Don't Chew Gum, and Other Basic Wine Tasting Rules

wine tasting
wine tasting

There are all kinds great places around Los Angeles to visit to taste wine. A couple of hours up the 101 and you'll find yourself in Santa Barbara wine country, while an hour and a half down the 15 will land you in Temecula. And if you don't want to drive out of town then there's no shortage of places to taste wine right here in the city, but there are some things you should know before you go tasting because, while wine tasting is a social event, it's not quite the same as happy hour.

Here are eight simple rules to follow when attending a wine tasting event. 

Rule One: Don't wear fragrances.
You know the drill: You're given a small amount of wine in a glass; you smell it and you drink it. It's pretty simple. But believe it or not , wine really has no flavor. Your tongue can taste salt, sour, sweet, bitter and umami (savory). 

Wine can be sweet when there's residual sugar, or bitter with the presence of tannin, but it's rarely sour and shouldn't be salty. So, where do the flavors of berries and flowers, chocolate and leather come from? Aromas. Wine is all smell. 90% of what you're experiencing actually isn't taste at all, rather your sense of smell, which is why you can't taste anything if you have a cold and a stuffy nose. And there's nothing worse that sticking your nose in a glass of wine trying to smell those delicate notes of honeysuckle, or differentiate the sent of Bing cherry from Wild Cherry Lifesavers, only to have those distant aromas replaced by an overwhelming waft of Chanel No. 5. And this rule goes for perfumed soaps too.

Rule Two: Don't chew gum.
Gum, no. Cheese, yes.

Everyone wants fresh breath, and everyone else appreciates that. However brushing your teeth, chewing gum or eating mints right before tasting wine will ruin your ability to actually taste or smell the wine. Cheeses, meats, crackers or bread, on the other hand, will enhance your tasting experience.

Keep in mind that not all wines are made to be "cocktail wines," and therefore won't taste as good as stand-alone samples. Some wines, particularly Old World wines from France or Italy, that are higher in acid and more muted in fruit, can benefit from cheese to enhance the fruit, meat to tame tannins, and water crackers or bread to cleanse your palate when going from one wine to the next.

When tasting several wines, you can experience something called palate fatigue: that moment when everything starts to taste the same. The best way to get rid of it is to either show up armed with a small container of coffee beans to smell, or simply take a moment to eat something.

glass of wine
glass of wine
Flickr/Paul Aloe

Rule Three: It's a wine tasting, not a wine drinking.
When you've been poured your sample of wine, it's just that - it's a sample. A taste. Just as advertised. Don't complain if you think your taste is smaller than someone else's. Wines are often poured without a measuring device like a jigger, the way they would at a bar, so some pours are larger than others. If you don't feel that your sample was large enough it's okay to revisit a bottle after you've tasting through the lineup. 

And on the subject of revisiting a wine: It's often recommended that once you're done tasting through the lineup, you return to the first bottle. The alcohol from that first taste shocks your palate. Once your palate is used to the alcohol, the wine will taste completely different, so you'll usually find that the first wine tastes different to you the second time around.

Rule Four: Don't stand your ground.
Wine tastings are often crowded events, so when you approach a table or bar, be courteous to those around you and make room for others. Once you've listened to any information that accompanies the wine, step to the side or step back to make room. If you're one of those folks who likes to talk wine with whomever is pouring, refrain. There are better places to have a lengthy discussion than at a crowded tasting event. Ask the person pouring the wine for a business card and email him later if you have a comment, or if your question is designed more to show your knowledge than to gain knowledge. Which brings us to #5. 

Don't Chew Gum, and Other Basic Wine Tasting Rules
Flickr/Tim Lucas

Rule Five: Listen and learn.
The point of a wine tasting is to sample and learn something about the wine you taste, or to help you make an informed decision about purchasing the wine. Remember, you're not at happy hour; you're at an event. 

Rule Six: Don't serve yourself.
The person pouring wine at a tasting is often not pouring just one and is there to explain and talk about the wines being presented. You may be on your third in a five bottle series, while someone else is on his first. You may feel like you have a good rapport with the person pouring because you asked a wonderfully insightful question. Perhaps you know the host from previous tasting events where you made similarly insightful comments, and you're ready for your fourth taste and the bottle is right in front of you. It is never acceptable to help yourself. Never. Not only is it tacky, it's rude. 

Rule Seven: You don't have to drink everything in your glass.
Once while driving through Napa I randomly stopped at a winery tasting room. I was poured a generous taste, which I smelled, swirled, smelled again and drank then dumped the remainder of my glass into the ornate bucket on the bar. I then swished the wine in my mouth, sucked air through it and made a horrible slurping sound, then spit it out into that same bucket. When I looked up, all the other people along the tasting bar were looking at me as if I'd just peed in the bushes.

When it comes to wine, drinking and tasting are two very different things.

Most tasting setups include the lineup of wines being tasted, clean glasses and a bucket. The bucket is for dumping, or spitting your wine. When tasting wine, you want to take a big enough sip to be able to taste the wine with all parts of your tongue, which for most people is a little less than a swig of mouthwash. If there's excess wine in your glass it's perfectly acceptable to dump the leftover into the bucket. And spitting the wine into that bucket isn't considered bad form, and won't be taken as a sign that you don't like the wine. In fact, actually swallowing the wine isn't really necessary to taste.

wine glasses
wine glasses
Flickr/J R

Rule Eight: You don't have to use just one glass.
Wines are usually poured in an order. White before red, dry before sweet, young before old, modest before fine, light bodied before full, and light young red before full sweet white. The reason for the presentation order is because some wines overpower others. However, that order doesn't always work because some wines can be extremely aromatic and have strong notes like oak or barnyard, or be extremely floral. 

If you're at a tasting that has a large variety of styles of wine, it's okay to ask for a new glass when switching from whites to reds, or if you've just tasted a particularly aromatic wine. You want to be sure that the wine you just tasted doesn't have an affect on the wine you're about to taste. If you purchased a commemorative glass for an event, then it's perfectly acceptable to ask the pourer to rinse your glass out with a splash of the wine you're about to taste.

While some people use water to rinse a glass, it's better to rinse with wine. Water will dilute flavors and have an effect on the wine's taste. If you do use water to rinse be sure to dry your glass completely. 

Happy tasting.

Matt Miller is a certified wine specialist and buyer for Lincoln Fine Wines. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook

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