How to go wine tasting without looking like a total idiot. And how would I know anything about that, you wonder? I’m not so sure either. But I do know how to keep it real while wine tasting. Please, don’t be a poser wine snob. And don’t look like you’re celebrating Mardi Gras, you are wine tasting, not in New Orleans. Do ask questions, and don’t be afraid of what you like (just because everyone looovvveeesss Pinot Noir because of the movie ‘Sideways’ does not mean YOU will like it immediately, or at all).
Wine tasting takes a long time to develop a distinguishing palate; most of us will start out liking something sweet like Zinfandel, and then develop a taste for more dry wines. Or, you stick with the sweeter side. It doesn’t matter, because you like what you like, and you’re allowed to change your tastes whenever you want. When I was, like, 20, I told someone my favorite wine was strawberry Zinfandel. It was pretty much the only wine I had ever tried. That someone rolled their eyes at me and said “Zinfandel is for trashy people, Riesling’s better.” That someone had only tried 2 different wines. Of course, my tastes have changed, but I learned to appreciate the reason why each type of wine is good.
1) Red wine goes with red meat, white wine goes with fish and poultry.
This is total BS. You like what you like. Try things out before you shove yourself in a box stuffed with wino bureaucrats who stick their noses up to you when you exclaim how a dry red would complement turkey and stuffing. And by wino bureaucrats, I don’t mean wine experts (or at least, the real ones). I mean the people who hear what wine experts say, mimic them, and have no friggin clue why, except it makes them sound like an expert as well. Some would say red wine goes with more savoury things, and white goes with lighter dishes. But test it out yourself. See why people say the things they say, and make up the rules they make.
2) In the US, Napa is the only place with good wine.
This is total BS too. When we set our standards so high for a place that everyone tells us is the best, we expect to have lower standards for other areas that produce good wine. Napa does make great wine, don’t get me wrong. But even Napa was the underdog compared to European wines decades ago. You’d be amazed at a blind taste test how well obscure, lesser-known wines do.
Since I live in Upstate NY, I frequent the Finger Lakes region for our wine tasting. We have great, good, and bad wines, just like any other area. To me, it’s an adventure trying them all out and seeing how they compare to other parts of the country. Personally, I think our region produces the best Rieslings ever. We have the soil to produce sweeter grapes. We also produce a lot of great white wines, while Napa produces better reds. Over the years though, I’ve been noticing that we are making better reds here.
I went wine tasting at Napa once, paid $10-20 per tasting, couldn’t afford their $100+ bottles, and had a hard time parking due to the lines of limos and tour buses clogging each winery. How was the wine? I honestly had a hard time concentrating on it, because Napa has turned into an amusement park for Winos, and I get nauseous on the roller-coaster rides. I think I’ll stick with buying Napa wines at the store and trying them out at home.
The Lodi region, on the other hand, was fantastic to me. It’s further out from San Francisco than Napa is, but you will not get the lines of limos/tour buses, the cost is $1 or ‘free.99′, and they provide more friendly, personable tastings. Surprisingly, I learned that Napa gets most of their grapes from Lodi, the little dirty secret of the region. It’s due to the lack of space in Napa. So to me, at Lodi I’m getting the same quality of wine, for a fraction of the price, friendlier service, and no amusement park theme. Unless, of course, you like that sort of thing.
3) Storing wine for a long time helps enhance the taste.
Unless you like shitty tasting wine! Most wines you buy should be stored for no more than 1 year. Only a select few should be aged for better taste.
4) I’m too lazy to write all the other myths, but I’m pretty sure some jerk out there is making them out of thin air as we speak.
What you need:
- You, a Designated Driver (my husband in this case), your ID, some cash, and a good nose.
Things to leave at home:
- Mardi Gra Beads, Snobby Attitude, and the so-called ‘rules’ of wine-tasting.
We started at Seneca Lake, the largest of the Finger Lakes. Pick up a map at the first place you find, they usually provide a detailed map of all the wine trails in the region. The first place we hit is Billsboro Winery, located in the north-west side of the lake.
As we drive up this beautiful road to this beautiful, rustic barn turned beautiful tasting room, I am woozy from the side-effects of dramamine. I am quite a sissy, and can’t handle the 1 hour drive from Rochester to the Finger Lakes without taking motion-sickness drugs. Just wait for my drive home!
*Tip: Don’t take dramamine before wine tasting, unless you are spitting the wine out. I already feel tipsy before the tasting.
Inside a tasting room, you will find a tasting area, like the picture below. Usually you walk up and plant yourself in an empty area of the bar. Or someone will direct you to an area.
Look at the $20’s we’re dropping in this place! Not really. They will usually have a tasting menu at the bar, and if there is a cost, just place your cash on the table. The wine steward (or Sommelier, for you fancy-pants) will take the cash at the beginning of the tasting or the end.
Choose the number of wines they offer for the tasting. If you have no clue what to choose, one way of distinguishing between them is by the ‘R.S.’, or residual sugar. It ranges from 0% as the driest, all the way up to 10% and higher for the sweetest. If you still have no clue, pick a few randomly. When you like something you taste, look at the R.S.%, and you can stick with wines in that general range.
If the winery doesn’t offer a tasting menu smack dab in front of your eyeballs, just tell the steward what you prefer: reds, whites, drys, semi-sweets, or sweets. Or combinations: dry reds, sweet whites, etc. Confused yet? I am.
Or you can ask them to surprise you.
When the Sommelier pours you a tasting, it will be a small mouthful. They do not pour full glasses, so don’t wait for more. It’ll be enough to swish in the glass, sniff, and taste. To swish, form the Vulcan hand salute (not a Trekkie? well, nobody said you were perfect) and hold the base of the glass to the table, stem between your fingers. Swish a few times to get the aroma going, cup the glass to your nose and mouth, then taste. And by taste, I mean taste it before you swallow the wine.
*Tip: You are not at a frat party, and chugging is not cool anymore. Nor is doing headstands with a funnel, which is looked down upon at any winery. It is not a drinking contest. And if someone asks you which wine you liked the best, do not answer with “6 glasses”.
You will see these items on the bar: A spitting bucket (or in this case, a fancy looking vase), water, and crackers (or some sort of bread).
1) Spitting bucket: After swishing around the wine in your mouth, if you choose not to swallow the wine because you are drugged up by Dramamine, just spit it out into this pot.
2) Water and Crackers: In between tasting a red and white wine, rinse your glass out with water, pour into spit bucket, and eat a cracker to cleanse your palate. That way you can taste the white wine without the red’s aftertaste.
*Tips: Do not drink the spit bucket. Do not drink the water when poured into your glass by the steward. Do eat the crackers if you’re hungry.
One time, I ended up tasting at 7 different wineries. And at the 7th one, drunk as hell, I drank the water poured into my wine glass and exclaimed “This wine tastes like water!” Please, don’t do what I did. I got a lot of laughs from strangers.
Where to? We headed down the road to Anthony Road.
Funny story here: After only tasting at 2 wineries, I walked out and tried opening the passenger door to an identical car parked next to ours, to which my husband yelled loudly, “Why are you trying to get into that nice family’s car?”
Oh look, a wine press.
Next, we head to Hermann J. Wiemer, one of the best of the region. They have a good range of great whites and great reds. Here is a NYT article about them in a list of great wines under $20.
The tasting room is also in a barn. Very rustic. I’m glad these places keep keepin’ it real.
Wine in barrels, and I assume those big metal things hold wine too.
Pinot Noir, lucky number 777?
My apologies to Penguin Bay. Because just after 3 wineries, I have trouble tasting the differences between wines anymore. My husband and I always joke that after we purchase cases of wine from wineries 4 thru 8, we try the bottles at home and wonder, “Why the hell did we buy this crap?!” All the wines taste the same towards the end. They all taste fantastic! Until you get home and uncork a bottle the next day, week, month. So I am sorry that I didn’t start at Penguin Bay first, because I didn’t give them a fair chance. Next time, I will start there first, and work my way up the east side of Seneca Lake.
1) Only try a few wineries at a time, to get a truly helpful experience from it.
2) Bring cheese, crackers, grapes and bottles of water for your car. Enjoy it in your car between wineries. It’ll help, trust me.
I’m not claiming to be an expert on this stuff, and as you can see, I only have tips on how not to be a total idiot. Nor am I suggesting which wines to try. That’s for you to find out.