Congratulations! You are going to come on out and visit the Sunnyslope Wine Trail! To steal a line from Casablanca, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship!” Every state grows wine grapes, even Alaska (in a greenhouse mind you) and the regions are all different. The Sunnyslope area is where most of the grapes in Idaho are grown and the wineries and tasting rooms out here tend to be small family owned operations. Everyone in the wine industry is really passionate about what they do, so visiting their “Offices” is a personal and engaging educational experience. As each wine region produces unique wines, they also have wine tasting etiquette. Here are a few helpful hints folks should know about visiting the Sunnyslope Wine Trail! Knowing what to expect will put you ahead of the crowd and maximize your time and experience at each tasting room you visit.
Be prepared to pay a tasting fee when you visit. Tasting fees usually range from $5 to $10 on the trail. Sometimes the tasting fee is waived with bottle purchases or if you join their wine club.
If you have a large group (6 people or more), you must call ahead to the places you want to visit and reserve a tasting time. Many of the tasting rooms are small and can only accommodate groups with advance notice. It is a great idea to plan your trip a week or two in advance. The more notice you give, the better experience you will have with your group as you will likely get dedicated space and staff to facilitate your tasting. However, most wineries will be able to accommodate you with 48 hours notice. Group tastings fees are usually non-refundable.
Make sure to plan your trip before you head out on the trail. I’d suggest an early tasting, followed by lunch (maybe with wine) and an afternoon tasting. Plan to spend 45 minutes to an hour and a half at each winery for the best experience. The atmosphere in Idaho tasting rooms is laid back. There are no dress codes and everyone is friendly. Staff are happy to answer your questions and educate you about their wine. If you are looking for a party experience, wine tasting may not be for you. My rule of thumb is if your actions could ruin another visitors tasting experience, the vineyard is not the place to be doing it.
Generally, your tasting will start with lighter-bodied white wines to the bigger, bolder reds. There is a reason you should taste in this order. Your tastebuds take longer to recover from the big huge red flavors than the whites so starting light and moving heavy will let your tongue register the flavors and nuances longer.
Your nose is going to be getting in on the fun as you taste wine too. There are lots of wonderful aromas that can tell you a lot about what’s going on in the bottle. So, before you leave home, lightly apply or skip your perfume or cologne. Gum, both mint and fruit flavors, can also alter your palate. Rinse your mouth with water or cleanse your palate with a cracker if you feel the need to freshen your breath between tastings!
Idaho wines are unique, so be open-minded and leave your preconceived notions at home. I was sure that I only liked Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand until I tasted a wonderfully complex wine from Sunnyslope grapes that rivaled the minerality of the finest wines from down under! Try what’s on offer! You could be pleasantly surprised.
“What if I really don’t like what I tasted?’ That is a great question and there are two easy answers. First off, take a second sip. Sometimes our tastebuds are still in shock from the last wine. Second sips tend to be better. Feel free to use the dump bucket as well. It is not at all rude to pour out wines, even the ones you like. “ Spit” and “Dump” are 4 letter words but shouldn’t be treated like the others! If you don’t like a wine, don’t make a big show of it. “I prefer the first wine over the second” is a nice way to say that. Nobody can argue with your preferences!
The goal out on the slope is to find some wines you can buy and take home to enjoy with friends over dinner. Visiting 2-4 wineries in one day is possible, but trying to taste 30 wines in one day is not a great idea. You will not be able to decipher the nuances between wines or remember which ones you enjoyed the most! In addition, while tastings are small amounts of alcohol, back-to-back tastings can inadvertently lead to drinking a little too much wine. Take or purchase some food on the trail and make sure to have a designated driver or hire one.
And, if you find a wine you like, buy some! If you enjoy the wine you just tasted, consider taking home a bottle or two. You’ll never get a better deal or show more support to the winemaker than buying directly from them. You might find the same wine at the grocery store or wine shop but the winery does get more benefit when you buy directly from them and it is the only thing that allows the entire tasting room experience to exist.
Tasting along the trail is a unique experience. No matter the season or the weather there are friendly passionate folks waiting out there to tell their stories and share their wine. The “Farm-to-Cork” heritage of the Caldwell, Idaho is hard to beat so come on out and linger a while in the vineyards!
The Idaho Wine Ambassador
© 2019 Jim Thomssen
About Jim Thomssen, the Idaho Wine Ambassador: Jim grew up in Minnesota but moved west to get away from the snow. He landed in Washington state with a degree in Economics. He discovered the wines of Washington in the 1980s as the region emerged, and when his banking career brought him to the Treasure Valley in 1993 he saw the wine region in Idaho had the same potential. Jim has worked with and volunteered for the Caldwell Economic Development, The Idaho Wine Commission, The University of Idaho, and the Sunnyslope Wine Trail over the last ten years to help develop the Idaho wine industry and promote Idaho wines. Jim is an avid wine traveler and has visited Napa Valley, the Alsace, and Portugal. He earned the title of Ambassador after arranging a trip to the Rioja in Spain with an Idaho Winemaker to explore the differences and similarities between the Snake River AVA and the Rioja Alta.