To the Table

How to taste with reviewers, critics on site

Sampling your wines is important. What’s better than 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?

If you assume most small producers plan for such visits, you would be wrong. I’ve found many wineries relying on personal interaction to engage consumers and casual wine media don’t necessarily know what to do with professional reviewers. This article is based on a conversation with Rusty Gaffney of the PinotFile (, who has been writing his newsletter for more than 15 years. He accepts shipped samples of Pinot Noir from around the world, but what I find compelling about his program is that he actually makes a point to visit wineries and taste onsite whenever possible. Also, Rusty has received winemakers in Orange County, where he lives.

Our interactions 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.

Be Prepared

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 timeframe of the visiting reviewer.

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 emphasized enough that the winery needs to be prepared ahead of time and well-organized so the reviewer is comfortable and can perceive [the organization].

The winemaker should have some idea of how he/she plans to utilize our time together. They can give prepared options — considering when wines were bottled and what wines in barrel are appropriate to taste at that time. The winery should dictate the tasting and not ask the reviewer what they want to taste unless the reviewer demands certain arrangements.

If it is a sit-down bottle tasting, tech sheets on each wine should be available, so I don’t have to keep asking details, including MSRP. Hand out appropriate information about the winery and yourself. Water should always be available as well as spit cups, receptacles, pen, paper and proper glassware.

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 who want to taste privately is an excellent idea. You can show them what you’ve set up when they arrive and ask if they’d like to taste alone. If so, revisit the wines with them after and answer questions they may have.

A Relaxed 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, not rushed. It is important to talk personally beyond the wine and winery 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 and Not Say

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

Carl: Upbeat and heartfelt personal greetings matter. Also, 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.

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.

Always send the writer a follow-up e-mail 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 do not have communications staff, be certain to let the reviewer know you have bottle and label images and any other winery assets 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 which wineries to visit, and the impression wineries earn will have a major impact on which wineries I recommend. Those who 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.

Check out Rusty Gaffney’s online newsletter at

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