Swirl, sip, spit. Wine tasting can’t be that difficult, right? It was my first week of work at Peju Province Winery, and I was scheduled to do a wine tasting with one of our tasting room ambassadors. Joining a group of guests for a tasting would help me learn about the winery and give me an opportunity to taste the wines. There was just one problem: I had never done a wine tasting before.
I was immediately put at ease when I walked up to Richie’s tasting counter. As guests joined us and Richie began the tasting, I quickly understood that Peju is a great place for everyone—from wine novices like myself to wine connoisseurs and serious collectors. The presentation-style tasting was the perfect mix of education and entertainment.
When all was said and done, I learned that wine tasting is a different experience for everyone, and there is no right or wrong way to do it. While there are many different techniques, here are my own top wine tasting tips to ensure you get the most out of your tasting:
1. Hold Your Glass by the Stem
This is a good tip for drinking wine in general, but it is especially important in order to look like you know what you’re doing while you’re tasting. When you hold a glass by the bulb, you risk transferring the heat from your hand and warming up the wine. Each wine is stored and served at its ideal temperature, and a fluctuation in temperature could impact the wine’s flavors, especially if you’re sampling a chilled wine. Plus, you’ll avoid leaving fingerprints on the glass when you hold it by the stem.
2. Master the Swirl
Contrary to my original belief, there actually is a purpose behind swirling your glass of wine besides looking sophisticated. When you swirl the wine you allow oxygen to enter it, bringing the aromas to life. Everyone has a preferred method of swirling, and there is nothing wrong with that. Two of the most common methods for swirling include leaving the glass on the counter and making a few circles with the base or lifting the glass and holding it by the stem while lightly flicking your wrist. Both of these methods will give you the desired result of increased aromas, and I find myself utilizing both methods depending on the setting.
3. Sniff Before you Sip
In the past when I watched people drink wine, I never understood why they would smell before sipping. I didn’t smell my orange juice or my tea before I drank it, so what was the difference? In my mind, it was another thing that people did to “look the part.” No surprise, I was wrong. There is a reason behind smelling wine before you sip. When you smell what’s in your glass, you’re preparing your brain for what it’s about to experience. More than half of what we experience as “taste” is actually “smell.” Think about it like this: if you only sip without smelling, you’re missing out on half of the experience! The fun thing about smelling wine is that each person picks up on different aromas, and there is no wrong answer here either! To get the fullest aromas, make sure you stick your nose in the glass by positioning the bottom of the opening at the base of your nose and the top of the opening between your nose and your forehead.
4. Know Where to Spit
We’ve swirled, we’ve sniffed, now we’re ready to taste! When you taste wine, you have two options: either drink the wine or spit it out. Either method is completely acceptable, but if you’re driving or have a full day of tasting, spitting may be the best option. In my case, I was working, so I was going to spit my wine. This was where I hit my biggest wine tasting snafu, and is what my fellow wine tasting rookies should focus on.
Learn from my mistake: do not spit back into your glass! In hindsight, this seems so obvious, and I know there are people everywhere laughing at me. I think I got caught up in the moment of not wanting to do anything wrong, so I discreetly dribbled my wine back into my glass. No one had explained to me that the white containers on the counter, called spittoons, were for spitting. I immediately wished I could undo what had just happened as I watched someone else at the counter spit into the spittoon. As I soon discovered, wine tastings are one of the few places it is socially acceptable to spit. Don’t be ashamed or embarrassed to spit out your wine, as you probably won’t be the only one doing it.
It’s also important to note that “splash back” can occur if you spit too hard. Push your lips out as if you were saying the letter “u” and part them slightly, allowing the wine to come out without running down your chin but not forcefully enough to splash back in your face. Keep in mind that these containers are often shared, and you don’t want someone else’s wine on your face or staining your clothes! You can also ask for a personal cup to spit in if it makes you more comfortable. Of course, there is always the option to swallow the wine. Just make sure you’re drinking plenty of water as well throughout the day.
5. Let it Linger
I poured my first glass out (into the same bucket we were spitting in) and moved on to the second wine we were tasting. This time, I thought I would mimic some of my fellow tasters and let the wine linger in my mouth before I spit it out. Everyone seemed to be doing it, so there had to be a reason behind it. As it turns out, leaving wine on your palate for between three and five seconds helps you fully taste the flavors of the wine. If you swallow or spit immediately, you may be missing some flavors. You can even opt to suck some air into your mouth with the wine to enhance the flavors even more. As you taste more wine, you will develop your own system that you are comfortable with.
6. Pour it Out
You do not need to drink every drop you are served, and it is in no way an insult to pour out the remainder of your glass after you taste. By doing so, you are saving yourself for the later wines and possibly for other tastings throughout the day. Don’t be afraid to dump out what you don’t want to make way for the next wine.
7. The Earlier, the Better
What you eat throughout the day strongly affects your palate, so for your best results, try to do your wine tastings early in the day. This way, you haven’t had time to ruin your palate with multiple competing flavors. Most wineries in Napa Valley open at 10 a.m. so you can get a tasting in and then sit down to a nice lunch. You can also sip water in between tastings to make sure you’re able to decipher the unique flavors in each wine.
8. There is No Right or Wrong Way
The most important tip I have for wine tasters is to not overthink it and have fun! There really isn’t any right or wrong way when it comes to wine tasting. Okay, maybe spitting back into my glass was wrong, but that’s it! Find techniques you are comfortable with and don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you’re new to wine and need your tasting ambassador to slow down and explain the wines more, just ask.
At Peju Province Winery, we welcome everyone—from the most experienced wine drinkers to guests trying wine for the very first time. Wine tasting should be a fun experience, not an intimidating one, and our ambassadors are easily able to adapt their presentations based on the guests at their counter. Let us know if you’re new to this, and we’ll walk you through the process and through the wine lingo. Just remember, we all start somewhere, and you’ll be a pro in no time!