Living smack dab in the middle of Finger Lakes wine country, we are required by local ordinance to visit area wineries and sample their various vintages throughout the year.
Not ones to skirt the law, my wife and I decided to hit the wine trail and enjoy an afternoon of mandatory wine tasting.
If you’ve never been to a wine tasting, you must. Not so much for the wine, but rather for the opportunity to observe the behavioral metamorphosis that takes place when someone is handed stemware.
Men who were just minutes ago pulling each other’s fingers and giving piggy-back rides in the parking lot will suddenly transform into pontificating wine connoisseurs once they sidle up to the bar.
Whereas my verbal critiques are limited to “This tastes good” or “This sucks,” there’s always some know-it-all loudmouth in a Motorhead T-shirt holding his glass up to the light while extolling the virtues of the wine’s bouquet and delightful finish.
“Sir, that’s the rinse water.”
“Mm hmmm,” he’ll say, while carefully studying the swirling liquid, “and what year is this?”
The procedure at a wine tasting, at least here in Central New York, is pretty consistent from one winery to the next.
Give the pourer behind the counter $2 or $3 and you’ll receive a tasting sheet that lists the wines available for sampling. Either check off the individual wines you’d like to try or just do what my wife does and draw a big dark circle around the fringe of the paper to include them all.
On your sheet you’ll see each wine’s name, year, and accolades, along with a poetic description that describes all the various fruits, spices, and other such nonsense you should taste when sampling the wine. Much like this:
They’ll pour just enough wine to coat your glass and then step back to give everyone time to channel their inner Niles Crane. It’s at this time when you’re expected to put the wine through what experts call the “Five S’s”:
See, Swirl, Sniff, Sip, and Savor.
See - Hold your glass up to the light to make sure there’s actually wine in it. If so, give it a discerning eye and stare at it from different angles. Add a few audible “hmmms” for effect. Be sure to stare at your wine a little longer than anyone else. They’ll all assume you spotted something you like. Or didn’t like. Either way, you’ll have gained considerable snooty points.
Swirl – The secret to pompous wine swirling is to set the glass on the counter, hold the stem firmly between your fingers, and move it in a subtle circular motion while suppressing the natural urge to squeal, “Wheeeee!”
Sniff - Press your face into your glass with enough pressure to leave a half-moon ring on your forehead and then sniff deeply. You should smell wine if you’re doing this properly. If people are watching, close your eyes and gently waft your hand towards your nose. This will make people feel as stupid as you look.
Sip - If your wine hasn’t evaporated by this point, go ahead and take a sip, but don’t swallow. The wine must first go through a brutal round of oral manipulation before it’s suitable for ingestion.
Savor - Flitter the wine through your teeth, slosh it from side to side in your mouth, and breathe through your nose while withholding a swallow. Basically, do everything you’d do with mouthwash aside from gargling. If you like the wine, swallow it. If you don’t, go ahead and spit it out. Even with all the pompous shenanigans going on around you, it’s not considered rude or uncouth to spit unswallowed wine into the communal spittoon or into the glass of the person next to you.
If you think this whole charade is an overly exaggerated process, then I’m sorry to say this, but you’re just not cut out to be a wine drinker. Fortunately, you’re in broad company.
When I sample wines, I don’t need to stare at it, smell it, play with it, or make out with it. I just need to taste it. Something that takes about three seconds. I won’t know why a wine tastes good, and I really don’t care. If it tastes good to me, that’s all I need to know. Regardless of color, soil, weight, region, or the fanciful rhetoric describing it.
Quite honestly, if they didn’t tell me what I was tasting on the wine sheet, I’d truly have no idea. I have no qualms in admitting that I lack the sophistication it takes to know if a wine tastes good until I actually drink it. Coming at me with winemaker jargon and lengthy sermons about soil, acidity, and grape varietals is pointless.
You’re talking to someone with a palette accustomed to Chef Boyardee and Cheetos. I’m not going to be impressed by a label that says the wine presents the lush flavors of currants, loganberries, and whole bean Peruvian coffee. Quite frankly, this combination sounds horrifying. Wine selection for me is easy. If it tastes yummy, I’ll have some more.
Left to me, wine descriptions would reflect a more honest opinion of what people can expect:
Alas, the wineries aren’t in the business of selling wine. They’re in the business of selling an experience. And if people are paying good money for a bottle of wine, they don’t want it to taste like wine. They want it to taste like a delicate puree of creamed Norwegian plum, fresh-picked strawberries harvested from an eastward-facing field, honey-pressed apricots, and a subtle flittering of slightly over-ripened white peach. In short, people want to feel good about spending $25 on spiked fruit punch.
Because 99.6% of Americans are unable to distinguish all the subtle flavors that may exist in a sip of wine, wineries will hire sommeliers and wine critics to tell the public what they’re drinking. Backed by years of experience in making fermented grapes sound luxurious, the flavor combinations they dream up are so complex that they’re unarguable.
If you can’t taste the subtle notes of creamed Asian pear and bramble fruit, it’s because you lack the refined palette it takes to know that you’re sipping a delightful wine. It tastes good.
You just don’t realize it.