Simple! Sensible! Sensational!®

May-July 2007
© 2006 by Bret S. Beall


I love wine. I love attending wine tastings. I've attended many wine dinners, wine tastings, and winery tasting rooms over the years, and have tasted thousands of wines. I have found that wine tasting is a fantastic social activity, and as I have honed my tasting skills over the years, it occurred to me that perhaps I could offer some short-cuts to you to help you enhance your wine-tasting experiences.

For many years, I would taste, and simply ask myself, "Do I like this, or don't I?" I didn't engage in any sort of systematic analysis, and therefore, I didn't gain any real knowledge or understanding. I wanted to taste as much as possible as quickly as possible, to maximize my tasting experience, so I didn't put the intention and comprehension into understanding each wine I tasted as a unique entity.

It was only when I started going on vacations with a long time friend that I began a more mindful approach to wine tasting. My friend is an intelligent, enthusiastic, adventurous traveler; she wants to fully experience life, as do I, so we travel well. When we first started visiting wineries together years ago, she was keen to analyze each wine we tasted. Even though I had been "tasting" far longer than she had, she "forced" me to be more mindful, more intentional. We made (and still make) a good team.

As a result of this purposeful tasting, my knowledge started accumulating exponentially, and my ability to analyze flavors increased similarly. At one time I would say, "I'll put my food palate up against anyone's, but not my wine palate." I now speak with confidence about wine, a far cry from that period of early experimentation when I was a teen, an undergraduate and a graduate student. You, too, can be confident in your wine tasting ability by following the hints below.

Taste with intention: Beginning to taste with intention was the secret for me. Don't rush the experience, and don't force the accumulation of knowledge. Be patient with yourself, and let the accretion of understanding be gradual. To get started, consider my "Seven S's of Savoring Swill": 1) See, 2) Swirl, 3) Sniff, 4) Sip, 5) Swish, 6) Swallow, 7) Spill it out (= dump it, but I needed the alliteration!). We can address each of these sequentially:
Look at the wine. Hold the glass against a white surface to maximize your ability to See. For white wines, the wine will be clear, but there will be varying qualities of gold, honey, champagne, etc. For reds, you will look for clarity (versus cloudiness), color (shade of red, and whether there is that interesting orange ring around the edge that indicates aging, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse) and "legs" (wine viscosity, how thick it is as indicated by how the wine clings to the sides of the glass.
Holding the glass by the stem, gentle Swirl the wine in the glass (and if you spill some, just realize you need to practice more, or start by Swirling the wine in the glass when the base of the glass is flat on the table). As you are Swirling, once again See in order to identify any changes in color, but remember that the main purpose of Swirling is to aerate the wine, to release aromatic molecules.
The above-mentioned (and released) aromatic molecules must now be Sniffed. Don't bother being delicate here. Get your nose right in the glass to Sniff and inhale any molecules that remain as soon as you finish Swirling. Note the "nose," or bouquet, as the aroma will tell you quite a bit about a wine (you can often even tell if it is sweet); sometimes, the bouquet and the taste will be quite inconsistent. THAT is a fun experience. You will eventually be able to label the aromas that you Sniff, using terms like "berry," "smoke," "mint" or even "cat piss" (see below).
Take a small Sip of wine, not a gulp. You don't want a huge mouthful. The purpose is to taste, not to get sloshed. If you wish, you can substitute "Slurp" for this step, as this is a way to get more air into the wine, and expose more parts of your palate to the wine. Start thinking of the terms that describe the flavors that you will start to experience with that first Sip, and beyond.
As a tidier alternative to Slurping (I always inhale the wine when I slurp), you can take a Sip, and then just Swish it around in your mouth, as you would with mouthwash. Some people may look at you strangely, but please allow me to empower you to do this. By Swishing the wine around in your mouth, you are exposing your front and mid palates to the wine, and experiencing how the wine changes in different parts of your mouth. You might even get a bit of the wine into your back palate. Continue thinking of terms to describe the flavors you are encountering.
The best way to taste the wine in your back palate is to swallow. I always swallow a bit of every wine I taste so that I can get that back palate experience. I also hate Spitting, but some people recommend that. The purpose of Spitting is to avoid swallowing, and thus avoid inebriation. By all means, AVOID INEBRIATION. However, I have found it best to know your personal reaction to alcohol. I will go to a tasting, and work my way through the wines systematically. At some point, I will either notice my own alcohol tolerance being reached, or I will run out of time to taste, and I will visit the remaining tables to ask them "I want to taste your BEST VALUE wine and your overall BEST wine." That way, I can minimize the Swallowing I continue to do, and I don't have to resort to Spitting. In fact, the only time I Spit is when the wine is so disgusting that I don't want it in my body. Continue thinking of flavor terms now that your entire palate is exposed to the flavors of the wine.
Spill It Out:
You don't have to drink the entire sample. Usually, two small Sips will yield a sufficient experience of the wine by saturating your entire palate. Don't be shy about asking for and using a "dump bucket" to empty your glass of wine in preparation for the next sample.

Once you've mastered the techniques of wine tasting, you can start employing additional techniques for enhancing the experience and your knowledge.

1. Take notes: I rarely go back and read notes that I've taken during tastings. However, the very act of taking notes during a tasting causes some of the information to become engrained in one's memory, thus enhancing the learning experience. You don't have to write a book about each wine; just write as many words as you find appropriate to describe the wine and the tasting experience.

2. Increase your wine vocabulary: Get a thesaurus! Just kidding, but there really are certain words the just capture a tasting experience. I remember sampling a viognier in a California tasting room; when traveling, my friend and I split tastings to save money, and she started with "Floral, fruity, and something else," as she handed the glass to me … I took one sniff, followed by a taste, and said, "Lychees!" And you can't enjoy a New Zealand sauvignon blanc without having "grapefruit" in your wine vocabulary. I will never forget a tasting room manager in Oregon introducing me to the wine term, "cat piss" to describe a piss-poor Oregon sauvignon blanc (no grapefruit there!). And as you analyze flavors and aromas, please realize that the same flavor/scent will cue different words in different people, given our unique biologies. It becomes a game. Just avoid pretension … PLEASE!

3. Talk to people, and then listen to them: Everyone has his/her unique wine background. Ask questions and listen to opinions of others. Wine store employees are generally quite knowledgeable, and their experience is free for the asking. The same goes for sommeliers in restaurants. As an example, I'm always on the lookout for wines that will pair with oysters. Traditionally, I've gone with herbaceous, grassy sauvignon blancs, the kind made in California for years; today, most California sauvignon blancs are overwhelmingly floral, and those from New Zealand are too citrusy (ie, "grapefruit"). Last Thanksgiving, a wine store employee directed me to a mineralic blend of sauvignon blanc, viognier and a few other varietals that worked adequately. Recently, I discovered torrontes from Chile; some of them (the non-floral, mineralic, herbaceous ones) are exceptional with oysters. Finally, I was speaking with Susan Goss, chef at Chicago's West Town Tavern, and she suggested albarinho (Spain)/alvarinho (Portugal) … YUM! I can hardly wait for oyster season to return.

4. Think beyond the wine: In some ways, this is a repeat of #3, but I want to drive a point home. When you taste a wine, ask yourself, "What type of food would go well with that wine?" If you aren't sure, ask the opinions of others. Also ask yourself, "Would I enjoy this wine by itself?" I believe most people ask themselves the latter question first, so they end up with delicious wines that don't necessarily go well with food. Many times I have served a wine that I would not enjoy drinking on its own, but when paired with the proper food, it works very well. This is a lesson learned from speaking with sommeliers and attending many wine dinners.

5. Age wine appropriately: Many people save wine for years thinking that it will improve its quality. For some wines, that is true; I recently opened an 11 year old Geyser Peak Reserve Merlot, and it was one of the best merlots I've ever tasted. Saving it that long was an accident though, and I was just lucky the wine had matured well (I laughed recently at query in the Bill Daley's wine column in the Chicago Tribune, where someone asked, "Will my white zinfandel, which I've been saving since 1990, still be good?" … he was far more tactful than I would have been … "No, you moron!"). If you have any questions about aging potential/need, contact the wineries directly to ask about aging potential; no one knows the wines like the makers. If you are at a wine tasting featuring a representative of the winery, they usually have sufficient knowledge to give you a good idea of ideal aging for any one of their wines. This leads us to "how" to store wine. Store the bottles on their sides. Keep the bottles dark, out of sunlight. Keep the temperature constant. Preferably, keep that temperature as cool as possible. Some people buy a special wine refrigerator to store their wine, but I have too many cases to do that. I am lucky that I have a basement storage locker in my building that stays a relatively constant, cool temperature, and that's where the wine is stored. I keep a few bottles in racks in my pantry for easy access. Most importantly, I don't have anxiety; I do my best, and enjoy the results; I've never had a bad bottle due to poor storage, and I doubt you will either, as wine is quite hardy in general (but do NOT store your wine in a rack on top of the refrigerator, which I have seen in some homes and design magazines; that is a HOT area, which is bad for wine).

6. Buy wine for pleasure, not investment: One of the wine questions I hear most often is from people who have an old bottle, and want to know how much it's worth. It's a question that I refuse to answer. Too much attention has been paid to wines' monetary value, and while some of this attention is due to the enhanced flavor of a well-aged wine, most is due to someone wanting to make a profit. This is not "my" wine world; I drink wine on its own and with food for pleasure, to enhance my life.

If you like something at a tasting, and have the funds, buy multiple bottles (two or more, depending on just how much you like it). Open one with some friends to just taste, and get a "thorough" tasting experience over a full glass, rather than just a taste. This will then provide additional information about how to pair that wine with food. And, if you really like something, buy more so that you can continue to enjoy the experience (there are usually case discounts, as well ... if there aren't, try asking for a discount on a full or mixed case).

7. Put notes on your bottles. If I have tasting notes from events that I've attended, or if I have additional information from calls to the winery, winemaker, or distributor, I'll tape notes onto the bottle, along with whatever thoughts that might have popped into my brain about food-pairing suggestions. That way, I have a clear record of my ideas when they are fresh, and I don't have to recall something in five years (or whenever) when I finally pull the wine from the cellar. I have far too many more important things to remember.

And now that I've discussed wine tasting "do's," here are some wine tasting "don'ts."

A. Don't feel the need to drink everything in your glass. Scope out the "dump buckets" and use them to avoid unnecessary inebriation.
Don't eat cheese to clear your palate; the fat in the cheese will cover your palate and reduce your ability to detect subtleties in the wine. Use plain bread (like a nice piece of baguette) to clear your palate (and absorb alcohol). Admittedly, cheese will make an inferior wine taste better, so if that is your goal, eat cheese with your wine.
Don't rinse your tasting glass with water: I see people rinsing their glasses with water between wine samples all of the time. Their goal is to minimize the influence of the previous wine on the current wine. But unless they have truly shaken out all of the water in the glass (and you can do this by grasping the glass by the stem and shaking it downward vigorously), the remaining water will end up diluting the new sample. Relict wine in a glass will have minimal effect on the new wine (unless you are shifting from white wines to red, and then a rinse is appropriate). When transitioning between samples, the ideal situation is if you can convince the pourer to give you a "French rinse (or whatever it's called)," using a bit of the new wine to rinse the glass, and then dumping it, before actually pouring the new sample in the glass; I'm grateful when the pourer will do that. You can also ask for a new glass.
Don't sniff the cork: When you order a bottle of wine at a restaurant, you will usually be presented with the cork that has just been pulled from the bottle. It would seem that the expectation is to sniff it, and many people do. Actually, the expectation is to observe that the cork is moist (indicating proper storage), and not dried out, which would suggest a problem with the bottle. Sniffing the cork will only give you an odd aroma, and tell you little about the wine. Do look at the cork, though, as many are mini works-of-art.
Don't wear scent to a wine tasting: Because wine tasting is a social event, many people will wear perfume or cologne. DON'T DO IT! These scents will affect everyone's ability to smell the wine, their "nose." It is all I can do to stop myself from saying this to someone at a tasting, and sometimes I haven't been able to stop myself, which affects the sociality negatively.
Don't define your taste by price/cost. Just because a wine costs a lot of money doesn't mean it's good, or a good value; I LOVE good value. For example, some of the most expensive wines (especially French, but also others) can be described as possessing "barnyard" characteristics; that doesn't please me, and I would much rather have a $6 Chilean Santa Ema merlot with its smoky fruit than a $200 Chateauneuf du Pape with its "barnyard-ness." And above I mentioned the "cat piss" aroma of a relatively expensive Oregon sauvignon blanc … buy with your palate, not your ego. Many would call me plebian, but I don't care. I drink what I like, and you should, too.
Don't hold white wine by the bowl of your glass: The stem of a wine glass is meant to be its "holder." It allows one to Swirl easily. And the warmth of your hand won't heat up the white wine. Sometimes red wine will benefit from holding the bowl, warming it slightly to release the bouquet.
Don't block the tasting table: As you go through the Seven S's of Savoring Swill, you don't have to do it ensconced right in front of the tasting table or the tasting bar (if at a winery tasting room). If there's a crowd, get your sample, and step away into a clear spot in back. If everyone did this, you can then move to the front to dump and get a new sample. Be considerate of others.
Don't beat yourself up. Perhaps this is most important. Wine is to be enjoyed. It's meant to be pleasurable. If you can't describe a taste, don't fret. Discuss it with friends (or make new friends at a tasting). Make wine tasting a social experience. And I can assure you that there will always, ALWAYS be something new to learn about wine. The more you learn, the more you know what you don't know. It keeps wine tasting fun and exciting!

Tasting wine is just one way to keep life exciting. Check out my column on exciting wine pairing (including tips from Drew and Susan Goss of West Town Tavern, masters of food-wine pairing, and myself) at http://www.god-dess.com/services_recipesNovemberDecember 2006.html. If you need help practicing your wine tasting, or working on pairings, or storing your wine, or building up an affordable cellar, or just generally winning with wine, you can get a hold of me at 773.508.9208 or email me. In vino veritas!