Wine Access magazineSpit This Way
by Kate Zimmerman for Wine Access Magazine

The hit movie Sideways showed us how not to behave in a wine tasting room. For the real way to proceed, Kate Zimmerman talked to a handful of experts.

Vancouver wine expert David Scholefield has been to thousands of tastings in his roles as wine judge, consultant and educator. He’s been exposed to plenty of gaffes. But the worst tasting room faux pas Scholefield ever witnessed was by one of North America’s most famous sommeliers.

Scholefield and a friend were happily seated together at a Seattle event years ago, tasting a 1945 Taylor Vintage Port, which he calls “one of the most famous wines in history.” The rare port had been poured into a decanter. As the two men savoured the incredible treat, the celebrated sommelier came up to them, mouth full of the latest wine he had sampled. He leaned forward … and spat it into the decanter full of priceless port.

“He thought it was a spit bucket,” says Scholefield.

The men sampling the port said nothing, but they stiffened, as did the person serving the precious ambrosia. The sommelier must have realized his mistake, but his reaction was not to apologize. He simply turned on his heels and stalked out of the tasting.

There’s little danger that most of us will ever top that. Still, lots of people who are unfamiliar with tasting room protocol may well be drawn into the world of wine by Sideways. It’s clear that the film about two middle-aged men who go on a wine tour together is having an impact on wine sales, with Pinot Noir on the upswing and tours of the spots the characters visit in California’s Santa Barbara County doing brisk business.

Yet according to Scholefield, there’s a debate raging in the wine industry over its impact. Enthusiasts feel it may attract a fresh, new, young crowd. Naysayers maintain that Sideways is of interest only to those who resemble the two characters at its centre — old losers.

“So I really like the movie,” Scholefield says, laughing.

A consultant for the B.C. Wine Institute and former senior buyer for the B.C. Liquor Board, Scholefield has seen his share of losers, old and young, at wine tastings. He thinks the most important thing for participants to remember is that a tasting is supposed to be interesting, and it’s supposed to be fun.

The people at whom he raises an eyebrow aren’t the neophytes, like the movie’s brash, washed-up actor, Jack (Thomas Haden Church). They are usually the poseurs who want to appear sophisticated but wind up with the wine-tasting equivalent of a raised pinky at a tea party. People, in fact, a little like Sideways’ wine nut, Miles (Paul Giamatti).

 “It’s really weird how so many people change the way they behave around wine,” Scholefield says. “All this etiquette about wine, I think, is wretchedly overdone.”

Even so, there are a few basics to avoid, according to a handful of wine industry types at a recent tasting in Vancouver. One of them is knocking your wine glass up against the bottle the agent is pouring from while she is pouring, in an effort to indicate that that’s all you want. That’s both rude and dangerous, says Sherry Adams of Vancouver’s Grady Wine Marketing; it can lead to glass or bottle breakage, and wasteful spillage, too. “Most agents know how much to pour,” she points out.

Another clanger is the command “Fill ‘er up.”

“Sometimes people want more, and at a wine tasting it’s not about having a glass of wine, it’s about tasting wine,” says Adams. She adds that those who want a full glass should go and buy one at a bar.

Charles Smith, self-described “El Presidente” of Walla Walla, Washington’s K Wines, notes that he (or any agent behind a table) is in charge of the samples. “I don’t like it when someone picks up my wine and tries to pour it themselves,” he says. “I’m pouring it for free, so it’s not for them to take.”

But Scholefield’s bete noir is the hoity-toity behaviour that makes wine-tasting seem exclusive. The winemakers he has met, even the aristocrats, tend to be humble people. So, he asks, why do some wine aficionados, sommeliers included, affect an upper class English accent when discussing wines?

And why do some so-called oenophiles raise their glass of wine toward the light, well above their head, swirl it ostentatiously, and gaze up at it intently as if reading tea leaves? People in the industry laugh about that posture, Scholefield says. “We call it ‘the Statue of Liberty.’”

There’s no advantage to be gained by peering up the wine glass’s skirt. To look at the liquid properly, tilt the glass at about a 45 degree angle, well below eye level, preferably in front of a white background. That way its gradations of colour are apparent.

It doesn’t really matter how you hold your wine glass when it’s upright, by the way, whether it’s around the bowl or by the stem. Scholefield, who usually holds it by the bowl, thinks the trendy practice of holding it by the stem’s base, one’s thumb and forefinger functioning like a clip, is just plain goofy.

“The physics are bad. It’s an awkward way to hold a glass,” he says. “People should do what is comfortable, is the point. Wine is supposed to be about pleasure. It’s not a club with a secret handshake. It should be about what the wine tastes like.”

To find that out, swirl it to help release its bouquet. Then, before your first sip, smell it. “Taste is smell.,” Scholefield explains. “Consequently, smell is what matters.”

But for the love of Bacchus, don’t plunge your nose right into the glass and take a gigantic, horsey snort. What you’ll be inhaling mostly is the alcohol in the wine, anesthetizing your nose so it can’t appreciate the various elements of the libation’s scent.

“That is the dumbest thing you can do,” says Scholefield, despite the fact that it is recommended in many wine books. The importance of fragrance to wine is the reason that people are asked not to wear perfumes or colognes to tastings. “You want to be as receptive as possible. Close your eyes, smell gently, take several seconds. The point of wine is there is an array of smells.”

If you tenderly sniff the wine, its aroma will come to you in stages, the first being floral, then herbal, then fruity, and then (and this is where the pretentious often feel the pressure to go haywire) just about anything, from dried vegetation to woodiness to smoke, leather and earth. “What you have to do is think hard, not smell hard.”

Next, you should have a taste. Scholefield cautions against grandiose slurping. He has seen many a wine freak rock back and forth on his heels as he slurps, puffs out his cheeks, rolls his eyes heavenward, and generally treats tasting a tablespoon of fermented grape juice as though it’s a Come to Jesus moment. You’re trying to determine the acidity or astringency, the juiciness or the dryness, of the wine. While it’s advisable to slosh it around in your mouth so that the various tastebuds scattered along your tongue can appreciate it, and your cheeks get a splash as well, “the important thing is not to make too much of a meal of that.”

The rules for moving from one wine to another are also fairly explicit. Eden Hollick of Vancouver’s Peacock & Martin Fine Wine, Spirits & Beer notes that it’s best to travel from lighter to fuller-bodied wines at a tasting, so you should start with lighter whites, then richer ones, then lighter reds, then bigger ones, with “aromatics” towards the end. She thinks people ought to spit, not drink, as they’re supposed to be tasting, not going on a bender.

If you do decide to spit, be sure to scope out the location of the spit bucket beforehand. Then, take good aim. Occasionally people spit into the water jugs, which is off-putting for the next patron. Another no-no is taking a giant draught of wine, rather than a dainty taste, and spitting that into the bucket, says Sonia Fraser of Grady Wine Marketing. Hotel staff doesn’t always keep on top of its spittoon-emptying duties, so the less each person deposits in it, the better.

More important than the spitting or swallowing issue is how you rinse your glass. While it’s fine to ask the agent for a bit of the new wine to wash out the taste of the previous one, it’s wrong to rinse with H2O, says Fraser. Water — particularly in hotels, where wine tastings often take place — is heavily chlorinated and affects the taste of the wine to come. The water jugs on tasting tables are for drinking from, not rinsing glasses.

Meanwhile, the best way to clear the palate itself between tastes is a bit of bread, Scholefield points out – that’s why the bread is there. It’s not lunch.

This may be a lot to remember. But no matter how awkward you are, you’re unlikely to reach the excesses of Sideways’ Miles. At one memorable point in the film, an incensed Miles drinks from the spit bucket — which may or may not be worse than spitting into the drink bucket, like the famous, insensitive sommelier.

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