Rules, rules, rules. In traffic, in math, in parenting, in society – I could do with a few less rules! Wine, like art or stargazing, is best studied for its splendor, for its haunting mystery, for the miracle of its existence with such simple origins.
I’ve served many a taster who is clutching his scorecard, quoting wine punditry and trying to impress me with comments like “Quite obviously, this wine underwent 50% malolactic fermentation,” that he misses the point. Wine tasting is fun!
I was reluctant to issue The Rules to a shy young lady who phoned me last week. “Hi. This is a weird question, but how do you taste wine? I have a new boyfriend and he’s taking me wine tasting and I don’t how to do it. I was hoping that you
could tell me the rules.”
I’ve taken an informal poll of friends in the industry and they all agree: there is a place for The Rules within the wine-tasting experience.
So here is my list of unofficial list
Walk in like you own the place!
Enter the tasting room, have a look around, and approach the tasting bar, fully expecting to enjoy yourself. Take a look at the tasting list. If you like what you see, be prepared to pay $8-12 per person to sample the list.
If you know for sure that you only enjoy white wines, red wines, or even sweet wines, tell the tasting-room staff in advance. Feel free to share one tasting with a companion, bearing in mind that your pour will not be heavier than the standard ounce or so per wine sample.
Trust the progression
The staff knows their wines and has put some thought into the tasting order. Let your pourer decide which wine sample comes next. Take the chance that the winemaker has a style all his own, even if the Merlot is listed after the Cabernet.
Skip over any that you know that you don’t enjoy, but you shouldn’t expect that the tasting room will always have an open substitution.
Read the notes
Educate yourself, even if you know it all, by reading the winemaker’s tasting notes. Take note of grape varietals, vineyard designations, appellations, and styles of your favorites so that you may narrow down your list of choices the next time you’re shopping for a bottle of wine.
See, swirl, sniff, sip, swallow
See the color of the wine you are tasting. Compare the clarity and brilliant color of each wine. Hold your glass up to the light and look at the wine where it meets the glass. Gauge a wine’s age by using a color scale: purple around the edges tends to indicate youth in a wine and deep amber or brown tones tend to indicate some age.
Swirl the wine in the glass vigorously to increase the surface contact to air and release the aromas. If you’re not a practiced swirler, don’t despair! Place your glass on a flat hard surface and move the base in relatively fast and even circles, holding the stem firmly so that it doesn’t tip.
Sniff the wine from outside the glass, swirl again, and then put your nose inside the glass (you saw Miles do it on Sideways so you know that it rarely looks pretty!) and inhale sharply. Aromas refer to the odors of grape while the bouquet refers to the more complex odor which develops while the wine is aging.
What comes to mind?
Leather? Berries? Tropical fruit? Grass?
Sip. It’s sipping time! Let a sizeable sip roll around on every part of your tongue and hold it there for a moment. Is the taste consistent with the aroma? You can detect sweetness in the wine on the tip of your tongue, acids on the sides of your tongue, and bitterness in the back. Swallow and note the finish or the lingering sensations left in your mouth.
Tipping is optional.
Tipping is not required, but if you have had an exceptional time, learned something new, asked the pourer to recommend a restaurant, call for your reservations, and carry your cases to your car, by all means, tip! Wine bars are the exception. Generally speaking, if the tasting bar sells wine by the glass, tipping is the standard.
(Warning: this section should probably be titled: “Rantings of Frustrated Tasting Room Staffers!”)
It’s just not funny anymore.
Don’t quote Miles from Sideways when your Merlot is poured. Your pourer has heard it 750 times already that day. He or she might pour the dump bucket on your head and save you the trouble!
Light up near a tasting room.
Smoking before wine tasting will alter the taste of your wines and the lingering odor that follows you through the door may adversely affect the guest next to you.
Use perfumes or colognes.
You and your fellow tasters will have a harder time picking up subtle aromas and flavors if you bathe yourself in aftershave. At wine-tasting affairs, skip concentrated scents and let the wine have the spotlight.
One would think this one was a given. Leave breath mints and chewing gum in the car.
Gab on your cell phone.
I’m guilty of this one. A friend told me a hilarious story about a visitor who perched herself near the crowded bar and gave her caller a loud commentary about her entire tasting. “Guess what? I’m in a Santa Ynez Valley wine-tasting room! Now I’m tasting the Sauvignon Blanc. Wow. Lots of melon and honey! Uh huh, now for the Chardonnay…” Please chat outside.
“Make out” at the bar.
Alcohol intake tends to decrease inhibitions of normally civilized adults. Enough said.
Confuse the crackers with a buffet.
Sometimes, crackers are provided to cleanse your palate between tastes, not to substitute for your lunch.
Pour your own wine.
You may think nothing of reaching across the bar and helping out the hassled tasting-room staffer, but the winery could be shut down for allowing you to pour for yourself. Never touch an open bottle at the bar.
Protest showing ID.
Even if you’re a senior citizen, be prepared to show ID. The winery’s license is at stake and the A.B.C. has taught them to take their responsibilities seriously. Along the same lines, if the tasting-room staffer tells you that you’ve had enough, simply walk away. Chances are good that they will call the police if you spend too much time trying to convince them otherwise.
Neglect to designate a driver.
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of this rule. It is foolish and dangerous to spend a day wine tasting and then slide behind the wheel of a car. Arrange for transportation, check any contraindications with medications that you take before wine tasting, and limit yourself to 4-5 tastes per winery and 4-5 wineries per day.
California’s best kept secret is out and the Santa Ynez Valley now has a reputation for producing some of the best and most interesting wines in the United States. Enjoy them, and taste by The Rules!