Each November for the past four years, I’ve packed a suitcase, hopped in the car and headed north on California’s Highway 101 to San Luis Obispo for the SLOWine Harvest festival. This is a ‘muchachas only’ weekend where boyfriends and husbands are verboten and we señoritas can experience a grown-up version of an overnight high school field trip.
This year’s festival drew hundreds of wine lovers to the Avila Beach Resort on Saturday, Nov. 5 for the Grand Tasting and Auction, featuring more than 60 Central Coast wineries and restaurants pouring and serving tastes of their best creations. The “Rockin’ Harvest” theme inspired winemakers to dress up with music in mind. If you’ve never received a taste of Pinot Noir from the Blues Brothers, you’re missing out.
Wine festivals like SLOWine are a perfect way for wine newbies to pick up some tips and ideas on how to enjoy wine. Here are five reasons you may want to make a special guest appearance at your area’s next wine festival:
1. Taste as many different varietals as you can.
I’ve said this so much you’re probably sick of hearing it, but the best way to learn about wine is to go out and taste it. The beauty of a wine festival is that wineries will generally be pouring wines made from four to five different types of grapes. If you’ve ever wondered what the difference is between a Pinot Noir and a Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine festival is your golden opportunity to taste the two side by side and notice the different smells and flavors.
2. Take advantage of the fact that a wide variety of wineries are represented.
A Chardonnay from one winery or vineyard is probably going to taste a little different from a Chardonnay at a neighboring winery. Why? Because the conditions in which the grapes were grown or how the wine was aged may be vastly different. One winemaker may choose to age her Chardonnay in oak barrels, while another may opt for stainless steel. The steel-tank aged wine generally will not have the oaky flavor of a Chardonnay aged in wooden barrels.
3. Go with the relaxed, casual mood and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Plain and simple, wine festivals are fun! Most of the ones I’ve attended are held outdoors, usually in a unique setting. I’ve gone to festivals on Hollywood film lots, Art Deco train stations, and a few steps from the ocean at SLOWine. Wine festivals give you the luxury of having one-on-one time with someone who knows a lot about wine, so leave the inhibitions in the car (or on the subway or bus) and ask away. Remember, no one expects you to be a wine expert, and if they do, you’re dealing with someone who could use a good, stiff drink.
4. Experiment pairing different wines with the foods being served.
If you’re like me, you love your food. All but a few of the wine festivals I’ve gone to offer tasty, tapas-size servings of foods that pair well with wines. How do you know what wine pairs with what food? It doesn’t matter! Trust your instinct and taste to your heart’s content. Or if you’re a bit of a purist, ask the winery rep or the chef serving the food what they recommend. They’ll be more than happy to offer suggestions, and sometimes you can even pick up a copy of a recipe or a wine-food pairing list.
5. Learn about events or tastings the wineries may have going on throughout the year.
Keep the magic alive long after the wine festival ends. A lot of wineries are there to generate awareness, and some will offer fliers or postcards with information about upcoming events at their wineries or tasting rooms. Don’t be shy! Pick up fliers from the wineries whose wines you liked best, or visit their websites. Then make it a point to attend one of their tastings. If nothing else, the fact that you stopped by their booth at the wine festival is an easy conversation starter when you visit the tasting room, and may help make your tasting experience more meaningful.