This story was originally published in the Chicago Tribune brand publishing special section Michigan Wine Country.
When visiting a wine tasting room in Michigan, the first thing to do is relax, says Marie-Chantal Dalese of Chateau Chantal near Traverse City — whose tasting room serves nearly 100,000 customers a year.
"There is not a lot of pressure to do the right thing in a tasting room in Michigan. It is a relaxed experience," she says.
When you walk into a wine tasting room, you should be greeted by someone behind the bar who will let you know the fee for the wine tasting and how many wines you can try (typically five or six.) In front of you, there will be a printed list of all the wines available for you to taste. You are expected to check off the ones you want to try.
They will be served to you one by one, starting with the driest to the sweetest, usually red to white. After each wine, there may be a palate cleanser offered, such as water or bland crackers. These are meant to remove the taste of the last wine you drank so you can accurately taste the next one.
"We understand it can be overwhelming. We have 27 products on our list," Dalese says. "Our staff will begin by asking if the guests are first-timers, to gauge their experience level. That way they can help direct them to what they might like.
"Even if you are an experienced wine drinker, the fun of a wine tasting is the experimentation. "You can go outside the box without committing to an entire bottle," Dalese says. "You can expand your palate in that way."
What if you don't like the wine you are tasting? That is what the dump bucket on the counter is for.
"If it is not something you prefer, no one will be offended. Tell them and they will guide you to something else," Dalese says. "Everyone has their own unique taste."
Dalese also recommends liberal use of the dump bucket after a small taste of each glass if you are driving.
All of the wines you sampled should be available for purchase right there at the tasting room. Be sure to ask about discounts or shipping. And keep in mind that many Michigan wines are made in relatively small quantities and are available only on location. So if you find something you really like, take it with you when you leave.
Here are some more wine tasting tips:
Wine tasting rooms are staffed by knowledgeable folks whose job it is to guide you to something you really like. Chat them up and make the most of it.
Drink plenty of water and eat beforehand. Or try booking a wine tour where someone else does the driving. If you are driving, keep your wine tasting to just that — a taste, not the whole pour.
If food such as palate cleansing crackers are offered, definitely make use of them, but don't take more than your share.
Check the winery's website in advance, as they may offer cellar tours, vineyard tours, lunches, dinners and other offerings at certain times of the day.
No appointments are necessary at tasting rooms, but be sure to check the winery's schedule. Some request reservations for groups of eight or more.
Most wine tasting rooms charge a small fee, such as $3-$5 per person for five or six samples. Some tasting rooms refund the fee if you purchase their wine.
It's OK to offer a sip of your wine to your neighbor to try.