We recently drank our way through Woodinville Passport 2008, in the ever-burgeoning Woodinville wine region just outside of Seattle, Washington. Here, we experienced wine tasting in warehouse office parks – and never was a more true and honest passion for wine represented without all the fancy mahogany tasting bars, and retail swag you find in other wineries. With a little help from some Woodinville winemakers, I share with you my top tips for how to attack a wine tasting festival.

The California Wine Club

For more than 25 years, The California Wine Club founders Bruce and Pam Boring have explored all corners of California’s wine country to find award-winning, handcrafted wine to share with the world. Each month, the club features a different small family winery and hand selects two of their best wines for members.

Woodinville boasts some spectacular wine: Syrah, Cab Blends, even Sangiovese. Several well-known wineries like Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia call this region home with beautiful grounds and tasting rooms. But as someone who has traipsed through wine tastings in Napa and Sonoma and been awed by the grounds and architecture, I was intrigued to attend Woodinville’s Passport Weekend where 32 wineries open their doors to the public – even if those doors are in warehouse office parks. Skeptical at first, I had the best time hopping from one winery to another and sipping alongside people who really care all about the wine. And how can you beat going to 12 wineries in an hour and a half? It’s just not possible when you have to drive down long gravel Cypress-lined driveways to get to each and every tasting room.

Here in Woodinville, tents and carpets welcomed visitors into the warehouse suites’ front doors, where barrels were stacked at every turn. Festively arrayed in white lights, painted walls, or hanging posters, it was like someone fixed up their garage to welcome you inside. Catered food of every variety offered aromas of brie, olives, chocolate and mini-meatballs as folks noshed, sipped and mingled in the early afternoon. As you bopped from warehouse to warehouse, you passed happy groups of wine lovers chatting away and laughing. Winemakers’ musical tastes came out in their choice of either blaring Aerosmith into the festivities or having a live jazz band.

But with 32 wineries to choose from, the desire to not get completely wasted, and the designated driver factor, how do you approach things to make the most of your day? Here are my six top tips:

Tip #1: Plan Ahead
Newbies to Washington wines, we are just dipping our toes in the water. So we got recommendations from a few locals on which wineries to be sure to hit. This helped us set out priorities and choose where to start. Robin Nydam of Arlington Road Cellars (offering a rocking red called Monolith) advises, “There are more wineries than time and there’s always the need to balance between a plan and spontaneity but if you really want to hit, say, our winery, you need to plot your course. Don’t make a desired winery the 15th one you go to or you won’t enjoy it as much as if it’s 2nd.” And it goes without saying to ensure you have a designated driver agreed upon before you even start, as the ambience could make it harder to decide once you get there.

Tip #2: Be Open-Minded and Try Something New
As an inverse to Tip #1, make sure you don’t over plan your route or you can really miss out on some gems. We were careful to only pick three “must-do’s” to leave room for undiscovered treasures. This curious spirit extends to sampling wines you “think” you don’t like. “Sometimes by limiting yourself to only trying wines you know you like, you miss out on expanding your palate and wine horizons, “says Nydam. “I can’t tell you the number of folks who say they don’t want to try our Imperium because they don’t like sweet wines only to try it and say ‘Wow, this is really good, I had no idea!’”

Darren Des Voignes, winemaker and owner of Des Voigne Cellars (killer labels include Untitled and Solea) suggests using this opportunity to try out a winery you’ve never tasted, or ones that you don’t see very often, like small boutique wineries with limited cases or those whose tasting rooms are not usually open to the public. If you already know you love a winery and you can have their sweet elixirs any time, try something new – this is your shot since your one ticket gives you access to everyone.

Tip #3: SPIT!
Those vessels are there for a reason. And if you need further permission, just ask a winemaker himself. “People feel like they are insulting the winery or winemaker by not drinking every drop in their glass but that is not the case at all, “shares Des Voigne. “It’s meant to just give you a little taste of what we have to offer.” If you hit 30 wineries pouring two wines each…well, you do the math. Aside from a nasty hangover, you will suffer from palate fatigue and end up buying a boatload of wine at the end of day that seemed to be the greatest when you tasted it but not so much when you brought it home. Confiscate my credit card after five wineries – I tend to order by the case at that point, and not just because my palate’s gone, if you know what I mean!

Tip #4: Don’t Wear Scented Lotions or Colognes
This was a surprise one for me, but it makes perfect sense. Darren cautions that such overpowering smells can interfere with the wine’s taste and aromas, giving you false impressions. Not to mention that I really don’t need to smell some guy’s bad Axe cologne while I’m trying to enjoy my Cabernet. Actually, I never need to smell it, no matter what I’m doing.

Tip #5: Partake of the Food Pairings
For many of us, food and wine pairing is a bit of a mystery. Sure, we know some basics, like not having a bold Cab with a delicate salmon, but the nuances are less clear. Many winemakers at these festivals carefully select nibbles that complement the wines perfectly so come a little hungry (but not too hungry or the alcohol will go straight to your head) and take a sip first without food. Then, sample the food, sip your wine again and observe your sensations. Does the food bring out flavors you hadn’t noticed when you sipped it before? Can you now sense what they mean when they say the wine is “grassy”, “smoky”, or “jammy” as a result of the food ingredients? What does the combination feel like in your mouth? Would you enjoy this wine alone, or is it much better with food? One of the treats of this festival was the wine and food pairings at Covington Cellars. Each wine tasting station offered a delicious gourmet delight so you knew exactly what was supposed to go with what – like a crispy, tropical Viognier with coconut prawns. I’m salivating just thinking about it!

Tip #6: Drink Water Early and Often
Make sure you hydrate before you embark. Yes, kids, this is a marathon not a sprint. This will also help ensure your palate is fresh and primed to experience all the wonderful flavors. Most wineries will offer ample water, but have a bottle or stash of your own and be sure to refuel between wineries. At the end of the day, ensure you drink at least a whole bottle as well, and a full glass before bed. Your head will thank you in the morning.

And what are the top tips for wineries preparing for such an event to put their best foot forward? Winemakers agree that in addition to creating a lovely ambience (in a warehouse winery’s case: rearranging the cellar, jockeying barrels around, tucking away clutter) it’s all about the flow. Des Voigne tells us, “You have to think about how to get people moving from entrance to exit with the least amount of bumping into others. They need to be comfortable, not cramped so they can enjoy the experience.” Nydam feels flow is key to planning a great experience for guests. “Trying to figure out how people are going to move through your space is important. We pay particular attention to reducing bottlenecks at pouring stations or at the food table, basically making sure it’s easy to get to the places that are the most important.”

The other key for them is having enough volunteers and arming them with the right information. Des Voignes provides a cheat sheet and a pre-event training session for his team and they always know to grab him if a guest wants to hear even more about the wine. Nydam ensures she has enough volunteers, including a floater, to fill the holes as things come up. A nice touch is pouring wine for folks who might be waiting in line in order to “ease the pain.”

Such festivals will only get bigger and more popular. The Washington wine industry is going through a great growth period right now and finally getting the props it deserves. Des Voignes (whose brother owns Cuillin Hills Winery as well) told me they were the 5th or 6th winery in their particular warehouse park – today there are 25. Statewide, he thinks the number of wineries has doubled in the last 3 or 4 years alone. Hurrah for us!

Maria Ross is a freelance writer who also runs Red Slice, a branding and marketing agency that helps emerging businesses, including wineries and wine bars, tell their unique story and attract new loyalists. She is based in Seattle.