Look, I totally get it. I’m not so jaded and sophisticated that I don’t understand the appeal of going to a wine tasting for the “free booze” but if that’s why you’re thinking of attending a wine tasting you might want to think again.
Wine tastings are a great opportunity to try a lot of different wines – maybe a lot of different wines that you’d never have the chance to try again! And yes, they can also be an occasion for lots of drinking on the cheap…a $15 dollar ticket to what is basically an open bar? I hear ya! You’re like, “where do I sign up?!”
And while I’m all about pushing aside staid conventions and having fun with wine, a wine tasting is no place to get wasted. You’ve got to think about it from the point of view of the people hosting and working the event – sure, they know you’re there because you might leave drunk, but they’re also there hoping to introduce their product and perhaps do some business.
Ok, enough with the semi-lecturing and onto the good stuff….
Do a walk around before you start tasting. Grab your tasting glass from the front and do a quick round of the room. Realistically, you’re not going to get a chance to try everything so make a mental note of the tables that have wines you’re really interested and hit those first – before you get too buzzed to remember any of your tasting notes.
Rinse your glass between tables. You walk into the room and you do your scan and you see a bottle of club soda or soda water on every table and you’re like, “Gee, that’s so nice that they’ve put something out for the people who came here and don’t drink!”. Yeah, no. The seltzer is for rinsing out your glass between tables.
Generally, you should rinse your glass if you’re going from reds to whites (or visa versa) at the same table, or even if you’re switching between totally different varietals from pour to pour (from a Cabernet Sauvignon to a Pinot Noir for example) so the flavors don’t get muddied. It’s up to you how often you rinse your glass – some people do it after every pour and some wait until they’re switching colors or tables. You want to pour in a small amount of the soda water (sometimes its just plain old regular water), swirl it around, and pour it into the spitting bucket. If anyone sees you drinking this water, it will be a dead giveaway that you’re a newbie! Generally they’ll provide ice water or water bottles at a tasting that are for drinking.
The spitting thing. I can’t spit in public. I just can’t – its gross and, inevitably, I either spit with too much force and get splashed by the disgusting bucket juice or I don’t spit hard enough and it dribbles down my chin (embarrassing) or down onto my shirt (more embarrassing). So, what’s a very small girl with an average tolerance and 11 tables to go supposed to do?! I limit myself to a two-sip per pour – and often only end up taking one. Sometimes its enough to get the gist of a wine from one long taste – letting it spend more time than usual swishing around my mouth before swallowing – and sometimes I need a small second taste. Don’t feel compelled to finish every pour. I can’t stress this enough! You will not insult anyone if you simply pour out the remainder of your taste into the bucket. If anything it will show that you know you have to pace yourself and you’ll get some major tasting cred. And if any of the other guests give you a hard time for pouring out the wine they’re probably just embarrassed that they’ve been choking down a lot of wine they didn’t particularly care for. That said, if you do get a pour of something you love it is more than acceptable to not only finish the pour but ask for a second one while you move to the next table.
Keeping track. I’m old fashioned – I like to bring a small notebook and pen with me to write down the names of any wines that I loved. If you have an iPhone or a crackberry it is more than ok to bust it out and type the name of the wines you liked into it. You can also ask the pourers if they have any info to take away with you – most of the time they’ll be armed with press releases or some kind of info.
Be polite. The people pouring the wines are there because it is their job. I shouldn’t even have to say it but, say “please” and “thank you.” Also, try not to make this face if you hate a wine:
Asking questions. Alright, here’s where things get tricky. As you’ve learned here…we Americans are used to seeing our varietals right where we can see ‘em – printed clearly and neatly on the label. Unfortunately, things get complicated when you go abroad – particularly to France, Spain, or Italy. Damn those foreigners!
So, here’s where all those nifty maps I’ve made come in handy (click here and here). Most of the time when you’re being poured a French wine, the wine will go by the name of the area where it is from. Knowing which grapes are grown where can be helpful in knowing what grapes are in your glass. (Bordeaux has a traditional mix of five grapes – Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot while anything labeled “Burgundy” is strictly Pinot Noir. Seriously – just look at my old post!).
It is perfectly reasonable to ask the pourer what grapes or varietals (same thing, fancier word) are in the wine but you’ll be showing yourself off as a newbie and, really, when it comes to French wine, the grapes are not the point – the terroir is the point.
If you’re tasting an Italian wine, things can get tricky since some go by their grape name (Dolcetto, Valpolicella, Nero d’Avola) and some go by their place name (Chianti – which is made from Sangiovese for example). Emphasis is more on grapes and less on terroir for Italian wines, but Italian wines are also much more prone to include obscure hyper-local varietals that you (or I) have never heard of. So you can ask…just prepare your best poker face when you have no idea what the guy’s talking about.
Here are some better questions to ask if you want to know more about the wine you’re drinking:
How many vineyards are the grapes sourced from? (Often if the grapes are sourced from a single vineyard or less than a few, this is a good sign)
What is the area like where the grapes were grown? What kind of soil? (This is a great way to learn more about how geography influences wine as you’re tasting it!)
How many bottles are produced each year? (A smaller amount produced and the more focus the winemaker can give each individual vintage).
What is in here that gives the wine it’s color/nose/backbone/smoky taste? (Is there something unusual or striking about the wine? Asking why it’s there and identifying something that is unique about a wine will impress everyone!)
Where can I buy this wine? (If you love a wine, ask where you can find it!)
So, that’s all I got for navigating a wine tasting. To sum up:
• If you’re going to get drunk, don’t go.
• Don’t feel compelled to finish every pour and don’t feel pressured to try something you have no interest in! Just say no thank you and ask to try what you want to try!
• If you don’t want to spit in public, just commit yourself to a one or two sip maximum and pour out what’s left without feeling badly.
• Pay attention and take notes if you want to remember something.
• Ask questions that have answers you actually care about or would understand. There’s no point in asking “what grapes are in this?” if you have no idea what it means that a wine is blended from Roussane and Viognier. On the other hand, ask “what varietals are typically found in wines from this region?” and you’ll sound so much more informed.
• Enjoy! Talk to strangers and be polite when they like the worst wine you tasted the whole night. Nobody likes a snob. Oh, and I leave you with this picture…which is just…weird: