7 Ways to Ruin Your First Wine Tasting 02/19/11
*DISCLAIMER* – The following article contains strong language, as well as some false information.
See if you can spot it!
So the day has finally come: you’ve set aside your PBR, thrown on your nicest boxers and before you can say “sober” you find yourself surrounded by a syndicate of swirling, sniffing assholes. Welcome to your first wine tasting! Untold millions around the world have made a fulfilling, lifelong hobby of attempting to solve the subtle riddles of the vine, but most of you reading this probably shouldn’t even bother.
On the other hand, now that you’re a grown-up, wine is the most socially acceptable way to get plastered – provided you can pull it off with class. There are over 6,000 wineries in the United States, and that number has continued to grow even during the recession, with conservative estimates calling for it to double by 2025. Americans are also expected to take over the world (in terms of wine consumption) well before then. So clearly, wine’s no longer just for Frasier and the French.
But what’s the best way to cut through all the bullshit and get the basic facts you need to survive? Sure, you could do some research on your own, but there are practically as many wine websites out there as there are wines, and there’s really no reliable way to tell which so-called experts are legitimate, and which ones are simply fucking with you.
But fear not! Allow me to be your humble host as you wend your way through the perplexing, unapproachable and not at all completely fabricated world of wine tasting, and I promise if you take my advice – avoiding these all-too-common pitfalls – you might just make it through your first visit to a vineyard only partially humiliated.
#7 – Forget to Pregame
Chances are, you’ve never been to wherever this tasting is taking place. This is no accident, as vineyards tend to be located well away from the corrupting influence of the masses. Why? Mostly because wine is to the alcohol world what Sammi Sweetheart is to the cast of the Jersey Shore: if everything isn’t just so during all stages of the process – the long and boring growth period on the vine, the picking and pressing of the fruit, the fermentation of the juice, or even after bottling – the final product will throw a huge hissy fit, and a perfectly good vintage (or season) can be ruined.
The long and short of it is, you’re probably facing a bit of a trek. And it’s obvious that nothing can ruin a potentially good time like driving around lost for hours beforehand without even a nice buzz to keep you motivated. In fact, studies show that excess sobriety is one of the leading national causes of road rage.
But say you have a GPS or something. Surely then you can skip the pre-tasting gin-bong, right? Wrong! The drive is just the first of many hurdles before you; once you arrive at your destination, the real challenge has only begun. You’re headed into uncharted territory here – a totally alien environment. Wine is a big category, and while the fruits from which wine can be made are numerous indeed, the grape alone is more diverse than all of them combined. This may come as a shock to some, but worldwide, the number of grapes used for winemaking is over ten times the number of Pokemon.
Moreover, what with blends and all, you should realize by now that the possibilities for what you might meet inside a given bottle are effectively limitless. So you’d do well to remember an old adage that’s held just as true for the scurvy-ridden pirates of the Spanish Main as it has for the scurvy-ridden pirates of modern day Somalia: drunken adventures are fun-ken adventures!
Besides, I can say from experience that 9 out of 10 places make pretty shitty stuff, so you’re really doing yourself a favor by numbing your palate in advance.
#6 – Be Polite
Nothing irks a winemaker more than first-time visitors to his establishment. It’s therefore crucial that you act quite literally as if you own the place from the moment you arrive – which if you’ve heeded my first step, shouldn’t be much of a problem. Is there a smudge on your glass? Ask for a new one. Is your glass clean? Throw that fucker on the floor and ask for a new one. Who gives a shit? It’s your winery.
Of course, this tip also applies to the wines themselves. Whether or not you know what you’re talking about (and let’s be honest: you don’t), it’s important to criticize everything, avoiding even the slightest compliment. Winemakers are notoriously lazy, and a few scruples short of…scrupulousness. History will back me up here: vintners have been guilty of crimes from adulterating their vintages with antifreeze to unleashing the plague of White Zinfandel upon a defenseless American market.
Granted, these are rare examples of wine supervillainy – but you can bet there’s plenty of mundane, run-of-the-mill evil going on every single day, even behind the scenes at your favorite mom-and-pop chateau. Vintners fuck with their wine on a routine basis, in ways limited only by their imaginations…and variations in national/regional law. Chaptalization, the adding of sugar to wine in order to increase its alcoholic content, is very popular, and banned in Italy, Australia and California. Here are some other examples.
So please, don’t buy anything when you visit. You may feel obligated after all the property damage you’ve caused, but such a gesture will go right to the winemakers’ heads – and if we don’t keep them on their toes, there’s no telling what this thieving bunch of thugs might try to pull next.
Besides, many wineries now charge a tasting fee (some of these are reasonable; some are not), but some of the cooler ones are willing to waive this if you end up buying wine. So it stands to reason that they should be open to the opposite as well, right? You’ve already paid your fee; now just steal a bottle or two when nobody’s looking. Then everyone wins!
#5 – Stay Hydrated
Whether you’re drinking wine, beer or liquor, the conventional wisdom has generally been to keep hydrated. Drinking water in between alcoholic drinks (and before you start drinking alcoholic drinks) is a surefire way to help stave off a hangover the next morning – or, if you’re the sort of person who starts drinking in the morning, later that evening. But the “conventional wisdom” has never been good enough for me, and I don’t see why it should suffice for you either. Here’s some nuclear wisdom.
The watering down of wine is one of the biggest dick moves a vintner can pull, and all in the name of saving a buck. It doesn’t take a genius to guess what happens: too much water makes good wine bad, and bad wine taste like piss that’s been diluted so thoroughly you can barely even tell it’s piss anymore.
Now, it should be mentioned (and thus, will be mentioned) that there are some acceptable, taste-based reasons to water your wine in the industry. But you’re not in the industry, are you? By watering down yourself, you’re effectively declaring your support for greedy winemakers everywhere, while telling them that your ass is ripe for the reaming. You’re also ruining your own experience: rinsing a glass out with water between wines can diminish the flavor of what you’re drinking. Why do the same to your palate?
But go ahead and drink your water; protect your precious body. Just know you’re part of the problem – and it’s your fault the rest of the world hates us.
#4 – Come Full
Take heed: the above hydration prohibition does NOT apply to food! Pairing wine with food (perhaps most famously, but by no means exclusively cheese) is only a sliver less important than pairing wine with your mouth, and should be done as often as possible. One fact about wine you should probably know is that it consists of four basic components: acidity, alcohol, sugar (more common in whites) and tannins (reds only – tannins are responsible for that mouth-drying sensation that turns many people away at first). A wine that exhibits a good balance among its components will usually be referred to as “balanced.” You may also notice that some people add considerations like “fruit” to the balance equation, but that’s a flavor term, not a structure term, so don’t do that.
Anyway, the point is that the right food can help to offset a wine that’s too aggressive in one category (or vice-versa!). If you show up to your tasting fully sated, sure you may not get shitfaced quite as quickly; but how are you realistically going to be able to stomach the perfect snack to match each wine?
While ultimately, the final judgment on which pairings work will fall to you, there are a lot of resources out there that can give you hints as to successful combinations, as well as more generalized but equally valuable advice regarding what tends to go with what else.
So you officially have my permission not to take any shit from a vintner who refuses to let you bring in your Baconator. Chances are, its big, robust bacon taste will be the only thing that’s able to stand up to his smoke-addled hippy swill anyway.
#3 – Take Notes
You’re not fooling anyone.
#2 – Spit
Blowjobs are pretty awesome. I retain a team of consultants who have actually had sex, and they assure me this is true. Well, it might not surprise you to learn that in much the same way as a partner who swallows is more desirable than one who spits, so too is it in wine. What kind of asshole spits out perfectly good wine anyway?
Okay, so it’s true that there’s a big difference between spitting a torrent or two into the face of your host to show him who’s boss, and discreetly discarding a mouthful after you taste to keep your senses sharp: obviously the former is permitted (see #4). But a lot of wine writers will tell you to spit as you sample, insisting that otherwise you’ll get too “drunk” to “learn” anything about the wines you’re tasting. This strange spitting fetish has reached such a disgusting plateau of ubiquity that there are even guides on how to spit.
Enough is enough; I call bullshit. What all these people are forgetting is this: as you proceed through the event, sampling wine after wine and growing gradually drunker, you’re also getting older – and therefore correspondingly wiser. If my calculations are correct (and you can trust that they are, ‘cause I’ve been drinking for a while) this should more than compensate for any inebriation you might experience. So swallow away!
Besides, there’s nothing quite like the sensation of a rich, creamy load cascading down your throat hole.
#1 – Relax.
If you take one thing away from this article, it should be that wine tasting is all about you: the drinker. The experience is 100% subjective, and the only critic that matters is the one in your heart, telling you whether or not a particular bottle of wine is a winner – price or reputation be damned. At least one major publication subscribes to this belief as well: the Wine Spectator has confessed that they taste blind, and that a 92-point wine that costs $210 is no better than one that costs $42.
That means you shouldn’t feel self-conscious about drinking what you like, nor should you be ashamed to tell people what you think about it. There is a baffling array of flavors that can emerge from fermented grape juice, and the best part about them all is that they’re only meant to reflect how you perceive a given wine on your palate at the particular moment you’re drinking it. You literally can’t be wrong.
…is what I would like to say. All that sounds well and good, I know, but well…look at this wine for instance, a Chateau Lafite-Rothschild (Bordeaux) which recently sold for $232,696 per bottle at auction in Hong Kong, setting a new world record. Or this one, an Imperial (6-liter bottle) of Chateau Cheval Blanc, which sold for $304,375 a month later, setting a newer world record.
So I guess what I’m saying is, you may think you’re enjoying wine, but you’re not. How could you be? Hell, I’m probably not either; I’ve never even had a $100 wine yet, let alone a $1,000 wine, and that’s still two orders of magnitude short of this stuff. The sad reality is that wine tasting – real wine tasting – is forever beyond the reach of you or me: a wonderful, exclusionary realm of which mere mortals may only dream.
And that’s all, folks. Keep these tips in mind, and you’re guaranteed to make a splash at your first tasting; no matter the vineyard, everyone will stare at you in awe – a veritable cannonball of sophistication!
Oh, and yes, I’m aware that some wine tastings are held at liquor stores instead of wineries, but those are for poor people, and…well, they can’t read, can they?