Wine experts stress newbie tasters take time, ask questions


As the summer heats up, so does the wine season in Walla Walla. Viticulture gurus from all over the world travel to Walla Walla in order to sample some of the top-rated wines in the world; indeed, many wine magazines and organizations hail this region as “the Napa Valley of the Northwest.” While the high wine ratings may seem daunting to the newbie wine taster, you don’t have to be an expert to enjoy Walla Walla wines. And, since the wine season is just getting started, graduation weekend is the perfect time to beat the rush.

In order to prepare the novice wine taster for a weekend (or weekday) of wine sampling, tasting room experts and vineyard owners dish on both the process of tasting and some important history of the Walla Walla region that makes their wines so special.

According to Karen LaBonte, who bought Trio Vitners in 2007, the Walla Walla region’s climate and location makes for some great wines, and in particular fruity wines such as merlots and syrahs.

“Walla Walla actually lies along the same latitude as Bordeaux, France,” said LaBonte. “Almost every state claims to make wine, but it takes the right soil, geography and climate in order to grow the best grapes.”

Photo Credit: Brandon Fennell

Another reason Walla Walla is great for growing wines is due to large flows of silty water that flooded the area in the Ice Age, leaving particularly fertile soil. While these characteristics are ideal for red wines like merlot, white wines such as dry Rieslings and even some rosé wines have been gaining a reputation as excellent wines.

Aside from a little history, it is important to know a few basic tasting tips. One of the first things tasters should do is “nose” the wine, or inhale the wine’s bouquet. This helps gauge the flavor of the wine. Swirling the wine in the glass lets you have a good look at the color, as well as “wine legs” — long drips that start at the top of the glass and drip down. A wine with more legs typically has higher alcohol content.

When it comes to actually tasting the wine, prepare for a variety of flavors that will hit the palate, as well as tannins –– phenolic compounds in the wine that can leave a slightly dry, bitter taste. Tony Lombardo, the guest services provider for the tasting room at Spring Valley Vineyard, suggests that asking questions and taking your time helps generate a good wine tasting experience.

“If you’re new to tasting, remember that you don’t need to rush through the process,” said Lombardo. “Take your time to smell and talk to [tasting room owners] about the techniques used [in making the wine].”

Also, while it may seem rude or wasteful, Adamant Cellar owner Devin Stinger states that there is no shame in “spitting and dumping” wine.

“When you’re on a wine tour, you will probably only sample about an ounce per glass, but when you sample [up to] eight wines each place you go, that adds up quickly,” said Stinger. “Before you know it, you’ve had nearly a bottle of wine to yourself.”

Stinger also suggests that while some tasters have prejudices to certain wines and a niché for others, it is important to sample all of the wines.

“Wines can very greatly from year to year [and between] … types,” said Stinger. “You never know what you might end up liking.”

Photo Credit: Brandon Fennell

Finally, even though it may initially seem helpful, La Bonte suggests that new wine tasters ignore the tasting notes, which are small placards in front of wine samples detailing the bottle’s history and taste.

“Smell and taste the wine on your own, and if you like it, then look at the notes,” said LaBonte. “Wine tasting is an individualistic experience, and [the notes] can detract from [the experience] by hinting at what you’re ‘supposed’ to taste rather than what you actually taste yourself.”