In-Store Tastings and Wine Classes

(Originally published March 2000)

Hanes has to say that he probably tasted more wine during the past month than any other month in my life. So, that must be a lot of wine! It has been swell fun to chug so much vino but he thinks he will need to slow down if he is ever to finish his dissertation and/or avoid a liver transplant by the age of 35... Both very much in doubt...

This past month he had a real treat! he was interviewed for an article on inexpensively learning about wine which appeared in the February 27th issue of the New York Daily News newspaper. He had a couple of neat quotes and even had his picture in the article. So, thanks to Jami and Julie for sneaking this rank amateur in among the big guys! If anyone wants a copy of the article he has some he could mail out (alas, it does not exist on the newspaper's website). Now, he is legit for when he gets a website on the New York City wine scene up...

Following up on the article, Hanes wants to discuss the problems involved with wine tasting. That is, can one legitimately infer from a small taste of a wine whether or not it suits one's tastes?

Well, if one goes to free in-store tastings one gets a wine served in those little plastic cups. Usually, the amount poured barely gets your lips wet. The cups do not focus the wine's nose adequately. Chances are quite high that (a) for red wines the bottle was just opened up and has not begun to "breathe" at all and (b) for white wines the wine may not be adequately chilled. The reasons for this are many and sundry but one must note the fact that these free in-store tastings are usually not run by the wine store but instead are conducted by the wholesaler/distributor of the wines being poured. The store does not eat the cost of the bottles poured, the distributor does. Chances are high that the person pouring the wine does not work for the store but for the distributor. They pour free wine because having a taste increases the chance that the customer will purchase the wine and thus increase their sales to the store. But costs are kept to a minimum by limiting the quantity poured. Can't say Hanes blames the distributor representative, but it still limits the customer's ability to get a fuller sense of the wine's merits.

So, one receives a miniscule amount of fermented grape juice during in-store tasting (unless you work in the store and can pour yourself a nice full glass in a proper Riedel glass! hah!). Is the situation any better when one attends a formal sit-down wine tasting? Yes and no. Many times the wines are poured in advance, allowing the wine to begin to oxidize and loosen up. This helps, especially with red wines. The stemware will probably be basic but it will definitely be much more appropriate than the small plastic cups. And one may also be provided with water and/or bread to cleanse one's palate between wines. But the standard amount poured per glass during these events is but two ounces of wine. This is enough to swirl and tilt, to inhale and gaze at. But it goes down the gullet awfully quickly, almost before your mouth and tongue have become acclimated to the wine's specific characteristics. If one is not careful, one has finished the wine before one's tasting notes have been completed (now who might this have happened to?).

At this point you might believe that Hanes thinks that wine tastings are bogus. Au contraire, mon ami! Hanes believes they are an invaluable way to learn about wine. You get to sample many more wines at one time than you ever could at home where at best you'll drink one or two bottles a night by yourself (err...). Even better, you get to compare wines head to head, that is, five Chardonnays from around the world all at once or six different Oregon Pinot Noirs all together. This really helps you learn quickly about the differences and similarities among both varietals, regions, vintages and winemakers' styles. Wine tastings, both in-store and formal sit-down, provide an essential shortcut to tasting as many wines as possible in the briefest amount of time. Moreover, the pourer or lecturer may provide a lot of helpful information about the wine you are drinking. And let us remember that we are sampling these wines either for free or at a much lesser cost than what the purchase price of the bottles would be (i.e., you sample eight wines for $50 rather than pay $160 for eight $20 bottles of wine).

The largest problem here is simply this: wines, especially high quality wines, evolve over time after opening as the wine oxidizes. This means that the character of the wine changes -- sometimes dramatically -- from the first glass out of the bottle to the last. One may easily dislike that first glass and thus decide that the wine does not suit one's tastes. However, when one samples wine from later glasses out of the bottle one's estimation of the wine may change greatly for the better. And, no, smartass, it's not just because you're drunk at the end of the bottle! This need to "breathe" is part of the rationale for decanting wine (itself a topic of much debate).

The point is that it takes time for one's palate to adjust to a wine's nuances and begin to interact with them. This is especially the case with wines one may be unfamiliar with such as a South African Pinotage or an Italian Dolcetto. Hanes fears that too many generally open-minded swillers may be rushing too hastily to judgment on a wine after sampling but a small amount during a wine tasting event. So, the lesson is to please attempt to keep in mind not only what you are tasting but how you are tasting it (and, moreover, some wines perform much, much better with a meal, which is all but never provided at a wine tasting event). If you tried a Spanish Rioja red wine or a French Sancerre white wine and decided you didn't like it, after some time please go back and try another, hopefully from an entire bottle. You may be surprised at how you will reevaluate your preferred wines. Particularly if you have been drinking different wines in the interim -- as you can experience in wine tasting your brain may not remember the wines' names but your palate remembers their tastes and grows accordingly. Don't permanently decide you don't like a type of wine like Zinfandel or Sauvignon Blanc, keep going back and your efforts will be rewarded with a growing palette of wines for your palate. As the 80's band Romeo Void sagely counseled, "Never say never."