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9 Rules for Fun at Wine Fests

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Not just flowers but festivals bloom in spring -- it's a prime time for wine regions to pull out all the corks, as it were. In just the next three weeks one doesn't have to wonder too far to attend the Santa Barbara Vintners Spring Weekend (it used to be just a one day fest, but now it's days of delight) April 10 - 13 mostly in the Santa Ynez Valley; the Santa Barbara County Wine Futures Tasting at Les Marchands in Santa Barbara on April 19; and then the Paso Robles Cabs of Distinction Gala on April 26.

To do one of these events right, and that pretty much means how to have a great time and remember exactly what fun you had after, it's good to think things through ahead of time. So here's a general plan about how to approach anything hailed as a grand tasting -- afternoons or evenings of a hundred wineries pouring at least a few wines each.

1) Get your ambitions in check and your mind and liver will follow. You will not taste everything. You won't even taste all the reds or all the whites or all the pinots. It's to the point at many of these you can't even taste all the roussannes. That's OK. Be happy with what you can taste and hope to live to taste another day.

2) Keep cool. If the event is outside, look for shade. Wear a hat, in case there isn't much shade. Too much sun and alcohol does bad bad things, and even a fashion faux pas is better than sunstroke.

3) Map the space ahead of time. Many festivals even provide online maps before you get in the door, now (thank you, planners), but generally there's some map in the program. Even if there isn't, scope it all out before you start drinking. Know where the water is, where the food is, if the food is free, if you need cash or have to buy food coupons. Then head off and be sure to visit the wineries with the juice you most want to taste -- don't just go where the lines are shortest or to the place closest to you.

4) Since you know where food and water is, eat and drink (H2O). Often events actually try to give you food that will pair with the wines you're tasting, so that's good too. When in doubt, ask one of the pourers to make a food suggestion. You're here to learn, after all.

5) Divide and conquer. While you won't be able to taste all the reds, perhaps you want to focus on a varietal you like. Just enjoy all those syrahs (and maybe a few grenaches, too -- Rhones hold together well). Really think about them. Take some notes. Or, if you definitely want to try some whites and some reds, do whites first, just as you would in a tasting room. That will help your palate avoid getting burned out by the generally more tannic, and tougher on your taste buds, reds. And you don't have to drink every wine open at a winery's table. It's not an insult -- they assume you have a plan.

6) Didn't your momma teach you any table etiquette? Sure, ask questions, assuming this is an event where the person pouring is actually from the winery or the winemaker (that's quite often the case). But no matter how entertaining he or she is, don't clog up the front of the table for five minutes: other people want some of that wine, and wisdom, too. Learn to move aside, or take your taste to the back of the line and you can get to the next sample by the time your glass is empty, or...

7) "I can't bring myself to spit in public." Spitting really is a good way to taste and not get sloshed, but if you can't expectorate in a crowded room, try my little mantra, "Sip-sip-dump." It hurts to let some lovely wine hit the dump bucket, but it's better than all the wines hitting your stomach.

8) A drunk and his money will be over ordered. If you plan on buying, see if there's a window for a few days after the fest. Then wait, sober up, and order. If you have to purchase day of, set yourself a money limit before you put the first souvenir glass to your lips. Stick to it, no matter how good that last $50 bottle absolutely seems after you've been tasting for 3 hours. You don't want to wake up full of regrets and low in funds.

9) Avoid a DUI. Get a designated driver, or figure out how you can attend an event and then after walk to dinner at which you don't drink yet more wine somewhere before heading home, or take transportation if any is available (harder in most wine regions, true). You want to enjoy that next tasting, don't you?

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