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 at many tasting rooms around the county.
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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. Plan your Tasting Times Correctly
This is what wine tasting in Sonoma County is all about. If you'll just be walking up to the bar and tasting through a few wines at each tasting room, then you have the time to visit 3-4 wineries in one day. But if you're going on a Winery tour or sitting down for a chef-prepared food and wine pairing, you might only be able to plan for two wineries in one day.
You can also call and ask the Wineries/tastings rooms how long their tours are for reference before booking.
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.
4. Don’t Drink and Drive!
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. Check our listings of Transportation Companies and our Guide to Food and Wine Tours.
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.
5. Spitting is Normal
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: Taste of Sonoma in September; A Wine & Food Affair in November; Winter WINEland in January; Barrel Tasting in March; and many more.
For more options, read Bountiful Events Offer Visitors a New Reason to Explore Sonoma County, check our calendar of events for updates, or subscribe to the Sonoma Insider e-news.
7. Learn to Swirl
Have you ever seen in the movies that people tend to swirl their glasses prior to taking the first sniff? Although it looks great, it's not only for the looks. Swirling allows oxygen to enter the wine and become more fragrant, allowing you to smell the fragrances in the wine better before you take a sip.
Don't forget to swirl that glass before you take your first sniff (& sip!). Swirling is best (and safest) done by holding onto the bottom of the wine glass stem. Swirl 5-8 times and then go for it!
See more about Wine Tasting in Sonoma County:
- Wine Tasting Itinerary: Sonoma Valley and Beyond
- Wine Tasting Itinerary: Alexander, Dry Creek and Russian River Valleys in 3 Days
- Sonoma Wine Facts
- The Most Beautiful Wine Castles of Sonoma County
- Wineries & Wine Blog
Written by Sonoma Insider James Knight.