04/26/2012 04:28 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Try Before You Buy: Bay Area Wine Tastings

Visiting Italian winemakers at a K&L tasting

The only way to find out whether you like a particular wine or wine style is to taste it. Through tasting, you can start to develop a style profile of wines you prefer.

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, we are blessed with many opportunities to taste and find out what we like before we buy. In my view, the single best resource both for wine newbies and those looking to deepen their knowledge of different types of wine are the neighborhood wine retailers that offer regular tastings.

Not all wine stores are licensed for tastings, and some are barred from offering such tastings under California's antiquated three-tier system or "tied house" restrictions. These restrictions segregate distribution from licensed producers and importers to wholesalers and then to retailers. That's the reason great importers of wines, like Kermit Lynch and North Berkeley Imports, which also own retail outlets, are barred from doing public tastings at those outlets.

Nonetheless, a number of wine retailers, especially in San Francisco itself, but also in the East Bay and down the Peninsula, are licensed to offer weekly tasting opportunities for consumers. Some of the best of these offer themed tastings -- e.g., new release California Pinots, Northern Italian Reds, or German wines -- so they're a terrific opportunity to learn about different types of wine and wine regions.

You can find a comprehensive list of local retailers offering regular tastings on my blog here. The remainder of this week's Wine Wednesday post highlights my personal list of the best of the best in Bay Area retail wine store tastings.

K&L Wine Merchants is one of the granddaddies of the Bay Area wine scene, dating back to 1976. It's a family owned operation -- still run by founders Todd Zucker and Clyde Beffa, Jr., and their families. They hire very knowledgeable and customer service-oriented staff who tend to stay with the company for years. They also have the most robust online sales website of any local retailer. They have locations in San Francisco (near the Caltrain station) and Redwood City, as well as in Hollywood in Southern California.

All K&L locations offer tastings every Saturday afternoon, and often on Fridays as well as special events. The weekly K&L tastings usually cost only $15 or $20, which allows you to sample nine to 12 wines from a particular region or of one variety, like Riesling or Pinot Noir. Staff who are buyers for or experts on particular regions usually preside over the tastings from those regions, so they're a great source for more information about that area and its producers.

Ribera del Duero tasting at San Francisco Wine Trading Co.

Another favorite of mine in the City with very informative and well organized tastings is San Francisco Wine Trading Company. Located on Taraval in West Portal, they offer Saturday afternoon themed tastings, as well as frequent events on Fridays.

Arlequin Wine Merchant is another retailer whose announcements of upcoming tastings I scour each week. Arlequin specializes in the kinds of wines true geeks adore -- wines from obscure regions, "orange wines" (white wines macerated with prolonged skin contact, rendering them darker than most white wines), and "natural" wines (wines made with fewer sulfites than most wine) from all over. Their tastings, which often feature visiting winemakers, are usually every Thursday evening, from 6 to 8 p.m., but they also offer periodic special events.

The Wine Club, which has locations near K&L's in San Francisco, as well as in San Jose and Orange County in Southern California, also offers regular Saturday afternoon tastings on different themes. They also tend to have some of the lowest prices on the wines they offer.

The newest entrant to the San Francisco winetasting scene is Noe Valley Wine Merchants on 24th Street, which just opened a month ago. I attended a tasting of wines hosted by Jeff Pisoni, winemaker for Pisoni and Luli Wines, at this shop last week, and was impressed by the limited but good selection of reasonably priced wines as well as older vintages available.

The owners are veteran wine retailer James Mead, and Sara Floyd, who is both a master sommelier and owner of Swirl Wine Brokers. The manager, Rebecca Rapaszky, is an old buddy of mine from wine stores down the Peninsula who is committed to informative and fun tastings. Tastings there will regularly take place on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

Jeff Pisoni, right, at Noe Valley Wine Merchants

Moving down the Peninsula, there are two more gems of the Bay Area wine scene that attract wine lovers from all over the Bay Area.

Beltramo's roots go all the way back to its initial founding in Menlo Park in 1882 as a wholesale-retail wine and spirits business by recently arrived Italian immigrant Giovanni Beltramo. Re-established in its current site after prohibition, it's still a family business, owned and run by Giovanni's descendants. The store was one of the first in the Bay Area to specialize in imported wines, and they offer one of the widest selections of any of our local wine merchants.

The Beltramo's Saturday tastings are a little unusual in that, unlike the stand up tastings at most retailers -- where your tasting fee gets you a glass to use and usually one-ounce pours of the wines being tasted -- here you can sit or stand, and you are set up with glasses for each of the wines in the tasting -- usually about eight. The advantage here is that you can go back and forth between the wines in the flight to further compare them. The pours are about two ounces (i.e., suitable for sharing). The tastings are by theme and sometimes feature a winemaker or distributor who can answer questions about the wines. Beltramo's also offers excellent special event tastings with visiting winemakers.

Wine poured out for a tasting at Beltramo's

Finally, one of my very favorite retail store winetasting venues is Palo Alto's Vin Vino Wine. It is unusual in offering tastings every day it is open -- Tuesday through Saturday. These tastings are always themed, by producer, variety or sub-region, and often include older wines. Like Beltramo's, if you order the whole flight, you will receive all the wines poured out at once -- seven or eight glasses, usually -- and the pours are two and a half ounces. (With pours this large, I always prefer to share with a friend, whenever possible.)

Typical tasting lineup at Vin Vino

Since Vin Vino's tastings include wines from some of the priciest and most sought after Burgundy, Rhone, Italian, German and Austrian producers, and since the pours are large, these tend to be among the most expensive retail wine tastings in the area. They are also, however, among the most informative and in-depth themed tastings you can find, so a valuable resource for those of us wanting to learn about the world's greatest wines.

If you'd like to share your favorite winetasting venues with the Huffington Post's readers, please add them in a comment below.