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Barrel Tasting {8 Great Questions to Smart Wine Buyers Will Ask}

Barrel Tasting in Wine Country

Barrel tasting is a popular local event hosted by a few different regions in the Sonoma and Napa counties at different times. The most trafficked event is the barrel tasting along wine road, held in early March. What is barrel tasting? Great question! Barrel tasting is an opportunity for you, the wine fan to get a behind the scenes look at local winemaking processes, to ask questions of wine makers, to meet and taste new-to-you local brands, and to fall in love with your favorite brands all over again.

Barrel Tasting is for Planners

Planners who want more fantastic wine in their life, that is. Most wineries that participate in barrel tasting offer significant discounts for the people who buy their wine in futures. Yes, you do have to wait a year to pick up the wine, but oftentimes barrel tasting is the only time of year you will see some of the wine being offered (as some wineries sell out in futures!), and it’s certainly the best time to build out your wine library. Plus, picking up your wine next year gives you a great reason to go to Barrel Tasting again. 

A lot of locals avoid barrel tasting, but if you can handle the crowds and grab a sitter, you should definitely go! You will enjoy steep discounts on local wine, connect with winemakers, and get insight into how the wine you’re pairing with that tri-tip from Oliver’s Market is made.


Barrel Tasting

Wine tasting is an early spring event, meaning lots of mustard flowers and bare vines.

The Trick with Tasting “Young Wine”

Wine from the barrel tastes different. For one, it hasn’t completed it’s processing time. For two, it hasn’t been combined with the other barrels, barrels that might impart slight flavor distinctions. The most intimidating factor for barrel tasting is knowing what wine is the right investment for you. We know you have questions: How do I know if the wine is good? Is it going to taste the same in bottle, a year later? What if I buy “limited” wine only to see it in store a year later? With that in mind, we asked two of our local industry insiders to share with us the best questions you can ask at a barrel tasting

Questions  for the Smart Barrel Tasting Buyer

What is your wine-making philosophy?

For the uninitiated, this may seem like a strange question, after all, doesn’t all wine follow the same process? In reality, every winemaker has a different personal philosophy about wine, and as you discover what you do and do not love, you’ll find yourself aligning with certain types of winemakers. This question also allows you the opportunity to let them gush about their personal passion. 

Where are the vineyards located?

Wine tasting is a great way to become familiar with wines produced from the different growing areas (also known as AVAs , of which Sonoma County has 17,  Napa has 17 as well). Remember your favorite regions- this will be a big help the next time you are tasked with ordering wine at dinner yet are unfamiliar with the wineries listed.

How long has this wine been in the barrel?

Think of wine in a barrel like water in contact with tea, the longer the tea bag is steeped in the water, the stronger the cup of tea. Barrel aged wine (versus stainless steel or concrete) will generally have a richer, rounder mouth feel.

How much new oak is used in this wine?

Sticking with the tea analogy, using the same tea bag again will not produce the same strength of flavor the second time around. New barrels will impart more influence on the wine- making the wine taste stronger or more tannic. This question will help you determine whether it will be elegant and balanced upon release or big and bold, thus needing a few years in the cellar before decanting.

barrel tastingWine is tested throughout the processing period to ensure proper aging. The red stains on the barrel come from spillage during testing.

Will this wine be blended or are we tasting the final blend?

Some wineries prefer to age parts of a blend separately (this can be another varietal, clone or vineyard site) before bottling while other winemakers prefer to age the components of the wine’s blend together in the barrel so they have a longer time to integrate before bottling.

How many cases of wine do you make each year? 

So you know you like the wine, but you’re now trying to determine if you should plunk down a chunk of change on a case-or half-case.  Discovering their distribution helps you determine whether you’re going to find it on a Target aisle next year. (Pro-tip: that’s unlikely on our wine road.) Any wine under 500 cases will have little to no distribution, and wines under 1,000 cases are also worth the haul home. You can also ask the wine maker: “Is this wine distributed commercially?” 

When will this wine be bottled?

This will give you an idea of how close the wine you are enjoying is from being finished and when you should plan your next visit back to pick up that bottle!

How Long Should We Hold On To The Bottle?

Many winemakers will recommend a “best to open by” window, that can sometimes be a year or more from the date you pick it up! Knowing this may impact how much wine you buy, and of which varietal, so you can be well-stocked into the future.

Our Industry Insiders:

barrel tasting

Crista has been working in the wine industry for 9 years. Her favorite part about working in Sonoma County’s Wine industry is meeting new interns from all over the world every year and working fun events. More about Crista, here.

barrel tasting

Jennifer is wine geek whose career in the wine industry has spanned over 10 years.  Pinot Noir and foggy mornings are two of her favorite things about Sonoma County. Learn more about her, here.

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2 Responses to Barrel Tasting {8 Great Questions to Smart Wine Buyers Will Ask}

  1. Erin March 4, 2016 at 7:40 am #

    Love this! Great questions for first time barrel tasters so we can fake it ’till we make it and even reminds the OG tasters to hone in those buying skills. So fun!

  2. Shannon M March 5, 2016 at 9:54 pm #

    I’m not much of a wine drinker but the process that goes into creating the product has always facinated me. Thanks for the insight. I will absolutely be dragging the husband around to a few tastings – so he can try the wines and I can enjoy all the amazing locations.