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Spitting in Public: A Tasting Room Primer

The kids are off at band camp, the car is loaded up with bottled water and goldfish crackers. Your significant other has marked up a map she picked up from the hotel concierge desk. You’re ready to take the plunge and go on your first wine tasting trip.

Panic sets in. A cold sweat engulfs you. You’ve never done this before. “What happens if I walk in and make some serious faux pas? What if they start talking about grapes I’ve never heard of? What’s the deal with spitting? Will it be like Sideways? Because I kinda like Merlot …”

Dear reader, you have come to just the right place. I wasn’t born with a cork in my mouth. Nope. I had to find that cork and put it there myself. This is getting weird. Ok, the bottom line is that I worked in a tasting room for a long time so I know some stuff about some things, so listen up because I’m here to help.

Keep in mind that where I was working up on Red Mountain in Washington, the vast majority of the tasting rooms charged no fee to try a few wines, and then a $5-$10 charge for some of the higher end stuff. Your mileage may vary. Now when you walk in, you’ll immediately encounter the guy behind the counter. The guy behind the counter could be an hourly cork dork like I was. He could be the winery’s pet marketing weasel or even the winemaker himself. Don’t hesitate to ask questions and take advantage of everything the guy behind the counter can offer you.

Don’t Panic. Nobody is judging you on your wine knowledge. In fact, my absolute favorite part about the job was when someone who was totally uninitiated walked in and said, “This is my first wine tasting. I have no idea what I’m doing.” People who love wine love to talk about it, so take advantage of the resource behind the counter and ask some questions! By the end of your first winery, you’ll be sniffing, swirling and spitting like a pro. That said, there is certainly a caveat.

Don’t be that guy. You know who that guy is, right? He’s the guy who knows a little somethin’ somethin’ about grape juice and is here to prove it. This can manifest itself in a couple different ways, be it correcting his fellow tasters on pronunciation “nono, say it with me, al-ba-REEN-yo,” asking the guy behind the counter turbo-nerd questions (sorry man, even if I knew the total acidity of this Chardonnay at harvest, I doubt it would improve your enjoyment of the wine), or, and this one reaches outside the tasting room and really needs to apply to every wine situation EVER, he drops first names like there was a hole in his purse: “Oh yes, well last time I tasted with Randall, we barrel-sampled the most fantastic blah blah my wife hates me.” We get it. You prefer Left Bank over Right Bank and you know the somm from The Frog and Peach. That’s cool, but play it coy. What would Rick Blaine do?

If the winery produces a few different wines, they’ll most likely have them listed in a specific order. Stick to this because it was ordered with the intention of leading you from wine to wine without one overwhelming the other. If there is something you’re not huge on get over yourself and try it feel free to skip, but try to avoid skipping around the list too much.

If you like the wine, by all means gush! Wax poetic, call your mom and tell her, buy a case and bathe in it for all I care. If you don’t like it, kindly keep it to yourself. There is nothing on this planet that gives you the right to walk into a winery and tell the winemaker his Cab Franc tastes mass-produced and typical of American palettes (That is a direct quote! Thankfully the guy behind the counter displayed more restraint than I would have). Not only will you look like a total jerk, just watch how quickly your friends will act like they’re not there with you when it comes time for the next pour.

To spit or not to spit? The important thing to remember is this: You’re here to enjoy wine, not day drink. Right?

Right.

This is not to say that you are under no circumstances to imbibe any wine whatsoever, but for God’s sake think about it like you’re an adult. If you’re in for a full day of hitting nine wineries, you obviously would do well to pace your consumption. As amusing as your friends might think it is to watch you stagger around the tasting room sporting stained teeth and mumbling sea shanties, I don’t think the winemaker and her husband appreciate having to clean up after you instead of making their daughters fish sticks. Of course, if you’re driving, you spit. That is non-negotiable. Duh. It is totally normal, and to be perfectly honest, if you’re the only person in the room spitting, everybody else will think you’re some kind of super wine expert. Feel free to take advantage of this perception and start making up tasting notes. “Mmm, yes. South American piranhafruit. Typical of this style of Syrah.”

To buy or not to buy? Where I worked this was the topic of great debate. You just did a free tasting of six wines. You chatted with the guy behind the counter for an hour, and learned everything there is to learn about the local terroir. At this point, I kind of feel like it’s only fair you pick up a bottle of $25 Merlot and support the establishment that just provided you with an educational and fun experience. Now if nothing they produced really tickles your fancy? That is tricky, and I suppose all I can say is to use your best judgment, but on the whole, I’d advise that you err on the site of generosity. Many of these wineries are small, family-owned labors of love, so bear that in mind.

One more thing: If you see some service advertising a bus that will drive you and 35 other tourists around the area from winery to winery, run. Don’t walk, run. There is no easier way to guarantee distain from the tasting room staff then to roll up their driveway in a bus full of 40 drunken midwesterners who are already six wineries deep. The tasting room folks will be rushed and resentful, and you won’t get a chance to enjoy yourself. This is for your sake just as much as theirs. It’s bad news.

Again, the most important thing to remember is this: You and everybody else in that tasting room were brought there by the same thing: an interest in wine. So strike up a conversation with those Canadian ex-pats and ask the guy behind the counter how harvest went. Sip, swirl, listen and learn. Take advantage of being so close to the source of something so wonderful, and for God’s sake don’t throw around the word brix like you own it.

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