Tips for Sonoma County Wine Tasting

Bubble Room at J Vineyards & Winery

Immerse yourself in one of Sonoma County's most popular activities — wine tasting.

Tastings are casual, mostly inexpensive experiences that let you go with the flow and make up your own itinerary. You can even find free wine tastings at many Sonoma County wineries.

Whether this is your first time on a vineyard-filled vacation or you just want to brush up on your sipping etiquette here are some tips that’ll make you seem like a sommelier:

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, it means the town of Sonoma. And Sonoma Valley is a geographical feature and wine appellation located only in the southeast corner of the county.

Blue skies above vineyards in the summer of Sonoma Valley, AVA
Sonoma Valley, AVA

Some people get confused because it’s unlike the Napa Valley, which covers most of the wineries of neighboring Napa County. Got it? Now, you’re allowed to roll your eyes at the person yakking loudly 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.

Wine and food pairing at Siduri Wine Lounge, Healdsburg
Siduri Wine Lounge, Healdsburg

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.

Explore all the wineries and tasting rooms in Sonoma County.

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  a few wines at each tasting room, then you have the time to visit three or four wineries in one day. But if you’re going on a scheduled winery tour or sitting down for a chef-prepared food and wine pairing, you might only be able to plan for two visits.

You can also call to ask wineries and tastings rooms how long their tours are so you can plan better. 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, too.

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 a hotel or resort within walking distance to several local wineries.

A car from Bohemian Highway Travel Co. in front of the setting sun
Bohemian Highway Travel Co.

Those small sips of wine will add up, and while most wineries offer no more than four to five wines, there’s 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, yet twisty and narrow, roads.

Check out our list of local transportation companies.

5.  Spitting is Normal

You can still have a good time without drinking all of the wine â€” in fact, the pour isn’t even meant for you to drink. Sure, everybody says, “I just can’t spit out good wine!” But, 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 spitting cup or to bring your own cup.

6. Come to a Sonoma County Wine Festival or Event

Sonoma County wineries offer a plethora of exclusive, unique experiences, and events. These range from intimate dinners with winemakers to harvest fests and opportunities to taste new vintages before anyone else. For more options, check our calendar of events.

7. Learn to Swirl

A wine glass in front of vineyards at Harvest Moon Estate & Winery
Harvest Moon Estate & Winery

Have you ever seen people in movies swirling their wine glasses prior to taking the first sniff? Although it looks cool, there’s a bit more to it. Swirling allows oxygen to enter the wine, which makes it more  fragrant. And this lets you smell the aromas in the wine better before taking a sip. Don’t forget to swirl that glass before you take your first sniff (and sip!). Swirling is best (and most safely) done by holding onto the bottom of the stem. Swirl five to eight times — then go for it!

Uncover more facts about Sonoma County wines and wineries.

Start planning your Wine Country getaway with these useful and informative itineraries: Wine Tasting Itinerary: Sonoma Valley and Beyond and Wine Tasting Itinerary: Alexander, Dry Creek and Russian River Valleys.

Written by Sonoma Insider James Knight

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