How to Get the Best from a Hunter Valley Wine Tasting
When you visit the Hunter Valley it is simply impossible to not be tempted by the enormous range of delicious food and wine options available to taste in this region. With Semillons, Verdelhos, and hot climate Shiraz varieties that have impressed everyone from James Halliday to even the most discerning French connoisseur, you will find yourself, wine glass in hand and salivating at the adventure to come when you enter any cellar door in the Hunter.
However, just as all wines are not created equal, all tasting experiences are also not equal. The vast majority of wineries in the Hunter Valley are boutique outlets who simply don’t produce enough bottles to meet the demand requirements of large retail outlets like Dan Murphy’s or Liquorland. So 95% of their sales come directly from cellar door tastings (the other 5% being to local restaurants) and naturally, their staff is keenly aware that their ability to keep their job in the long term comes from sales.
Having experienced many US and New Zealand wine tastings, I can proudly say that the Hunter Valley region has some of the most professional cellar door staff you will ever meet. People who know their products and communicate their passion for them well.
So, they don’t need to go the “high pressure” route of bullying you to buy. With that being said, many a cellar door owner or manager has felt the heartache when a group of twenty people books for a tasting, consumes many bottles of their produce, and after an hour of one of their staff’s precious time, they have to watch the group say “thanks for the free samples” and walk out empty-handed.
Cellar door staff are all too familiar with this scenario and they are looking for some tell-tale signs from the time a group arrives, in order to identify if this might be an issue and what they can do to minimise their risk/losses.
So how can you get the most from your tasting experience?
If you know some of the signs cellar door staff are looking for and how to send the right message during your tasting then you can find your experience is completely different to that of another group. You might get to try an aged wine or a premium version of the wines that are on the standard tasting list. Often the cellar doors have plates of cheese and biscuits made up or chocolates that compliment their produce that they only bring out for the “right” groups.
Not to mention receiving more generous tasting portions.
As someone who has seen many wine tastings, here is my “insider” guide on how to make you or your group come across as the “right” tasters and get more from your cellar door experience….
An Insider’s Guide to Wine Tasting
1. Ensure you look the part
This doesn’t mean you need a suit and tie! Smart casual is the way to dress. You would be surprised how many guests I’ve seen show up to a wine tasting with bare feet, ripped jeans, washed out t-shirts etc. You don’t want to give the impression that you’d rather be at the pub with a schooner of beer!
2. Don’t be seen drinking other beverages on the way in
Putting your Raspberry Vodka Cruiser bottle in the garbage bin just before you walk in the door might seem like a good idea at the time but it certainly suggests that you are more interested in a party than finding a quality bottle of vino. And the cellar door staff also know that after such a sweet beverage, your palate is ruined for tasting the subtle and complex fruity flavours of a quality wine.
Everything is going to taste quite acidic after a bottle of sugary mixer drink and prompt a “these wines are horrible” response, so the logical course of action is to cut back your tasting portions. I’m sure this isn’t what you had in mind!
3. Remember that the staff are listening to every word you say and watching everything you do
A good hospitality professional will keep smiling and making you feel welcome no matter what, but it would be a mistake to think that they aren’t listening to the group chit-chat in-between pouring tasting portions.
Who do you think will get more generous tasting portions and maybe get to try a premium or aged wine?
The group who consumes all of their portions, says nice things about them and comments on the wine they bought from a lovely boutique vineyard last year? Or the group who comments that they don’t enjoy wine, they were dragged along to the occasion as the venue was the idea of the group organiser and that Passion Pop is their beverage of choice!?
4. Listen to the presentation and ask questions that show you are interested
You don’t have to be a wine connoisseur or ask complex questions that show-off your wine intelligence, but if you ask simple questions that suggest you are genuinely interested in the products, then you will get much more attention from the cellar door staff.
A few good examples include:
“How long will this wine last for if I wanted to store it long term?” or “Do you use fruit 100% grown in the Hunter Valley or do you source fruit from a variety of locations?” or “You mentioned 2015 was a good year for winemaking, why was that so?”.
The cellar door staff will feel you really appreciate their knowledge and their presentation if you ask such questions. It is human nature to want to feel appreciated and we all go the extra mile when we feel our efforts are valued so this one is just common sense.
However, I have seen so many groups simply chat amongst themselves and completely ignore the presenter at a group wine tasting leaving the poor cellar door presenter to have to try to speak loudly or even yell to get through their presentation. Other than the fact it is simply rude, place yourselves in the shoes of the staff member. Would you bring out that little something extra for the group who isn’t even listening to you?
5. Arrive with a local tour guide who knows the cellar door staff well
As a tour guide who lives locally on the doorstep of Hunter wine country, I am so lucky to enjoy not only amazing wines but amazing friendships with the cellar doors that Tastes Of The Hunter Wine Tours has worked with. My groups have been offered private tastings in underground cellar rooms, cheese, biscuits and chocolates and even special VIP pricing as well as tastings led by the cellar door manager or even the owner of a boutique vineyard, so choosing to join a tour led by a Hunter Valley local is definitely a great way to get an enhanced tasting experience.
6. And lastly, it’s just good manners to find something to purchase at the end of your tasting
Just as it is good manners to bow with respect in certain countries, it is simply the right thing to do to find something to purchase after a wine tasting, especially if the cellar door has not charged you to taste their products. Even if it is just 1 or 2 bottles, it makes an enormous difference to a boutique cellar door to cover their costs or do better. It’s a small way of thanking the cellar door staff who have delivered both friendliness and professional service to your group.
You will also get a much more generous tasting portion if you pull out your credit card and say “I’d like to purchase a good red wine for my husband but I can’t decide between the Merlot or the Cabernet Merlot. Could I taste them both?”. If the staff can tell you are serious about a purchase (whether it is big or small) they will certainly give you a little something extra.
Whether you are visiting the Hunter Valley or any wine region, you can apply these tips to get more from your tasting and go beyond the stock standard experience being offered. And the best part is the majority of these tips won’t cost you a cent, yet will get you a priceless and memorable experience worth making your friends envious about on Instagram!
Have you ever had a fantastic wine-tasting experience?