Wine tasting is an interactive endeavor. Unless you’re opening a lot of bottles at home, by yourself, the very least you need is someone to pour the wine for you. (And sitting home alone opening bottles isn’t healthy for mind or body.) For most of us, it’s a social activity. We go wine tasting together and it’s rare that we have a tasting room to ourselves.
A significant amount of time is spent talking about what we’re tasting: “What did you think of the nose/mouthfeel/acidity/finish? Wasn’t that yummy? I don’t like this one. You like big, heavy wines more than I do”. The conversation is always amongst ourselves and often with strangers who happen to be at the bar or the table at the same time as we are.
The common element is always the server, who generally selects the order in which you taste wines and the amount that you receive. They are trained to act like hosts at a party, to be convivial, provide information and while not actively hawking the winery’s wares, to encourage you to buy some or join the wine club. It therefore follows that to maximize the pleasure of your visit, you should interact in a friendly manner with your server.
Now, much of that is just the manners your mother taught you. If somebody gives you something, you smile and say thank you. But the objective here is something more. If you engage your server in conversation and ask fairly meaningful questions, you will get a lot more in return. What are some reasonable questions? You can ask how the wine you just sipped differs from previous vintages. If the wine is estate-grown, where are the winery’s vineyards? And if they are sourced, who do they buy grapes from? Does their winemaker control the farming practices or is it strictly up to the vineyard owner? You could ask the server’s opinion on how long to cellar a wine that seems to need it. We almost always ask what the blend of grapes and the level of alcohol are. If we think we might be interested in buying some of a wine, we ask to see the bottle; there’s often a lot of information to be gleaned from the labels.
There are two types of servers: plain pourers and wine educators. You’re not going to get much from the former. We’ve found that better wineries make a point of training their people so that you don’t get someone who is simply capable of filling a glass and no more. Ah, but when you meet an educator, showing interest brings rewards. If you wanted a comparison with previous vintages, he or she might have some and will open them so that you can compare. We have had some rather in-depth verticals (multiple years of the same wine) on occasion. And if you ask about cellaring, the educator might just remember that there’s a bottle of a ten-year old (or older) that they served to visiting dignitaries just this morning. “Would you like some?” Oh, yes, indeed.
Even if you don’t get little extras, you will almost always benefit from the information you receive. Since one of the objectives of wine tasting is to increase your knowledge of wine in general and specific producers in particular, you get the pleasure of just adding to your understanding of fine wine.
When a tasting room is really crowded, on a weekend or when a tour bus arrives, you may not be able to show your interest to your server. He or she is overworked and underappreciated on those days. But when you hit the right person on the right day, the effect is wonderful. It is another reason to have a quiet, seated tasting on the busiest days. The staff know you’re serious and treat you accordingly.