Napa Wine Tasting Tips

“The best kind of wine is that which is most pleasant to him who drinks it.”
~ Pliny the Elder, Roman author

I admit I have been accused of being a “wine snob.” An unfair assessment if you ask me; I just like what I like! This is mainly because I grew up with a dad that is really into wine, has worked in the wine industry in Napa Valley for over 20 years, and well, has bestowed upon me rather amazing wine experiences throughout my adult life. Not only have I been very fortunate to have partaken in many a rare and hard-to-come-by bottle, but I have benefitted from the expertise of my wine-loving father time and time again. So, I asked him if he would be willing to share some of his vast wine knowledge with all of you, and I’m so grateful he said yes! Let’s welcome Tom Inlay to this new column “Napa Valley Insider” where readers can learn a thing or two about wine and ask those questions you might have been too intimidated to ask.


Too many visitors to Napa Valley are worried that they don’t know all the rules about wine tasting and are going to be exposed as un-savvy.  I try to get them to relax and have fun.  I might ask, “What’s the difference between wine tasting and wine drinking?” Answer: When wine tasting, you are paying attention to what you’re drinking.

They’ll look at the descriptions on the tasting menu and be immediately intimidated – they know they won’t be able to smell or taste those things.  Barnyard? Cigar Box? Flabby? I tell them, “These are helpful hints, not what you are supposed to taste or smell.  Remember, wine makers have good imaginations.”

They’ll pick up the glass and swirl the wine, because someone told them that is what you have to do when wine tasting, but then they’ll ask what is the significance of watching the wine slide down the inside of the glass?  I tell them “it looks cool.”

Wine appeals to all the senses:

Don’t you love the “pop” of the cork being removed from the glass? Ah, look at the smiles on everyone’s faces.

Hold the glass up to the light and look at the beautiful colors or the glint of light off the clear glass bowl.

Give it a swirl, put the bowl up to your nose, take a good sniff, and discover the amazing aromas.

Take a sip, then let it sit in your mouth for a few seconds while you enjoy the many flavors.  Then swallow and see what happens to the flavors.

The wine has texture! It might seem smooth and velvety at the beginning and then rough and drying on the back of the tongue.

Now you are wine tasting!

I can certainly attest to the experience that we don’t all smell and taste the same things.  You may find yourself thinking a wine is very tart while everyone else in your group is talking about how smooth and soft it is. This does not mean you are wrong and you should not assume that your wine tasting ability is out of whack.  Maybe you don’t want to open yourself up to being criticized by the rest of the group (in case they think being in the majority means they are right). So, instead of saying “This wine is tart” you can say “It’s a little tart for my tastes.”  How can you be wrong? That is your taste.

Remember, the purpose of a tasting room is wine education. So ask your questions and don’t worry about looking like a pro.  Enjoy the experience – after all, it’s supposed to be fun.

Best, Tom

Thanks dad! And please readers, feel free to comment below on some wine questions or topics you’d like him to answer in future posts!


Tom Inlay

Tom Inlay

Wine Columnist, "Napa Valley Insider"

A 20-year Napa Valley wine industry vet, Tom turned a passion into a career after closing his psychology practice in a previous life. Perhaps it's his innate desire to "make people happy" that fuels his fire to teach colleagues and visitors about enjoying wine. Good food, good wine and good company are what life is all about in wine country.

  1. Love this! Thanks, Erika, for taking advantage of your connections … Tom is a pro (never a “snob”) and best of all, he loves wine and loves to share the experience with all of us who do too … I’ll be watching out for his next fabulous tips! Ciao!

  2. What a great addition! I love having a wine expert at the ready. I’m going to have to incorporate “for my taste” into my future wine tasting vocabulary.

  3. Thank you Sooo much for this! My husband and I are going to Napa this weekend and with this information I am gonna pretend I am a wine “snob”! Lol
    Keep writing! I would love to read more!

  4. Ah! I’m glad I’m not the only one who loves the sound of a cork popping! I’d like that as a ringtone!

    So, since we have an expert, I’d like some insider intel:

    1. What’s Tom’s favorite tasting room in Napa? Sonoma? And why?
    2. Are tours worth taking? I.e., do you really get a better idea of the winery, more than you would from the team in the tasting room?
    3. What are some good Napa dessert wines?
    4. Are there any smaller, less-hyped places I should visit?
    5. And conversely, any “big names” that might not be worth fighting the crowds for? Or, for that matter, any big names that actually warrant the visit?
    6. Any thoughts on other wine regions, say Central Coast or Oregon? Or even (my bias is showing) Virginia? Have you heard of RdV?

    Thank you!!! Cannot wait to read more!

    1. Thanks for the great questions Madelyn. You’ve presented me with some real challenges. The questions related to visiting Napa will make a good post, which I will work on soon.

      As for question #3 – I don’t have a good answer to that one. However, I accept the challenge and will conduct some extensive research on your behalf. Oh, the rigors of living in Napa Valley!

      Question #6 – I have visited most of the wine regions in CA, including Napa, Sonoma, Alexander Valley, Anderson Valley, Mendocino Coast, Sierra Foothills, Livermore, Monterey, Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo, Santa Ynez, and Temecula. Most of them more than once, including Oregon. I’ve had a great time in all of them. I think they are all making excellent wine and are interesting to see and experience. Plus, you can get some good values still in some places. Napa Valley is so small and popular that the price of vineyard land is sky high, as is a ton of grapes. Wineries in many of the other areas don’t have to deal with the same economic issues so can operate on a smaller budget. I’ve even visited wine country in Herman, MO and had a great time (even shipped some MO wine back to CA to share with friends) but I don’t know anything about VA wine country. I did look at the RdV website and it looks like a spectacular place. I’m sure it would be fun to visit.

      BTW, did you know that the only endeavor that Thomas Jefferson failed at was being able to make good wine from his own grapes? They couldn’t get the indigenous grapes to make good wine, and plantings of the European varieties would not grow well in that climate. It wasn’t until the early 1800’s that a hybrid grape called Norton, named after its inventor, was planted in Virginia that the first good red wines were able to be produced. I don’t know if it is still widely planted in VA but it is very big in MO and I tried several when there. Riedel even developed a glass specifically for Norton wine. I bought 2 of them when I was in MO and gave them to my sister and brother-in-law who live in Columbia, MO. If you can find a Norton wine in VA you should give it a try.

      Cheers! Tom

  5. Just when I thought I knew a lot about wine….

    Thanks for the wonderful information and reminding me it is time for a glass of wine! Cheers!