How to have Good Manners at a Wine Festival

Event/ Marinne Corps community services 11th annual Wine FestivalI’ve worked at my share of consumer wine tastings – and there’s no sign of that part of my job ending – so I thought I would try and help ALL of us by publishing a post on wine festival manners. This is more a chain of thoughts rather than a well-structured list, so I would encourage anyone with further tips, or even questions, to chime in.

Let me start by saying that, as for most occasions in life, if you use decent judgement and act like a considerate human, everything should go well at your next wine tasting event. But it does help to keep in mind a few specifics:

Do not wear fragrance of any kind. Wine tastings are meant for people to smell, taste, and enjoy wine, not for them to drown in your “signature scent”. Any perfume, cologne, lotion, or hairspray with a strong fragrance should be 100% avoided. Lingering odors get in the way of tasting wine because our sense of smell is strongly linked to what we taste.

Don’t arrive at the tasting table chewing gum or drinking coffee.  Any strong taste that is left in your mouth right before tasting wine will interfere with your wine tasting experience.

Drink lots of water.  It’s important to hydrate when you are tasting (or drinking) a lot of different wines. You will thank me later.

Speaking of tasting (or drinking), it’s okay to drink the wine instead of spitting it in the provided bucket (more on that later). I don’t have to tell you to take your time and “drink responsibly” though, do I?

Make sure to eat enough before and/or during the tasting. Having a full stomach will enable you to taste (or drink) more wine without feeling tipsy. Having bites of crackers, bread, or cheese every so often after tasting a string of wines, will cleanse your palate and get it ready for the next wines.  Food will cleanse your palate more effectively than water alone.

Speaking of water, do not rinse out your glass with water every time you taste a new wine. If you taste the wines in a meaningful order (the person pouring the wine should lead you through this way), there is no need for a water rinse in between. The next wine should be sufficient to eclipse the taste of the previous.  If you are tasting red wines, and you move on to a table to taste white wines, feel free to ask for a small wine rinse from the pourer.  This will be more effective than water.

It’s okay to spit the wine out, or pour any extra in the spit/dump bucket.  If you drink every wine at the festival, your evening will end quickly.  No one should be offended if you taste and then spit the wine out (it’s what the pros do). If you are not comfortable with spitting, feel free to pour the wine that is left in your glass in the dump bucket and move on to the next.

While we are on the subject, please do not spit the wine back in your glass and then dump it. I’ve seen this far too many times. It’s disgusting in a public setting and just don’t do it.

Offer your opinion and ask questions about the wine you are tasting. You are here to learn, and talking and asking questions is appreciated. That being said, don’t try to act like the big wine expert dropping knowledge on everyone and taking up all the air at the tasting table.

Discard preconceived notions and try something new.  Tastings are meant for you to discover what you like. Don’t wrinkle your nose and say, “I don’t like Chardonnay”. There are many different expressions of grapes like Chardonnay.  Taste it, and you might be surprised.  Otherwise, the worst that can happen is that you confirm your suspicions and dump the wine out.

Attempt not to go straight to the VIP table.  I get it. You want to get your money’s worth and have a chance to taste the pricey stuff.  If there’s a big line at all the VIP tables, stop at another table on the way.  Not all good wine is pricey!

Don’t move your glass around when the person is pouring.  Lifting your glass, or lowering your glass, mid-pour is not helpful.  Talking to your friend and moving your glass side to side is simply annoying.  If you get a splash of wine on your arm at this point, it’s all your fault.  Similarly, yanking your glass away because you only want a small pour is bad news.  Use your words and ask for a small pour, please.

Don’t set your glass down on the table. This is more of a suggestion, but it’s easier to pour for you if your glass is not down on the table in front of a wall of wine bottles. Your wine glass can also get confused with someone else’s glass if you lose track of it.

Swirl the wine in your glass.  Give the wine a gentle swirl in your glass to release the aromas and flavors. Don’t swirl too vigorously, especially if you are new to this, as the person next to you might get a Cabernet spritz in the eye.

If you want to look like a professional, hold your wine glass by the stem. This is the proper way to hold a wine glass, and it will keep your hand from changing (warming) the temperature of the wine in your glass.

Try not to think of these tips as “rules” but rather a means to a more enjoyable time. Wine tasting is meant to be fun and being armed with a little know-how will make for a better experience for everyone. Cheers!

**What did I miss? Comment with a tip or a question.**

On Corked Wine, and Trusting Your Instinct

I’ll try to keep this short. I don’t want to belabor the point, and there’s probably 1,000 articles on the topic already.
Screen Shot 2018-01-28 at 12.48.10 PMI had an experience with corked wine this past week that made me question my professional integrity. Actually, I didn’t really question my credibility (I mean, sh*t happens) but I was irritated that I missed that one of the wines in my bag was corked. I was tasting with a restaurant account and the wine director called it out before I could even get my nose out of the glass. I must have had an inclination, because I lingered over the aromas longer than usual, but I wasn’t confident enough about it to speak up. Much of deciphering if a wine is corked or not is trusting your instincts, and that’s where I went wrong. I mean, if I sniffed my half & half a few times because it was questionable, I probably wouldn’t pour it in to my coffee, or yours. Same idea.

In my defense, the wine was only slightly corked. In fact, it probably would have squeaked by some of my other customers. But that doesn’t do anyone any good because a slightly corked wine has zero personality.  Cork taint mutes the fruit aromas and flavors and prevents the wine from being its best self. That means you aren’t going to enjoy drinking the wine and, for me, it means I’m not going to be able to sell it.

If a wine is extremely corked, you should be able to tell right away, by the smell alone. If the wine smells like wet cardboard, damp newspaper, musty basement, or your puppy running in to your arms after coming in from the rain, chances are it’s corked.  If a wine isn’t horribly corked, you might have to taste it before you’re sure. Although it really is more about the aroma, a corked wine will taste flat and lifeless and can confirm your suspicions. You may even get the sense of moldiness on your tongue (blech). Have no fear, drinking corked wine won’t make you ill, it just won’t taste very good.

So, what to take away from all of this? If you’re at a restaurant and think your wine is corked, speak up. Usually the Sommelier or server will confirm your suspicions and get you another bottle. Try not to mistake a wine you just don’t like with a wine that is genuinely corked. That’s not going to help when you get another bottle and it tastes the same.

If you purchase a wine from a retailer and you think it’s corked, return the cork to the bottle and take it back to the store if possible. Honorable shop owners will give you another bottle once they confirm it’s corked. Don’t bring the wine back with a few ounces left in the bottle and claim you kept tasting it to make sure. Not cool.

If you’re interested in what “corked” actually means, the culprit is a compound called TCA. It can be formed when a natural fungi, which is present in the bark of cork trees, comes in to contact with substances that are found in bleaches and other products that are, ironically, used to sanitize and sterilize wineries. If the cork is infected, the wine becomes infected. There is also the possibility of TCA contaminating an entire cellar or winery, finding its way in to barrels and boxes and wreaking havoc.  Depending on who you ask, TCA affects 2%-5% of all wines bottled with natural corks. This means you’re sure to experience a bottle, or a few, in your lifetime.

Of course, there are other faults that occur in wine. Besides cork taint, the other fault you will likely come across is cooked wine. Wine becomes cooked when it is exposed to extreme heat. A cooked wine will smell dull, with more raisiny aromas than fresh fruit, and will taste flat or stewed. If a wine is stored improperly — near the kitchen in a restaurant, in a hot basement of a wine shop, or in the trunk of your car or your hot apartment with radiator heat — it will suffer from heat damage.

At the end of the day, if you think something is wrong with your wine, trust your instinct — just like you would with that sour carton of milk.