However the names and places of those involved have been changed to protect the innocent.
A couple weeks ago I was having lunch with a friend (whom we shall refer to as Carrie) at an undisclosed location near of Portland, OR, and as our wine arrived with lunch I began to swirl my wine and gave it a good sniff. It was at that moment when my friend asked me a very shocking question. She leaned over very closely, grabbed my wrist, looked around to make sure nobody else was listening, and whispered, “Mary, why do you do that?”
“Why do I do what?” I whispered back, having no idea what she was referring to or why I was also whispering for that matter.
With wide-open eyes staring directly at my glass, while covering up her mouth with her hand as if to ensure nobody could read her lips, she says, “that swirly thing you just did to your wine glass”?
“Are you kidding me?” I laugh. I laughed because Carrie has always come across as somewhat savvy with wine, I’d never had imagined she didn’t know why we swirl. Wait, it gets better.
She continues, “No, I mean, I always swirl my glass, but that’s because I see everyone else doing it and assumed it’s something you’re supposed to… but I never understood why. [long pause] Mary, there’s something else you should know. Something I’ve never told anybody, but you have to promise to never share this with anybody (hence I am posting it here on my blog)… I’ve never even been to a winery to wine taste before!”
I gasp in horror! “Are you kidding me?!” I mean the girl practically lives in wine country; she must be pulling my leg.
“NOOOO”, she screams, then immediately lowers her voice again to a whisper so that onlookers don’t eavesdrop, “I feel like a fraud. I mean, people think I know a lot about wine, if they knew the truth I’d never live it down.”
“What are you doing Monday?” I ask authoritatively.
“Well you are now. I’m taking you wine tasting in the Willamette Valley. After one day with me you’ll know everything you need to know to go wine tasting with your friends with confidence! I’ll teach you to look like a pro. But first things first, let’s talk swirling.”
It then occurred to me that maybe I have more friends out there who feel the same as Carrie? People I know. People who don’t know why we swirl our wine glasses before sipping, or those have never been wine tasting simply because they are afraid of looking like a newbie or feeling stupid. And it dawned on me that I have to share this story in hopes that it can help at least one person who truly wants to go wine tasting but has been afraid to ask the simple, basic, questions in order to make them feel comfortable enough to take that first step.
Before our wine tasting extravaganza I wanted to teach Carrie some of the basics so she was comfortable going into her first tasting room.
Generally speaking, when sampling a wine at a winery or wine tasting event you should follow these steps (and if you do, you might even look like a pro).
Sight: Hold the glass by the stem and hold it straight in front of you and look at it. You are looking for things like clarity (is the wine clear or cloudy), the color (is it really light straw colored or deep ruby), are there sediments (particles) in the wine? If you are a professional wine taster you may be looking for other characteristics to determine the wines approximate age (yes you can tell that just by looking at it) or quality.
By nose I mean what it smells like. After examining the sight of the wine you will want to keep that firm hold on the stem and give it a good swirl (and if you haven’t done this before you may want to place the glass on a table and swirl it from there or spillage may occur). This releases the wines “esters” (aromas). This is one of the best parts of wine tasting since you can smell thousands of characteristics simply by smelling the wine (and only five by tasting). Stick your nose close to the glass and give it a strong whiff. What do you smell? It’s okay if your response is “wine” when you first practice this. After all, it is wine. Over time you will learn how to pick out specifics like green apple, ripe pear, black cherry, leather, cedar, cloves, among thousands of other possibilities. In an old world wine (aka European) you may sense more earthy qualities (like mushrooms, minerals, chalk, stone), as opposed to a new world wine (think The Americas, Australia, etc.) you may get more fresh fruit qualities initially. As a consumer, you are smelling the wine to assess qualities you like and those you do not like.
Palate: When you’re done checking out the nose of the wine you will want to give it a taste. Allow a good amount (maybe ¼ – ½ oz) into your mouth and allow it to swish around in your mouth. Don’t swallow it right away, this is not a shot! Focus on how it changes in your mouth. What stands out? Is the wine sweet (detected by the level of trace sugar in the wine), or dry (little to no detectable sugar remaining)? Does the flavor confirm what you smelled earlier or do you detect anything different? Is the wine full-bodied or light (think whole milk vs. skim)? If it is a red wine is it tannic? (I judge the level of tannin by how cotton mouth your tongue feels after the wine is gone.) Again for the wine consumer you are simply looking for what you like and don’t like to judge whether it is something you will want to buy. When you are done you have the option to swallow the wine, or spit it in the dump bucket. *If you plan to visit multiple wineries in one day I highly recommend that option! That or take one swallow, then dump the remaining contents.
Finish: Finish refers to how long the flavors last after you have swallowed (or spit) the wine. Does the flavor last long after you have swallowed it, or did it go away very fast? Generally speaking the longer the finish the better quality the wine and more memorable. During this stage you will also determine if it is a wine YOU like and want to purchase. Don’t worry if other people have different conclusions. This is YOUR palate and only you can determine if you like it or not so don’t be shy to express your opinion. If you don’t like it, politely tell the person behind the bar you didn’t like it and explain why to the best of your ability, and perhaps he or she can introduce you to something you might like better. I don’t care if they tell you the wine received 99 points in Wine Spectator, if you didn’t like it it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with your palate! You are entitled to your own opinion. What’s most important is finding something YOU like! The more you know the characteristics you like and don’t like in a wine, better are chances of you finding something you will like later on down the road.
Seem simple enough? Now that you know the basics, let’s go test it out at a few wineries.
A few things to know about wineries if you have never visited any.
What to expect:
Hours: Many wineries have regular open tasting hours where you can drop in and do an informal tasting. I recommend starting here and getting comfortable with this process. There are also wineries you must make an advanced appointment with and may conduct private tours and tastings. Refer to the wineries website (or a local map) for their hours and availability.
Tasting Fees: Many wineries may charge you a tasting fee. This can range from $5 for a flight to $20 on up. If you want to be sure you may want to spend a few minutes doing some research before planning your wine country trip so that you’re not surprised. Check out their website or give them a call to see what their policy is. Many wineries may even offer you a refund on the tasting fee if you make a purchase.
Flights: Included in the tasting fee will be a “flight” (selection of wines offered to taste). Often times the winery will pre-select the wines offered for tasting that day or you may select from a few options. On average the flight may range anywhere from 3 samples to 6 (sometimes many more, hence the importance of spitting or pouring out some of the sample). The tasting room staff will generally explain the procedure when you arrive. Just note that all tasting rooms have different policies so don’t expect the same experience at every winery you go to.
Sample size: You are not receiving entire glasses of wine. Expect a small sample of approx 1oz in size. This is an appropriate enough sized pour to assess the wines characteristics. Savor the experience and taste slowly. Like I said earlier, this is not a shot.
Don’t feel obligated to make a purchase! I’ve been victim to this many times before, buying wine out of some feeling of obligation, and I want to save you from making bad wine purchases. Buy what you like and don’t feel pressured to buy wines you don’t wish to.
Tasting room staff should never make you feel stupid! Ever. If this happens, just don’t ever return to that winery (or if you feel so inclined you may take down the persons name and write an email to the winery about your treatment). This should be a safe place where you can learn about their wines and not feel belittled or talked down to. Their job is hospitality and customer service and should make you feel comfortable asking questions about their wines and educate you on their product.
Don’t be afraid to tell them you’re new to this. If they are good at their jobs, they should make you feel warm and welcome and answer any questions you may have.
Our Tasting Day:
After picking up Carrie we ventured down to our first winery. She seemed somewhat nervous so I did all the talking at the first tasting room. At winery #2 we had a sit down private tasting where Carrie could safely ask everything she wanted to the winery attendant in safe confines. Then something amazing happened… by winery #3 Carrie was on a roll, picking out characteristics even I didn’t catch, and even started confidently asking questions to the tasting room staff without caring about being judged! She already sounded like a pro, and even vowed to bring her parents back to one of the wineries to show them how savvy she now was. “You’ll get better and better with each visit to new wineries,” I promised her. Keep at it and don’t be shy. And that goes for anybody who has never been to a winery but wants to check them out.
Carrie is now, by the way, in love with visiting wineries and has been back to visit new wineries two different times already within the last month (without me). She learned that there’s nothing to be intimidated about. With a few simple things to keep in mind you too can feel confident going out for a wine country day.