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Spitting Is for Snobs

Wine-tasting do's & don'ts

By Steve Bjerklie

The carnival came to town. Seventy wineries and 35 food purveyors offered tastes of everything from sangiovese to eggplant pesto one bright, blue day not long ago, and grown adults ran around hollering and laughing as if occupying a Brueghel painting. What a lot of people--too many people, in fact--don't understand is that wine tastings are not shooting galleries. The idea is not to knock down as many different wines as possible while maintaining a facade of composure and grace while your brain is making your mouth say things like "You have excellent breasts" to your best friend's wife. I actually heard a guy I know say that in the course of the bright blue afternoon. I watched another man pinch and hold the round ass of his girlfriend while he said, "I really like this wine's mouth-feel." I watched someone else offer a taste of zinfandel to his dog.

While wine tastings offer a chance to indulge for indulgence's sake, I try to bring a little order to the enterprise. I like finding out about new wines as much as the next person, and big wine tastings are a great way to learn a lot quickly, but it must be said: After several of even the most discretionary tastes, one's mouth-feel is, if anything, chaos. In my life I've attended a hundred or more tastings, and this is what I've learned so far: Eat a lot beforehand. A little wine on an empty stomach can produce a big drunk. And don't depend on any food offered at the tasting to do the trick for you. Almost always the gourmet goodies handed out at tastings by polite, well-meaning zealots of arcane cuisine are inappropriate accompaniments to wine.

Drink a good bottle the night before. At any wine tasting your taste buds are going to be as excited as if you were licking spoons in a frosting factory. Under a creamy, luscious yellow sun at a Sunday tasting, the wine offered to you by the winemaker's gorgeous daughter is going to taste fabulous, whether it is or isn't. So I set a standard before I even arrive, enjoying glasses of a favorite with dinner the previous evening. The last thing I want to do at a tasting is wax poetic over a bad wine and then tell the winemaker's daughter she has excellent breasts.

Strategize. Trying to taste everything is impossible and dumb. Divide up the tasting into categories and concentrate on one, maybe two. Two approaches I've used work quite well: I concentrate on a type of wine or on a certain region.

Don't spit. My dad taught me you've got to swallow the stuff to truly appreciate whether your whole body likes the wine, and he's not wrong. Now mind you, I don't drink all of everything I taste. One swallow of a bad wine, and I dump the rest. At the last tasting I went to, one wine I was ready to taste smelled like oatmeal and dope smoke. It didn't even make it into my mouth.

Do not wear T-shirts that say things like "Wine-Oceros" and "Life is too short to drink cheap wine." We know that already.

Do not wear hats showing off the logo of your condo development in Aspen; do not wear hats from investment companies (ever). These tell us how rich you are and thus by inference promote the idea that wine is best understood and appreciated by wealthy white people. It's not, and as far as the fatness of your back account is concerned, we don't care.

Do not wear white.

Taste what you came to taste in the first hour. After that your tongue's as worn out as a kitchen sponge, and your stomach will assume you're drinking paint thinner. And you will probably be saying very stupid things to the people around you, so make sure you're not saying stupid things about stupid wine.

Forget the wine business and all its nomenclature. Do not talk about head-pruning. Do not utter, even once, "malolactic fermentation." Do not encourage anyone to discuss degrees brix. Enjoy the company of your friends. Enjoy wine for what it is: a lovely, tasty way to stroll down the broad boulevard of human experience.

At the tasting on the bright blue afternoon, I ran into two good old friends, a married couple, who enjoy wine as much as I do. He's an investment counselor, she's smarter than that. We were already a couple of hours into the affair, and he was saying stupid Republican things and she was giggling at his nonsense. They swerved me over to the best wine they'd tasted that day, and it was indeed excellent. We swapped laughs and stories. I thought back to another tasting several years ago when just she was there--roaring drunk. It had been a tough year: They'd divorced, actually, and it looked as though he was going to marry a belle from New Orleans. Now here they were together again and married again. They said their teenage daughter announced the other day that she's not ever leaving home to go to college because she likes being around them so much. I do, too. The heavens opened, and sun shafts struck straight into our hearts. That's the moment I went to the tasting for. Along the way, I tasted these and thought about you:

Hanna Winery 1996 Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc. Fresh and ripe as a June peach. I didn't notice it at first, but the winemaker (not his daughter, alas) told me he's got 8 percent chardonnay in this wine, and once he said so, the difference became obvious. Great stuff.

Robert Mueller Cellars 1995 Alexander Valley Chardonnay. Almost everyone I know loves this wine, and my local wine merchant tells me he sells more of it than any other chard. It's a creamy-smooth wine, a kind of oddity.

Ivy Ruby Cabernet. Jim Field, famous as the best producer of high-quality jug wine, makes this wondrous beverage under his "upscale" label. Ruby cabernet is a hybrid of cabernet sauvignon and carignane and is inexplicably underused. All for $4.99--the deal of the century.

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From the July 1997 issue of the Metropolitan.

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