Part One: The Tasting Room
This three part series will explore wine tasting etiquette from the tasting room to the barrel room to the living room. Don’t be that guy who asks if they can drink the contents of the dump bucket or makes inappropriate jokes about the bung hole. Taste like a pro and be proud of it. You don’t have to be the sommelier of The French Laundry to taste like the experts. Learn your way around a wine glass in three easy steps: stop, drop and roll.
Stop: Reading Reviews and Start Tasting
Tasting makes perfect. The best way to learn about wine is to drink and drink lots of it. Develop your own vocabulary and scribble down notes on what you see, smell and taste. Soon, you will begin tasting repetitive qualities and recognize true varietal characteristics. And by all means, trust your own palette. You are the master of your own mouth!
Every tasting room experience is different and ranges from the boutique, off the map winery to the big guns of Napa scattered along Highway 29. I have a few ubiquitous reminders and expectations to keep in mind as you explore your chosen wine country. Usually, there is a greeter and someone who will explain the ins and outs of their tasting room including what wines are open for tasting. Pricings for tasting vary from free to upwards of $45 dollars. Tip: plan ahead and check out the websites of the wineries your planning on visiting. You can find information such as tasting notes on the current releases, awards and upcoming events. And if you want a more intimate and organized experience, make an appointment. Also, ask your eagerly anticipated winery host to offer suggestions as to their favorite places to visit. You’d be surprised at how many “unknown” producers can be discovered through word of mouth.
Every winery has their unique style and staff appropriately. Be aware of your surroundings and respect the winery. Several wineries operate with small crews who wear many hats and are not simply waiting in the tasting room, drinking the dump bucket in anticipation of your arrival.
Typically white wines are poured first, followed by the reds in order of their intensity. The idea being not to let the different strengths and flavors of these wines interfere with each other.
Leave your snobbery for the runway. People have their opinions about wine and are quick to share them. Listen with an open mind but trust yourself. Nobody is the boss of your mouth! So let’s talk about the actual quaff in three easy steps: check it out, get a whiff of this and yummy-in-my-mouth.
- Check it out! Not only do most people miss the smell (huge olfactory-goodness mistake) but also few take the time to check out the look of the yummy in the glass. Make note of the clarity and brilliance of color as well as the intensity. Wines vary in color and texture. Hint: hold your wine glass at an angle up towards the light.
- Get a whiff of this! Hold the wine glass by its stem and swirl the wine in your glass by rotating your wrist. Do not abuse the wine in your glass. You’re not whipping an egg. This takes a little practice. You may try keeping your glass on the tasting table, resting your hand on the base of the glass and rotating the wrist while holding the rest of the arm still. The swirly action is not just to look like a hip-quaffer but it actually releases the wine's aromas. Next, don’t be shy with your schnoz; get your nose up in that glass and keep your mouth open. Whiff, whiff, whiff and pull the glass away and take a moment to reflect. (It’s true you can overwhelm your olfactory senses so take your time with this step; the wine is not going anywhere.) Please don’t be intimidated by the dude next to you who smells black cherries whilst you are whiffing on some dried apricot. People smell differently. Check out: Different wine whiffs are down to our genes By Sandra Clement.
- Yummy-in-my-mouth! After getting you fair share of whiffs, it’s time to taste. Take a sip and roll the wine over your tongue several times before swallowing. (Be nice to the juice! It’s not mouthwash people.) Try and exhale through your nose as you swallow to allow your taste buds and sense of smell to be best friends forever! If you’re feeling brave, you can try to aerate your wine by allowing the wine to be exposed by the surrounding air. Take a small sip and essentially slurp with your mouth slightly open. By exposing some air you open up the wine and release the intended aromas and flavors. If you discover yourself aerating your coffee then you’ve truly graduated.
The spit bucket is your friend. Dump away and don’t feel you have to gulp it all down or your will hurt your host’s feeling. The tasting room wines are open for you and will be left for vinegar if not poured for your enjoyment. Special containers are provided so that you may gracefully discard the wine from your glass or your mouth.
Roll: With Style
Take the time to methodically explore wines that reflects your own style and tastes. I suggest taking on a specific varietal in a specific region and tunneling down. Not only will you familiarize yourself with the characteristics of the vareital, but also you can begin to understand how terroir (the dirt) shows up in the glass. The Cabernet Sauvignon cone planted in Napa will not taste the same planted in the Willamette Valley. There are several inexpensive wines being imported from countries like Chile and Argentina and Australia so grab your tasting passport and take a trip.
One last reminder about the tasting room, “Yo, boozy-the-clown, don’t ask for a second tasting unless you are ready to take her (cough) I mean the wine home with you. Tastings are not designed to get you lit and start drunk dialing your last boyfriend but to cultivate and entice those taste buds of yours. And on that note, do not feel obligated to taste have every wine in your path. Not only can you dump with impunity but also you can skip (I know, try it folks) those wines you think you may not dig. Why strain the palate unnecessarily? If you’re on a specific varietal kick like say Petite Verdot then you can even stick to the PV for the day.
Tasting wine is a blast and touring wine country or bellying up to the tasting bar at your local wine shop gives you the opportunity to commune with your fellow wine heads. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and share what you are tasting. It’s an enriching and educational experience for every wine enthusiast both novice and expert alike. Get on with your wineglass toting self and stop, drop & roll. Experience the magic!