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Wine 101: 10 Tips for Attending a Wine Tasting

How to make the most of any walk-around event where you can sample dozens (or hundreds!) of wines

Wine Spectator staff
Posted: October 10, 2014

It’s time for Wine Spectator's New York Wine Experience again, with two evening Grand Tastings (see dates and locations here), where more than 250 of the world's best wineries pour. So it’s a good time to review some tips about the best way to approach any large wine-tasting event. Our staff share their advice, from personal experience and interviews with other wine pros, as follows:

1. Dress for the event
Here are tips from wine pros for looking sharp and staying comfy at a wine event. To sum up: Dress in dark colors (the better to hide spills), avoid dangling sleeves (so you don't cause spills) and consider the venue to suss out the appropriate dress code. Women should consider wearing flats or low heels for comfort. If you have long hair, tie it back so you can spit easily (see tip 5) or keep a hand free to hold it back. And if you’re going to carry anything (tasting book, notebook, smartphone or tablet), bring a purse or have deep pockets to stash it. Carrying a wineglass around means you’ll only have one hand free for holding a plate of food, shaking hands with winemakers and taking notes.

2. Don't wear fragrance
Smell is a huge part of tasting. It's impossible to appreciate all the aromas of a delicate Riesling or a layered Cabernet when the air is heavy with perfume, cologne or smoke. So be mindful not to introduce any unwanted aromatics to the tasting area. (Read more on tasting-room etiquette.) You don't want to miss out on the nuances of the very wines you're trying to enjoy. And you don't want to be the answer to, "What's that smell?"

3. Come up with a plan for tasting
At most tastings, there will be more wines than you can sensibly try in just a few hours. If you can get a list of the producers or wines at the tasting ahead of time, come prepared with a game plan. That way, your palate doesn't get worn out.

A basic plan involves browsing your way through the aisles, working from light wines to heavier ones: Start with sparkling wines, then fresh whites and move on to richer whites and tannic reds. But you can get a lot more focused: A survey of the wines of Italy? A comparative tasting of only one variety such as Pinot Noir from different appellations? All up to you.

At the Wine Experience, senior editor Tim Fish likes to aim for two main goals: Taste the classics and explore the unfamiliar. If you want to try the biggest names, such as the Bordeaux first-growths, head there first before the crowds form; then skip the busiest tables and fit in new discoveries.

If you're coming prepared with a list of must-visit producers, branch out a bit and allow some spontaneity, suggests senior editor James Molesworth. After you get your sip of Château Haut-Brion, look at the wineries pouring on each side of that booth—if you've never tried one of them, try it.

How you determine your likes and dislikes requires exposure to different wines, notes senior editor James Laube. He doesn't just spend a whole tasting pinpointing the types of wine that give him the most pleasure. He also visits, or revisits, wines that inspire other people, if not necessarily him. By doing this, you can gain a better understanding of why you like certain wines.

Polish off the evening with something unforgettable, such as a glass of sweet wine such as late-harvest Riesling, Sauternes or Port. Laube likes to finish with Champagne, which he calls the “perfect palate cleanser.”

4. Eat something
Tasting wines (and maybe drinking some too) on an empty stomach is a recipe for getting drunk quickly and not being able to enjoy the rest of the event. Remember to eat beforehand, and if there’s food offered at the tasting, take a break to eat there too. Drinking water in between wines helps to stay hydrated.

5. Remember to spit (at least most of the time)
Yes, you’ll be tasting good wines, and yes, no one likes to “waste” wine, but those tasting-size pours really add up—and add up quickly at that. To get the full experience of the event, you’ll want to pace yourself by spitting wine as you go. That's why there are buckets on every table. Unglamorous maybe, but take heart—all the pros do it. Don't be shy, says Fish; the winery staff are used to it. And if you don't want to finish a wine, pour out any leftover from your glass into one of the spit buckets as well.

For tips on how to spit, check out this Q&A from Dr. Vinny, "How Do I Spit Without Looking Like a Distressed Camel?" The short version: Practice at home first, don’t do it too hard or too slow, and get close to the spit bucket. If you’re spitting into a full shared bucket, you’ll want to spit slowly to avoid backsplash (ew!) or you can ask to have the bucket changed out or find another receptacle. If there’s a crowd around the spit bucket, you might want to wait to take a sip of wine until you can get closer.

Dr. Vinny also weighs in on whether you should rinse your glass between pours: Not necessary, unless you're switching between red and white or sweet and dry, or had a flawed wine. And if you're going to rinse, Vinny says the best way to do that is to use a splash of wine instead of water, but water's not a faux pas.

6. Take notes
You may swear you'll remember the name of that fantastic red from Italy, but even if you're spitting consistently, a couple dozen wines and a day later, you'll be struggling to recall whether you preferred the Chianti Classico or the Brunello at the booth next to it. If you’re using the tasting as a scouting trip for bottles you want to buy, remember to bring something to write with so you can take notes, or use your camera phone to document the wines you liked. Not sure how to describe what you're tasting? Dr. Vinny has some tips for you. But your method can be as simple as a plus or minus sign next to the name of the producer or the wine on the tasting sheet, says Laube.

7. Think ahead about the red-wine teeth dilemma
It’s an unfortunate side effect of the wine-tasting business that drinking red wine can stain your teeth. Unless you want to leave the event with a purple-tinged grin, think ahead about how you’re going to manage this. Brushing your teeth right after wine tasting can strip your teeth of protective enamel. The better route is to remember to drink water and maybe bring some chewing gum for when you're done, says Laube.

8. Talk to the winemakers
Wine can be more fun and memorable when you know the story behind the bottle. At the Wine Experience, the winemakers and winery owners come to pour at the event. So take the time to talk to them. If you have any questions about styles, grapes, vintages or regions, they are a great resource. If you’re polite and enthusiastic, they’ll want to answer your questions and make a connection—that’s why they’re there.

9. But don’t hog the booth
If plenty of guests are clamoring to get a taste, don't monopolize the table or block the spit bucket. Take your glass and move away to give others a chance and to avoid being jostled, or step to one side to continue your conversation with the winemaker while allowing them to pour for others.

10. Have fun
Some people get very serious when they’re tasting wines, but remember it’s OK to smile and have a good time too. You’re tasting wine, not attending a tax seminar, and you will not be quizzed at the exit doors.

Lyle Boerchers
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada —  October 11, 2014 9:28am ET
My wife and I do pretty well with this list except for the spitting part! However, it is good to set goals.
Gary Ellenberg
CA —  October 12, 2014 12:27am ET
spitting is lame. If you don't like the vino, dump your glass. Spitting is weak.
Jeff Lake
MI —  October 13, 2014 12:00am ET
Spitting is decidedly not lame or weak. Those adjectives better describe someone who isn't spitting after 15 or 20 tastes swallowed. Spitting keeps you sane and somewhat sober at a large tasting. I hate to admit it, but I've spit everything from Krug champagne to Clos de Tart burgundy (admittedly, this is at 50-200 bottle tastings, but that is not uncommon at all). You get a very solid sense of the wine, can judge its potential future, and decide if you want to invest from that, and can judge a much greater number of wines effectively if you do spit. After all, at most of these tastings, you're not tasting something very close to its prime drinking window -- and, you're surely not pairing it with food as you probably would any wine you bought for bottle consumption. It's not what you do with something you dislike, per se.
Bob Dietz
OR —  October 13, 2014 5:40pm ET
Number 9. is my pet peeve. Get a taste, say hello, have a quick chat or question then move out of the way. Please don't stand there for 5 minutes talking about your cellar while there are 12 people behind you waiting.
Be courteous and remember there are others who would like to taste.
Winemakers are at events to show their wines to lots of potential customers- not to be monopolized by a few tools.
Todd Hansen
Newberg, OR —  October 13, 2014 11:23pm ET
When I attend events I'll often bring a few paper cups (I buy 10 oz plain "hot" cups - they are discrete and sturdy) so that I can spit away from the crowd after I take notes - I've been splashed by others a few too many times at the communal bucket! I take a nice mouthful of wine and then hold it in my mouth while experiencing the texture and flavors. If you take tiny sips you can't really know a wine. When you spit you don't need to spit everything - practice with a cheap wine at home. If you are attending an event with a lot of wines you either dump 80 percent, spit 80 percent, or miss 80 percent.
Sean Trapani
Ocala, FL —  October 14, 2014 9:38am ET
Spitting is necessary for marathon tasting. Yes, it's indelicate. And yes, the alcohol still affects you. But it is far more unprofessional to get drunk than it is to spit.
David K Kirk
Massachusetts —  October 20, 2015 1:51pm ET
Great list. If I were to make a change it would be to make tip #9 ("Don't hog the booth") the first five tips on the list. People get their sample and then stand in front of the booth talking to their friends about all sorts of topics. If they are talking to the winemaker about the wine, that is fine. But more often than not, the conversation is totally unrelated.

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