One of the best perks of being a sommelier is that I get paid to drink. In fact, it’s expected that I drink—specifically, that I taste everything I can, as often as I can. And I happily oblige.
This beautiful thing called wine is an ever-changing and ever-evolving experience, and the only way to truly understand it is to immerse yourself in it. For those of us in the hospitality industry here in the desert, this time of year means it’s time to put on the crash helmet and dive in. Every week for the next month, there will be a ballroom somewhere in the valley filled with people sampling wine being poured by eager suppliers hoping to gain a spot on a wine list or a placement on a bottle-shop shelf.
I’m fresh off tasting No. 2. As I made my way from table to table, I couldn’t help but notice how many wine civilians (aka non-industry folks) were there. In the past, I was usually the person behind the table, focused on salesmanship and presenting my wines in the best light possible. The whole point of my being there was to sell wine. Sure, it was easy to tell who was there as a buyer, and who just snuck in for the free food and hooch, but it really didn’t matter. As long as people were trying my wine and being respectful, I didn’t care. This time around, however, I am on the other side of the table.
Now that I have a much broader view, I feel compelled to suggest a few dos and don’ts for trade-tasting novices.
I’m always the first one to tell people to drink what they like. However, this rule does not apply at a tasting—especially when the wine-tasting is free! This defeats the whole point. In fact, the point is to taste what you don’t know. Tastings offer a wonderful opportunity to sample wines before we commit to them, and an even greater opportunity to learn about them. Sometimes the people behind the table are winemakers or principals; more often, they are reps or distributors, but whoever is pouring, he or she is tied to the winery in one capacity or another and offers valuable information that you can’t get anywhere else. At every tasting, there is sure to be wine you’ve never had or perhaps never heard of. The standout wine for me at the last tasting was a vermentino from Corsica, and it was glorious!
I was also able to do a side-by-side comparative tasting of a sauvignon blanc—both from the same producer, and the same vineyard, but one was in a bottle, and one was canned. The education I received from the rep on their canning procedure, laws, regulations and what they’ve learned via trial and error was the highlight of the day for me. This is the reason trade tastings exist. However, while the concept seems logical enough, it never fails: People go right for what they know, zeroing in on their security-blanket brand like a heat-seeking missile. Don’t get me wrong; I’ll taste familiar wines, too. Things change; winemakers move around; vintages vary; vinification techniques improve and evolve. The difference is I yearn to taste the unknown, so I taste everything from everywhere.
So here are a few of my cardinal rules for wine tastings. Consider this your condensed guide for how not to look like “that guy”:
1. This is not a buffet. You do not, under any circumstances, help yourself to the wine on the table. Even if the pourer winked at you and laughed at your “I said my pinot is bigger!” joke, that does not give you permission to fondle the bottles.
2. Yes, you should be spitting. Those buckets on the table are there for a reason and should be used often. I know, I know … it’s a crime to spit out all that delicious wine, but tastings are, for the most part, a professional event and not the place to get commode-hugging drunk. But it never ceases to amaze me how many people I see stumbling around these events—even industry veterans. Which reminds me: Unless you want to wind up looking like you’re wearing a souvenir T-shirt from a Grateful Dead concert, it’s best to avoid wearing white and/or anything silk. Because, ya know, there’s a drunk guy with a glass of red wine stumbling around.
3. Be an information-gatherer. I get it; you read Wine Spectator. You visit Napa, Sonoma, Paso and Santa Barbara all the time. Your best friend is a winemaker. Still, you do not know more than the person pouring the wine. This is their business, and they want to share it with you. Let them.
4. If you don’t have anything nice to say, zip it. I used to joke around about this all the time, telling people that I’m not the winemaker, so it won’t hurt my feelings if you don’t like the wine. But the truth is … it’s kinda rude. Even if the rep didn’t make the wine, he or she is there representing it. Also, any negative comment you make might affect the person standing next to you who just declared this wine to be their absolute most favorite thing in the whole wide world.
5. Keep an open mind. If there is a pinotage open, try it. If you see wines from Romania there, try them. Had a bad experience with riesling when you were 17? Try it again. No, you’re not going to like everything, but you will surprise yourself. There is no better opportunity to nurture your sense of adventure and take a walk on the wild side, wine-wise.
So whether you’re wine-tasting at a private country club, at a restaurant, or sneaking into a trade tasting, always remember: Wine is about exploration and discovery. Now go get out of your wine rut, and get tasting!
Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with more than 15 years in the wine industry. She is a member of the Society of Wine Educators and is currently studying with the Wine and Spirit Education Trust. When she’s not hitting the books, you can find her hosting private wine tastings and exploring the desert with her husband and two children. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.