Like most wine tasters I know, I spit at tastings. Now, beer tasters laugh at us. They never spit, and think we look like snobs for doing so.
My argument has always been that I can feel the effects of even a few serious tastes of wine. I know that if I don't spit, by wine No. 8 I would, shall we say, have some difficulty concentrating. By wine No. 25, a typical morning's work, they'd come in to find me slumped over my computer, asleep and smiling.
Beer tasters think we're wimps. They taste a couple dozen beers and skip off to lunch with only a slight buzz.
I put pencil to paper to figure out why this is so. The way I figure it, each ounce of wine contains three to four times as much alcohol as beer. If we wine tasters did not spit, we would ingest significantly more alcohol per sip than beer tasters do.
How much more? Downing 25 one-ounce samples of beer is the same as drinking a couple of beers at the ballpark. Drinking 25 samples of wine would be like consuming one whole bottle. I would like to see the beer guys walk a straight line to lunch after that.
Or try this logic:
A typical beer contains 3.5 percent alcohol by volume. Even the higher-alcohol craft brews hover around 4 percent. A typical Chardonnay clocks in at about 13.5 percent alcohol. Assuming one ounce per taste, 25 tastes of beer add up to about an ounce of pure alcohol. The same amount of wine contains about 3 1/2 ounces of pure alcohol.
Yeah, say the beer guys, but even though you spit out the wine in your mouth, don't you swallow just a little? Even inadvertently? Well, yes, probably so, maybe two or three drops per sample. According the table of equivalents in my dictionary, it takes 50 drops to make an ounce. So the amount of wine I swallow in a tasting of 25 wines could be as much as 1 1/2 ounces. That's about 0.2 ounce of pure alcohol, or the equivalent of drinking one-third of a glass of wine.
A medical doctor friend notes that I probably absorb some additional alcohol through my mouth and nose by respiration, even without swallowing. How much? Maybe about half as much as I get from the few drops that slip down my throat. After a tasting that goes a couple of hours, I figure I'm still way under the legal limit for DUI.
Some wine tasters say they cannot taste all there is in a wine without swallowing. They miss the aftertaste, they say, if they don't swallow. The feel of the wine in their throats also tells them how rough or alcoholic a wine is. Even if that were true--and I don't believe it--there is a tradeoff. After six or eight wines, they're through. Their judgments are impaired. I'm still paying attention at wine No. 50.
I contend that I can learn everything I need to about a wine by taking a big sip, letting it warm a bit in the heat of my mouth while I swoosh it around, and then spit it out, paying attention to all the sensations along the way. With experience, one learns the telltale taste of high-alcohol wine. One does not need to let it trickle down the throat.
Finally, if I want to take a second, third, fourth or even seventh sip to see what more I can get out of the wine, I can, knowing the alcohol in it won't affect the last few wines I taste.
No spitting at the dinner table, however. My beer-drinking friends might find me rude.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from editor at large Harvey Steiman, who tells us that he spits out 40 to 50 wines of varying quality every tasting day, sometimes more. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.
Sips & Tips | Wine & Healthy Living
Video Theater | Collecting & Auctions