Touring California’s Wine Country: What to Know Before You Go

When beginning a California Wine Country tour from San Francisco, my guests all tell me they love wine. Not surprising.

A bit closer to Napa Valley, when I ask what varietals or characteristics they most enjoy—I sometimes get blank looks.

As a guide, my goal is not to intimidate but help the occasional wine drinker better describe what tastes good and what does not. Armed with this skill, the chances are much improved that future wine purchases will be pleasing to themselves, their family and friends.

You don’t have to be a connoisseur to learn how to describe what you like and don’t about wine.  On wine tours, I teach my guests to grab the wine by the stem and break it down using the 4 S’s:

See: Visual inspection of the wine under good lighting.
Smell: Identify aromas by breathing through the nose.
Sip: Taste the sour, bitter, sweet and other flavors.
Savor: Reflect on what you’ve done. Draw conclusions.

For those interested in a bit deeper dive into wine tasting techniques, here you go.

See. Lift the glass up a bit toward a source of natural light or against a white background, describe what you see.

Color indicates type of grape, climate, flavor, even age. Deep colored whites may be sweeter. Dark reds may be a tip that the grapes experienced an unusually hot season. Can you taste it?

Is the wine clear? Young wines are generally clearer. Hand-crafted, unfiltered or mature wines may contain visible residue that makes them cloudy. This is normal and fine to drink.

Check out the “wine legs”, clear streaks and droplets that linger on the inside of the glass as you swirl the wine (if you want to show off, just say “Gibbs-Marangoni Effect” as you do this!). Longer ‘legs’ typically mean high alcohol or sugar content. ‘Legs’ bleeding down the sides from a red wine signal a “full-bodied” wine.

Smell. Once again, gently swirl the wine in your glass so oxygen causes it to release aromas. With eyes closed, stick your nose into the glass. Take a deep sniff. What do you notice?

Start with fruits. Does it smell citrusy, tropical, floral or berry-like? Blue, black or red berries? Describing aroma takes some imagination. For this test, “there are no wrong answers”.

Do you detect subtle secondary aromas from the winemaking process? Most common are yeast, cheese, nuts or hops. Your nose might also pick up hints of the barrel or bottle aging such as holiday spices, vanilla, autumn leaves, bark, moss, tobacco, leather, cedar or roasted bacon.

If you have a some time, notice the aromas of a good mature wine right after it is opened and how they change after it has had a few minutes to sit and breath in a little oxygen.

Sip. Now, take a sip. Gently roll the wine around in the mouth. Part your lips ever so slightly and draw in some air for even more flavor. Swallow. Repeat. Pace yourself by using the “spit” receptacle at the tasting counter.

What do you taste? All wines are acidic and have sour notes. Do you taste bitter flavors? Sweetness from residual sugars is usually easy to detect. Put what you taste into words. How about pineapple, cherries, cranberry, orange, blackberries, plum or pumpkin?

Wine has texture, especially high alcohol and very ripe ones. Alcohol makes the wine feel “richer”. You are detecting tannins when your tongue has a drying sensation.

When alcohol, tannins and flavors are in a pleasant balance then you can say the wine has a good structure. Notice how things change on the second or third sip.

Savor. The next organ you use is your brain. Did you like the wine? How was the wine unique or memorable? Were there any characteristics that impressed you? At the end you could say the wine is either “short” or “long” if the flavors stay on for a pleasant while.

Whether you use the 4S’s or some other technique, learning to enjoy a wine country tour is all about fine tuning your powers of observation. Make a game of it. Challenge your fellow tasters to see who can be the most outrageous and imaginative in the descriptions of a wine. Have fun!

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