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mixed case: opinion and advice

A Beginner's Guide to the New York Wine Experience Grand Tasting

Tips from a Grand Tasting veteran for getting the most out of your first big tasting
Photo by: Mark Weinberg

Posted: Oct 18, 2017 2:20pm ET

By Alison Napjus

My younger hipster colleagues have delighted readers by highlighting some of their go-to New World and Old World wines to taste at the upcoming New York Wine Experience Grand Tastings in their recent blogs. And you can't go wrong with either of their recommendations.

But what about the newbies in need of a more general guide? An old college friend emailed me recently asking for advice on how best to do a Grand Tasting, as he and his wife will be attending for the very first time.

"I have to admit it is kind of overwhelming," he writes. "I look at the wineries that will be there and the quality of them and the quantity .... I just don't want to get there and waste an hour trying to figure out what to do."

With more than 250 of the world's best wineries attending the event, spread across two ballrooms at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square, and each pouring a wine rated 90 points or more, there's a lot to choose from. A game plan is a very good idea, and there are a lot of different ways you can do it, but here's my advice after attending roughly 30 Grand Tastings over the past 18 years.

As the magazine's lead taster on the wines of Champagne, I always recommend that attendees start with the sparkling wines. This is a serious wine tasting, but wine is first and foremost about pleasure, so celebrate the evening by starting the night off with some bubbles. This year the sparklers are located entirely in the 5th-floor ballroom. With bottlings from Champagne, California and Northern Italy, you can really appreciate the range of styles available in the sparkling-wine world.

Additionally, take a few minutes ahead of the tasting to review the list of wineries and wines being poured, via the Wine Experience website or by downloading the free Wine Spectator Events app. Some wineries will jump out to you as "must-try wines." For many wine lovers this list will include first-growth Bordeaux, big name Cali Cabs, rare Burgundies, or classic Italian producers. But everyone has their own particular area of interest; for me, the 10 producers pouring Barbarescos or Barolos are musts, as are the six Riojas from Spain.

I recommend going to taste these "must-try wines" as soon as you finish with the sparklers—even if it means a little orienting yourself on the map and passing by other wineries in order to get through your list, and even if you end up tasting in an atypical order. The map of each ballroom is on the app, there's a printout handed to you when you walk in to the tasting, and a large floor plan is in the front of each ballroom near the main entry. If your list of "must-try wines" is long, you may end up only getting to these wineries, which means you'll have to come back next year to try the rest!

Beyond tasting specific wines, the floor plans are actually designed to help you taste progressively. My colleague Bruce Sanderson spends several hours before each event working with our events department to place the wineries in an order that makes sense and allows attendees to move easily through the room from sparkling, to lighter-bodied whites and reds, to robust reds and dessert wines. So let Bruce be your guide, and if you have any extra time, just wander and explore. I guarantee you'll discover a wine you've never tried before, and you'll probably be very pleasantly surprised.

Two final suggestions: Make some sort of note (on the map, in the tasting book you've been given, in the app or on your phone), of which wines you tried. It might be a score, a one-word descriptor, or simply a plus or minus, but this will help you to remember which wines you tried and your general opinion at the time. And finally: Yes, it's hard to spit out a taste of Château Margaux, and most of us feel vaguely uncomfortable spitting in public! But by the end of the evening, the more spitting you've done, the more you will appreciate and remember all of the great wines you've tried.

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