A tasting-room veteran offers some no-bull wine-tasting tips for Generation Next. For your own sake, abide.
By Ella Lawrence
Merlot and chardonnay are easy varietals to pronounce, which is probably why they're the Top 2 selling wines in America. Harder to say are pinot noir, syrah, sauvignon blanc. And unless you've got some background in wine snobbery, you don't dare try to order sangiovese, marsanne or viognier.
How to find out more about wine without embarrassing yourself in front of your dinner date as your waiter rolls his eyes and haughtily sighs, "It's pronounced Vee-on-yay, Sir"? Head to one of the many wineries around Santa Cruz County and the entire state. California has become a virtual mecca of wineries, both boutique and corporate, in the last 10 years, and most of these places will have tasting rooms in addition to winemaking facilities.
The tasting room is a comfortable place staffed with (hopefully) friendly and helpful employees who will pour you wine and educate you about the stuff if you so desire. Tasting rooms often will have a store where the happy and mildly buzzed tourist can purchase all sorts of wine-related amenities, like "charming" wine-glass-markers or corks with pewter grapes as adornment. Not all tasting rooms are of the same ilk: in just one valley they can range from the quaint barn in a vineyard, staffed by old ladies with puffy-paint sweatshirts, to soaring modern facilities staffed by sometimes surly, tattooed hipsters. In order to maximize the wine-tasting experience, this sometimes-surly-tattooed-hipster-tasting-room-employee-turned-writer has come up with a list of dos and don'ts for tasting-room etiquette, gathered from a number of tasting-room employees, hereon referred to as "tastrons."
Have an opinion about wine and share it. It's easy to be intimidated by Wine Country, but wine is something that should be accessible to anyone, even those newly indoctrinated to oenophilia. If you get a taste of blackberries in your wine, exclaim, "I taste blackberries!" If the wine has a tongue-puckering effect, holler, "Yowee! That's got a lot of tannin!" If you'd rather offer up "I'm getting some really subtle nuances of pineapple and guava, maybe some vanilla spice at the end here," then by all means do so, but don't keep quiet: they are here to talk to you about wine and anything else under the sun while you're in fr ont of us, so let the tastron know what you think. But ...
Realize the tastrons have heard it all before, so don't try to impress them. Let me repeat: Do not try to impress anyone in a winery with your knowledge of wine. Only someone who does not know very much about wine will try to impress people whose job it is to know about wine with scanty factoids and banal trivia. Winery employees often know much more about wine than they appear to, and even if they don't, they will not be impressed by the question, "Sooo ... is this wine from American barrels or French barrels?" (By the way, most wineries use a combination of the two.) So please do ...
Relate to your tastron as an equal. Do not patronize him or be intimidated by him. Just because the tastron is behind a bar doesn't make him scary or less of a person.
Be nice; it's free wine, after all! Being nice includes saying "hello," "thank you" and "may I?" instead of just "gimme."
Wipe off your lipstick: the really gooey stuff doesn't come off in the dishwasher and we curse you as we hand-wipe it from our crystal glassware. Plus, how gauche are hot-pink lip-marks all around the rim of your glass?
Leave the perfume at home. Smell and taste are two senses that are inextricably linked (ever notice how food tastes like cardboard when you have a cold and are stuffed up?). No matter how delightful your Chanel No. 5 may smell on a date, the person who is standing next to you at the winery bar doesn't want to smell it as they try to get the most scent and taste out of the tiny pours they are drinking.
Talk about something other than wine with the tastron. But don't say "Wow! What a great view!" if there's a great view. The tastron knows it's a great view because she looks at it all day, every day, and then people like you come in and inform her she's got a great view in case she hadn't already noticed. Talk to the tastron about where you're from; chances are, she's never been there; or if she has, then you've got something in common. Talk about your dog. Talk about God. Talk about something! You will be standing in front of your tastron for at least 10 minutes, so do your best to engage with her, for she most likely is an interesting person.
Actually care about the wine you are tasting. Tasting rooms are places where many wineries showcase their finest bottles, and most tasting-room employees are proud to be in this line of work. Show some real interest and watch the tastron open up with friendliness--and perhaps open up a special bottle that's not on the tasting list!
Designate a driver. Use the following equation: Number of wineries X number of tastes per winery X ounces per taste = far more wine than you think. (For instance, five tastes each at five wineries with five ounces per taste equals 50 ounces--two bottles of wine!)
Meanwhile, as with any customer-service job, those employed behind the counter will amuse themselves endlessly by making fun of customers. Here are some tips to keep you from being the butt of jokes for years to come.
Move your glass upward to stop a pour. Don't ever move your glass around when the tastron has a bottle in their hand. This will make the tastron hate you.
Slurp, smack or gurgle wine. And do not chew gum.
Tell the tastrons how 'dry' the red wines are. Just substituting the word "tannic" for the word "dry" will make them think you actually care about wine. Plus, it will impress your friends no end.
Never mention 'legs.' Whoever told you this thing about "legs" as a way to distinguish one wine from another is now filled with mirth at the thought of you traveling from winery to winery and trying to impress the employees and your friends with this nonsense phenomenon.
Ask 'where in the Dry Creek' a particular fruit comes from, unless you live in the Dry Creek, and grow wine and want to know which one of your neighbors to thank for producing the fruit for this fabulous bottle. Does knowing where the lot is make the wine taste better? Are you going to go visit there?
Rinse your glass with water. Water and wine have different viscosities, and for the small amount of wine you are poured in a tasting room, water will dilute the characteristics of the wine much more than the previous wine. Tasting rooms generally pour their wines from lightest-bodied to heavies, so going from one wine directly to the next is part of the whole experience. If you're going from a red wine to a white wine, rinse your glass with a little bit of the white wine you are going to taste, then have the tastron pour the white into your glass.
Attempt humor, unless you have been told by many people (who are not your mother) that you are funnier than Margaret Cho. When poured a taste of syrah, never ever, ever say, "Que syrah, syrah!" and laugh at your own wit. Chances are, the tastron has heard that particular line several times already this morning and perhaps is being forcibly restrained by his co-worker from hopping over the counter and kicking your teeth in. One co-worker tells a story of scores of semidrunken customers chuckling, "Heh, heh, naughty," as he poured a taste of a 'knotty vines zinfandel.' While this may have been a shade funny the first time someone said it (and it probably wasn't), it is very far from funny to someone who has heard it several times a day for the past several years.
State the obvious. Example: "Gosh, you're tall" (to a very tall tastron). Just as someone who works in a tasting room has heard every "witty" wine-related line before, so does someone who is 6 feet tall know she is tall.
Touch the spit bucket. Just lean over it. Realize what sorts of disgusting things hang out in the spit bucket--old wine that was in other people's mouths, dead fruit flies--and spit. If you actually touch this foul vessel, the tastron will not want to come within more than a few feet of you, which makes it difficult to pour you more wine.
Let yourself be pressured into purchasing or joining the wine club. Sometimes the tastron can (often without meaning to) make you feel intimidated by the broad wealth of wine knowledge they have. Don't let the tastron use this unfair advantage to force you into joining the wine club. Tell the tastron you know she only gets five measly bucks if you join the club, so she should just leave you alone and go prey on some other hapless suckers for cash. Unless, that is, you really want to join the wine club, in which case you should by all means ask about it, because wine clubs are good things.
Sarcastically say, 'Wow, you have a hard job, heh, heh." This can make tastrons feel demeaned. Sure, it seems like a piece of cake to stand around in front of a beautiful view and drink wine all day long, but it's actually taxing to stand around and drink wine in front of a beautiful view all day long! Sometimes you have to bring boxes of wine from the back and put them in the front ,and those boxes might be heavy. Well, OK, maybe we tastrons don't have it so bad after all.
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