and the mustn’ts, but if you’re new to wine tasting in Sonoma County, or if it’s been a long time and you think you need a brush-up, consider keeping these tips in mind.

1. You’re in Sonoma County
Avoid confusion, and remember this: Sonoma may be shorthand for “Sonoma County” outside of the area, but when you’re here, “Sonoma” means you’re just talking about the historic town of Sonoma. And Sonoma Valley is a geographical feature and wine appellation located only in the southeast corner of Sonoma County.

Some people are confused because it’s unlike the Napa Valley, which covers most of the wineries of neighboring Napa County. Got it? Now, you are allowed to snicker at that tourist who’s yakking on their cell phone in the middle of Healdsburg Plaza, saying, “Yeah, I’m in Napa right now …”. Find more info about wine regions (AVAs) in Sonoma County and wine varietals.

2. Make an Appointment At Smaller Wineries
Some of the smaller wineries might ask that you make an appointment prior to your visit, but relax, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be a big, expensive production. Often, their use permit just requires it, and they’d be happy to welcome you on a weekend with a few minutes notice. Find winery listings here. If you’re scheduling a wine and food pairing with the winery’s hospitality staff, on the other hand, plan it well in advance. And give yourself plenty of time — two hours per winery if you’ll be taking a tour or sitting down for a tasting.

3. Quality over Quantity
This is what wine tasting in Sonoma County is all about. Plan to visit four wineries, if you’ll just be walking up to the bar and tasting through a few wines at each; two wineries in day if you’re going on a tour or sitting down for a chef-prepared food and wine pairing. If you’ve got time to spare, there’s always somewhere to explore on the spur of the moment, and some of the downtown tasting rooms are open later into the evening. Find listings of all Sonoma County wineries here and order a free wineries map and guide here.

4. Don’t Drink and Drive
Those small sips of wine will add up, and while most wineries offer no more than four to five wines, there is no limit on what others will pour. There is a limit, however, to how much you can safely consume: If you’ve thoughtfully swirled, sniffed, and evaluated — all the way down the hatch — five one-ounce pours at a handful of wineries, that soon equals two to three full servings of wine. Don’t do that and then drive on our scenic, twisty, narrow roads.

Here’s what you do: Hire a tour guide; designate a driver from your group who won’t be consuming wine, don’t drink the wine (see next tip) or spend the night in one of Sonoma County's relaxing hotels and resorts. Find tour and transportation companies here.

5.  Spitting is Sonoman
You can still have a good time without drinking all of the wine — in fact, the pour isn’t even meant for you to drink. Sure, everybody says, “I just can’t spit out good wine!” That one’s really old, and spitting is what wine professionals do. If you’re invited into a wine cellar, you can spit in the drain; outside, you can spit in the gravel.

In the tasting room, it can get a little tricky — even a sommelier-level spitter may be stymied by a brimming, soupy dump bucket that hasn’t been emptied recently. Don’t be afraid to ask for a spitty cup, or bring your own plastic picnic cup — this is what is provided at wine tastings as a matter of course, but is sadly absent from many tasting rooms.

Take a good sip of wine in your mouth for a few seconds, and discreetly spit it out; later, pour the cup out. If you like the wine, keep a final sip for yourself— you’re unlikely to get intoxicated one-quarter ounce at a time, but keep track.

6. Come to a Wine Event or Festival
Sonoma County offers plenty of annual wine events and festivals year round: Sonoma Wine Country Weekened in September, A Wine & Food Affair and Heart of Sonoma Valley Holiday Open House in November, Winter WINEland in January, Barrel Tasting in March and many more. Check the calendar of events for updates or subscribe to the Sonoma Insider e-news.

7. Only Wine Should Smell Pretty
Skip the perfume and cologne. It interferes with the tasting experience, most of which is actually smelling. If you think it doesn’t matter to you, but you care about social disapproval, remember that others in the tasting room will be secretly seething — they just won’t say anything.

Here are some more resources for you wine tasting adventure in Sonoma County:
Wine Tasting Itinerary: Sonoma Valley and Beyond
Wine Tasting Itinerary: Alexander, Dry Creek and Russian River Valleys in 3 Days
Sonoma County Wine Facts
The Most Beautiful Wine Castles of Sonoma County
Wineries & Wine Blog

Written by Sonoma Insider James Knight