How to Taste with Professional Reviewers and Critics

Sampling your wines is important. Writers will not review your wines unless you send and they taste them. Even better than just sending samples? Invite professional reviewers and wine critics to visit you at the winery. How better to understand your dirt, special sense of place, the facility where wines are produced, and to meet you, the winemaker in situ?

What to do, what not to do?

If you assume that most small producers have a plan for such visits you would be wrong. I’ve found many wineries that rely on personal interaction to engage consumers and casual wine media do not necessarily know what to do with professional reviewers. This article is based on a conversation with Rusty Gaffney aka Prince of Pinot (www.princeofpinot.com) who has been writing his eponymous Pinot Noir devoted newsletter for over 15 years. Rusty accepts shipped samples of Pinot Noir from around the world, but what I find compelling about his program is that he actually makes it a point to visit wineries and taste onsite whenever possible. Also, Rusty has received winemakers in Orange County where he lives. Feel free to contact him if you’re working the market or if you’ll be in Southern California.

Our interactions were intended to demonstrate how to receive a wine critic and what to do specifically to make the critic’s limited time useful and leave the most favorable impression possible. As Rusty says “This is the kind of stuff they don’t teach at UC Davis or OSU”. Here’s what we discussed and Rusty’s candid and detailed responses.

Conduct a focused tasting that is well prepared in advance

Rusty: Organize the tasting – either finished bottles or barrel – based on the time of year and how you can best show off your wines. It can’t be emphasize enough that the winery needs to be prepared ahead of time and well organized so the reviewer is comfortable and can perceive that preparations have been made in advance.

Rusty: I believe the winemaker should be prepared ahead of time with some idea of how he/she plans to utilize our time together. They can give options but should have planned the options ahead of time considering when wines were bottled and what wines in barrel are appropriate to taste at that time. If it is a sit down finished bottle tasting, the tech sheets on each wine each wine should be available at the tasting so I don’t have to keep asking details including MSRP. Prepare and hand out appropriate information about the winery/yourself. Water should always be available as well as spit cups/receptacles.

Rusty: The winery should dictate the tasting and not ask the reviewer what they want to taste unless the reviewer demands certain arrangements.

Carl: I was just at a long standing professional wine conference with 30 wineries pouring. There were 2 dump buckets in total, both became immediately full. There were no water pitchers or stations anywhere near the event space. How is it possible to miss those details?

Sit down Versus Stand up tastings

Rusty: Have a sit down venue available if possible with proper glassware, water, spit cups, pen, paper, and wine tech sheets that include the date of release and MSRP.

Consider giving writer time to taste alone and then discuss the wines. The last time I went to Willamette Valley, one of the wineries had five vintages of the same wine lined up with glasses and allowed me to taste in private before discussing. And they didn’t interrupt. I liked this. It is hard to adequately taste wines when the winemaker is hovering over you and engaging you in conversation. On the other hand, it is very helpful to have the winemaker’s insight and comments, and general impressions about the vintage and wines are welcome information to the reviewer as long as they are not obviously over enthusiastic.

Carl: Offering a private space to accommodate writers that to taste privately is an excellent idea. You can show them what you’ve setup when they arrive and ask if they’ like to taste alone. If so, revisit the wines with them after and answer questions they may have.

Create a Relaxed Meeting Experience

Rusty: Make yourself available over a generous time period. The writer should determine how long the encounter will be. The mood should be relaxed and not rushed. It is important to talk personally beyond the wine and winery discussion to give the writer insight into yourself and provide background info for a write up.

Carl: If the tasting takes place in a public space such as your tasting room, have someone there to take care of other guests during open hours. I know this sounds obvious but I’ve seen winemakers dashing between tasting guests and media and it makes a negative impression.

What to Say/Not to Say to Writers

Rusty: Do not discuss finances of the winery or how difficult it is to get distribution.

Rusty: the winery should know in advance how much time the reviewing critic plans to spend at the winery. The winery or publicist should inquire ahead of time about the time frame of the visiting reviewer.

Carl: Upbeat and heartfelt personal greetings matter. Show the writer what you have prepared and planned for their visit. See if the setup meets their expectations. If you are working with a publicist they will typically know how the writer likes to interact and taste through the wines. If you are uncertain of their schedule or if they are running late, ask how much time they have allowed and keep to that schedule unless they would like to extend.

Carl: Be sure to have some key brand points of difference ready to share at the right time. Although this is a formal tasting, personalities and relationships matter. They may love your wines but may not make the extra effort to write if you don’t make a personal connection and if the experience is somehow uniquely not memorable. No, it’s not all about the wine.

Carl:  There is no need to tell the writer your opinions before they taste. Your personal preferences for a specific vintage or style of wine are not necessarily theirs.

Wrapping Up

Rusty: Offer to give the writer opened bottle(s) as they may wish to re-taste later. Also, giving an unopened bottle is a nice gesture for the writer’s time and makes an impression.

Rusty: Always send the writer a follow-up email within 24 hours thanking them for the visit and offering any further information or samples needed. Invite them back anytime if appropriate.

Carl: If you are not working with a PR firm or have communications staff, be certain to let the reviewer know you have bottle and label images and any other winery asset they might need. High resolution photography is not optional (yes, I mean no iPhone bottle shots!).

Rusty: It also is critical that the winery uses the reviewer visits in all their social media (take a photo of reviewer at winery) and on their website. The fact that a reviewer spent the time to come to their winery is a Huge marketing ploy. Be sure to give the reviewer who visits recognition in every way possible. No reviewer who chooses to visit should be minimized.

Remember, reviewer visits are a FREE marketing advantage and I cannot overemphasize the importance of the reviewer’s impression after the winery visit. I receive many inquiries from readers asking advice about what wineries to visit, and the impression winery’s earn will have a major impact on what wineries I recommend. Those that reach out to me to receive recommendations are serious wine buyers and these are the type of customers that wineries want to embrace.

Carl: If you are successful getting important wine critics to visit your winery, and if they like the wines and review them or write a feature article about your brand and wines; please be certain to get the article or wine review online links; a copy of the article if in print and use the content in your marketing. Be sure to tag the author, and use proper hashtags so others see the content. This will drive up the value perception of your brand, and we all know how difficult it is to get attention in today’s marketplace, so be sure to leverage the opportunity.

WILLIAM “RUSTY” GAFFNEY, MD, aka the “Prince of Pinot,” is a retired ophthalmologist who has had a love affair with Pinot Noir for nearly forty years. Upon retirement from medicine, he devoted his energies to writing the PinotFile at princeofpinot.com, an online newsletter that was among the first wine publications exclusively devoted to Pinot Noir. Rusty tastes Pinot Noir almost daily, reads about Pinot Noir constantly through all of the available resources on wine, and visits Pinot Noir producing regions frequently. He also leads wine tours, organizes wine tastings and wine dinners, and participates as a judge in wine competitions. He can be reached by email at prince@princeofpinot.com.

CARL GIAVANTI is a Winery Publicist with a DTC Marketing background. He’s going on his 9th year of winery consulting. Carl has been involved in business marketing and public relations for over 25 years; originally in technology, digital marketing and project management, and now as a winery media relations consultant. Clients are or have been in Napa Valley, Willamette Valley, and the Columbia Gorge. (www.CarlGiavantiConsulting.com/Media).