Wine-tasting is growing as a social activity with regular events held not only at wineries, but in shops, high-end grocery stores and even college classrooms. Part of the fun is discovery. Nevertheless, discovering that your spitting technique just offended half of the people in the tasting room can take some of the joy out of the experience. Knowing what you’re getting into before you arrive at a tasting can help you focus on the wine, not on your manners.
Who’s behind the bar?
When you arrive at a tasting room, a staff member should greet you, set up some glasses and tell you about the wines that are available that day. “The first thing people need to know is the staff is there to be helpful and educational, not to be snooty,” says Craig Root, a tasting-room consultant based in St. Helena, California. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about the wines or to bring a pad and pencil and make some notes, says Sharyl Admire, guest-services trainer at Chateau Ste. Michelle Wine Estates in Washington state.
In fact, says Dieter Schafer, a wine educator and sommelier based in Seattle, you may enjoy the tasting more if you have an idea of what you like and can describe it before you begin. If you don’t see what you want on the tasting list, he says, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask for the type of wine you’re most interested in.
What comes first?
You will usually taste from light to heavy and from dry to sweet — that is, you’ll have white wines, then reds, then dessert wines. For your palate’s sake, Root advises, follow the staff’s suggestions when it comes to the order of the wines you taste. “It’s like drinking orange juice after you brush your teeth,” he explains. “Some wines don’t follow others well.”
There’s no rule stating that you must taste each wine you’re offered — you can pass on any that don’t appeal to you. It’s also OK not to finish your wine. Most tasting rooms will have “dump buckets” placed not far from your elbow. You can take a sip, savor it and discreetly pour the remains into the container.
Dumping out leftover wine is not rude, but here are two behaviors that are: When the pourer is busy with other people, do not take it upon yourself to refill your glass. This is not only bad manners; in some states it is illegal. And don’t take a sip and loudly proclaim your negative opinion. “You can say something like, ‘This wine is not to my taste,'” says Schafer. That will help the pourer decide what kind of wine you might enjoy more.
Can we share?
Some tasting rooms charge a fee, which may buy a glass or apply toward the purchase of a bottle. At other tasting rooms, the sampling is free. Either way, it’s all right to share your sip with someone else. This not only saves money, it can help you avoid becoming too tipsy to taste. You can ask for a second taste of something you really like, says Root, but it’s best to do that only if you’re seriously interested in buying the wine.
What’s with the spitting and slurping?
After you’ve savored the flavor of your wine, it’s acceptable to eject it in a more direct way. In Root’s and Admire’s experiences, it’s the rare taster who spits. Still, if you plan to taste several wines, either spitting or taking just a tiny taste will help your ability to assess flavors as the tasting progresses, not to mention navigate your way home safely.
Spitting, however, is not as easy as it sounds. “If you’re going to spit,” says Admire, who has seen some dribbling in her day, “spit like you mean it.” Never use the dump bucket, since this could result in an unpleasant backlash from both the bucket and the people around you. Ask for a disposable spit cup. And, Schafer advises, consider first practicing at home in front of the mirror. Alone.
Slurping and swishing are a bit more controversial. Root is against loud displays of gurgling; Admire says making some noise is acceptable and even encouraged. Schafer comes down in the middle, advocating gentle swishing to allow the wine full access to the taste buds on your tongue.
What about personal hygiene?
Don’t wear perfume or cologne or use lotions with strong fragrances when attending a tasting. The scents interfere not only with your senses of smell and taste, but also with those of the people around you. Toning down your lipstick, says Schafer, will lessen your chances of leaving a rim smudge that brings to mind Liz Taylor in Butterfield 8.
Don’t smoke in the tasting room or outside the door. In fact, Schafer says, if you’re a smoker, try to leave about 20 minutes between your last cigarette and your first taste of wine. This will help clear your palate and dissipate any tobacco odors that might bother others.
Remember, this is a tasting room, not a fraternity kegger: no rowdy behavior, and no trashing the grounds outside. If you are planning to picnic at a winery, says Root, it is bad form to drink wine from another vintner — or worse yet, beer — while enjoying the table of your host.
Must we buy?
This is perhaps the trickiest question. The simple answer, as Admire says, is “absolutely not.” But if you’ve just thoroughly enjoyed six or seven healthy tastes, there is an expectation that you’re interested in purchasing the product. As Schafer says, “Everyone wants to sell their wines.”
Kathleen Donnelly, formerly an editor at WebMD and feature writer at the San Jose Mercury News, writes about food, nutrition and health from her home in Seattle.