I’m about to go Postal – Emily Post, that is! Ms. Post’s guidance on proper etiquette has been widely popular and continuously updated since 1922. While Post covers a variety of situations and circumstances, I don’t think she specifically addresses today’s topic: Winery Etiquette!
I came across an interesting article during my research by Matt Kettman in Wine Enthusiast, which includes guidelines for your time at the bar in the tasting room. I think it’s a great reference and would encourage you to check it out. My two cents addresses wineries as a whole, rather than just the tasting room.
When I am caught off-guard or surprised by something, I always remember my friend who used to mock me with the little adage of The 5 P’s: Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance. Winery policies can vary greatly; if you take the time to do a little research beforehand, you’ll have a much better chance of finding the one (or three) right for you. Here are a few things to take into consideration when planning your trip … and failing to do so can completely ruin your day.
When in doubt, simply call the winery – we’re happy to help! 🙂
1. Days & Hours of Operation
Surprisingly, this causes more issues than you’d think. Tasting rooms are almost always open on the weekends, barring a holiday or special event closure, but many will still close down for two off-peak days during the week. There may also be seasonal closures for a week or more. Don’t bank on being able to show up seven days a week year-round. Additionally, the times that the tasting room is open may vary by day of the week, seasonally, and due to private events.
When you note the closing time, please do not interpret this as “you can show up and be served until ____.” Tasting rooms are similar to bars in that there is a last call. We just leave our lights on the whole time, so the fact that we aren’t serving anymore may be a little less obvious. If you arrive past last call (which is typically a half hour or so prior to closing) and still see others drinking, it is because they arrived during the times the tastings are offered or made their final purchases earlier. You’re not being singled out and denied service, I promise!
While this might seem very “Captain Obvious” of me, make sure your selected location will be open, my friends!
2. Tasting Options
Ah, the tasting menu – the best part of the trip! When I visit a winery, of course I want to “taste all the things!” Unfortunately, this isn’t always possible. Wineries will often switch up their tasting menu which can provide variety for their regular customers, adjust with the current level of inventory, and highlight seasonally appropriate offerings.
If there is an option in the full portfolio that is not listed on the tasting menu, you may not be able to try it prior to purchase. You remember, it’s like we learned in Intro to Economics: supply and demand will affect the price or availability of goods. Some wines are set aside for different types of tastings (think “reserved” or “private label”), some may be available only to the Wine Club as a membership perk, and others may just be dwindling down in inventory which makes them that much more precious.
There is a method behind the madness of what you can and cannot try. Don’t take it out on your server if they can’t open an unlisted bottle for you – they are just following the employer’s guidelines.
3. Groups and Reservations
What’s better than a day at the wineries with fifteen of your closest friends? When it comes to wineries, unfortunately, “the more the merrier” doesn’t always apply. Take the size of the business into consideration when planning a group outing. If you’re headed to a massive vineyard with multiple tasting rooms and space for hundreds of guests, by all means give them a heads up and make them a stop on your map. If, however, you enjoy the intimate and cozy setting of more boutique locations, you should be prepared that your winery of choice may not be able to see a group as large as yours. Peak hours, seating availability, staff levels, existing reservations, and even weather can affect a group’s availability to visit.
Groups should always call ahead for a reservation, and understand that depending on the size of the winery, if still may not be possible to accommodate them.
4. Outside Food
To pack a picnic, or not to pack a picnic; that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler for the stomach to suffer
The pangs and gurgles of outrageous hunger –
Let’s not get all dramatic about the food situation. You’re allowed to eat. In fact, wineries want you to eat! Soak up some of that alcohol! Don’t drink too much on an empty stomach! Just please don’t bring pungent dishes into the tasting room.
Crock pots of chili or curry, fried chicken, overwhelmingly garlicky goodness (I’m not pulling these examples out of thin air) … we love to eat all the things; but, customers don’t love to smell all the things when they have their nose in a glass trying to discern the delicate characteristics of a Pinot Gris.
For this reason, rules that state “no outside food allowed in tasting room” typically apply to the tasting room itself and not necessarily the entire property. The winery is not demanding that you purchase your food from their kitchen only; rather, they are providing the best wine tasting experience possible for all of their customers.
If you can’t find a particular winery’s policy online or get someone on the phone, safe bets typically include: cheese, crackers/bread, charcuterie, olives and fruit. Leave the slow cooker at home please!
5. Outside Alcohol
This is a big one. In the state of Virginia, a winery can lose its license if patrons are caught by a Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) representative with outside alcohol. They come and check up on businesses, I assure you. Beer, wine from other locations, airplane bottles, etc. all spell disaster for a winery, hence their adamant rules against it.
Don’t put a someone’s livelihood on the line by bringing in outside alcohol.
Kids and wineries do not always mix. Some locations are extremely child-friendly with huge lawns to run and play while parents relax nearby. Some wineries will have a “kid zone” and an “adults only zone.” Others have gravel, steep hills and/or cliffs, delicate vines very close to the outdoor seating, or may simply prefer to cater to adult-only clientele. You don’t want to get all excited about your day trip only to be extremely disappointed or offended once you arrive and find out that the winery does not allow children in the tasting room.
Check beforehand if a winery is kid-friendly, especially if you are planning on bringing a small army!
One winery in my area is basically a “dog winery” – it’s awesome. Almost every party has a pup with them, spreading smiles and slobbery kisses among the crowd. There are water bowls scattered around, treat jars, and leash tethers. Dog lovers know that their canine companions will always be welcome there, but we can’t automatically assume this is the case at every winery.
Due to health regulations, property conditions, potential allergies, and more, there are a number of reasons why a business may not allow our furry friends to accompany us indoors on our quest for the perfect bottle. Specifically in Virginia there is a regulation that states pets cannot be inside a winery or brewery tasting room. The law used to only address establishments which served food, but has since been amended. Many properties allow dogs on leashes to accompany their owners outside the tasting room (on patios or lawns), but not all – be sure to call ahead!
Make sure you understand the pet policy 100% before bringing Fido along with you. If you discover pets are not allowed after you arrive, drive to another location and plan to return another day – don’t leave your pal alone in the car!
As a smoker myself (I know, I know) I fully understand that when you’re drinking, the nicotine monster is even more aggressive. We obviously all know we can’t light up inside a tasting room, but also be aware that some wineries do not allow smoking on their property at all. I learned this the hard way, and was really embarrassed by the way I was approached in the parking lot.
Smokers already get enough grief and guilt about the bad habit – save yourself from the added shame by simply asking if and where you’re allowed to light up.
9. Intoxication Levels
Do you enjoy a full day of winery hopping? No judgement, so do I. Remember that like any bar or restaurant, servers do have the right to refuse service if they suspect you’re past your limit of consumption. Employees are often encouraged to obtain TIPS certifications (Training for Intervention ProcedureS) “for the responsible service, sale, and consumption of alcohol.”
If you are coming out to the countryside, take it all in and enjoy it. Wine tasting is meant to be something that is fun, and shouldn’t feel rushed. Try to focus on 2-3 wineries in a day, rather than trying to hit as many as possible. Every vineyard has something different to offer and a unique story! Savor the full experience as well as the (hopefully) delicious wines offered.
Wine Math: Most tastings are about 6-7 wines with a 1 oz sample on average, lasting about 15-20 minutes. A standard glass of wine is 5oz, which is what an average person can process of alcohol in an hour. Think safely and plan accordingly if you are making multiple stops.
Enjoy your day and your wine – just know your limits. Please don’t make us the bad guys if we’re forced to make the judgement call for you.
10. And Finally, Feedback
If the first place you go when scoping out new locations is Yelp, you’re in good company. I like to hit up the hot spots as well as visit those hidden gems with amazing reviews that are tucked away off the beaten path.
Yelp and other review sites exist for a reason – to give the public a transparent view of the business’s products, services, and operations based on customer feedback. These sites can be extremely helpful tools for recommendations and introductions to new places, but they can also be abused.
Minor issues that might be overlooked by most of us could set off the wrong person. If the aftermath includes a devastating one-star review, it can bring down a high rating that the business has worked extremely hard to achieve. Before firing off an angry rant, remember that many wineries are located on private property/farms and run by families. The importance of reputations shouldn’t be taken lightly and destroyed over a personal differences or petty circumstances.
Not liking or agreeing with a policy or standard operating procedure is not a fair reason to leave a one star review: “Dogs are not allowed in this cat hospital!” or “Kids were everywhere in this toy store!”
Wanting something that simply is not there is not a fair reason to leave a one star review: “This burger joint does not serve hot dogs!” or “This Virginia winery does not have Pinot Noir from Oregon!”
Fair game items for your review could include the quality of wines being served, food (if applicable), service experience, cleanliness, overall atmosphere, or accessibility.
Your review should (of course) be honest and all-inclusive, but if you truly had a bad experience, waiting until you cool off might help you be slightly more objective and less emotional.
Q: Do you have any tips you’ve picked up during your vineyard adventures?
Tell us about a time when you or a customer misunderstood a policy and how we can avoid falling into the same trap!