How (Not) To Attend A Wine Tasting Like A Pro

Ah, the wine tasting. Just the place to expand your knowledge and understanding of the often mysterious world of wine. A place to share with others your love of the sweet nectar of God that the Pope recently declared “necessary for the celebration.”  Of course, he’s probably not talking about your weekly Celebration of Friday At 5:01pm, but nonetheless we can all agree just how important wine is to many of us.

A good way for most of us to learn more about wine for free (or at least for a modest fee) is to attend wine tastings hosted by the local fine wine shop, grocery store, or wine-specific events.  These tastings not only vastly improve your Sunday grocery shopping trip, but also offer a great opportunity to sample several wines at once so you can find a bottle you like before purchasing it to take home.

After spending close to a decade in the wine industry I have poured at more of these wine tastings than I can count.  Over time, this has led me to develop the (now proven) theory that almost every person attending these tastings falls into one of four categories.  Keep reading for a guide on how not to be “that” person at a tasting and how to look like a pro at your next wine event. Hey, sometimes we all have to fake it ‘til we make it, so I’m here to give you a nudge in the right direction.

First and foremost it is important to understand why these benefactors of wine are even there, generously pouring sips for you.  Are they hired by the store as an extra special treat for you, their loyal shopper?  Are they altruistic do-gooders who are just out to pay it forward by helping random strangers brighten their day? Are they actual angels from Heaven, here to prove to us that we are living our best life and deserve a treat?

While all of those are lovely ideas the fact is far less romantic- their one and only purpose is to try and sell wine to you. They are there, standing on their feet for several hours on a weekend, giving out wine for free and sometimes not even getting paid for it. They are just hoping you will make it worth their time and buy a bottle or two.

So, who are these people and why would they bother to sacrifice their time and several bottles of wine?  They can be anyone from the winemaker to someone who knows virtually nothing about wine, but can memorize a few facts to tell you, and everything in between. Sometimes they represent the import company or distributor of the wine and sometimes they are hired out at an hourly rate. Feel free to ask what their connection is to the wine they are pouring- it will help you to know how accurate the information is that you are getting from them.

The fact is that there is a LOT of wine out there and the best way to get people to buy their wine is to have them taste it, hopefully enjoy it, and make that personal connection to the wine. Many of us have wineries that we are unwaveringly loyal to, even when that loyalty is unwarranted (cough…Kim Crawford). That love of a brand is the ultimate goal of what these long suffering pourers are trying to achieve.  So they stand, hour after hour, repeating the same thing over and over, just to get the word out about their wine.

Why would I even use a word like long suffering in connection to someone whose literal job is to hang out, pouring wine for people and chatting all day? Sounds like the best job ever, right?!  While it can be (and often is) a lot of fun to wax geeky about wine with random strangers, there are……the Others. The Others fall into one of the four categories I mentioned earlier. What follows is your guide to recognizing The Others in their (un)unnatural habitat and how to avoid becoming one of them.

Amateur Wine Taster Number One: Twenty Something Woman

To be fair, some women in their thirties also fall into this category, but since we are making broad, possibly unfair, assumptions about an entire group of people, lets just keep it simple, shall we?

Twenty Something Woman LOVES wine. She also knows absolutely nothing about it. She calls Cooks sparkling wine “Champagne” and each time a little piece of my soul dies like that statement is a horcrux and I’m Voldemort.

She means well, truly, but has a lot to learn. You can identify her because regardless of what you pour for her, she will declare it is “like….different. But good! Like, it’s really different, but really good.”  Yes ma’am, that Argentinian Malbec really is different. And good. It’s beautiful and unique, just like you.

Snark aside, this is actually my favorite category of amateur wine tasters because while Twenty Something Woman doesn’t know much about wine, she truly wants to learn. And more often than not, she is willing to try something new, ask questions and be open to suggestions. So if you fall into this category, keep it up! Keep asking questions and learning more each time you taste a new wine. Before you know it, you too will be in a position to write judgmental helpful blogs like this one.

Amateur Wine Taster Number Two: Middle Aged Woman

Middle Aged Woman is often times equal parts hilarious and annoying. She needs to know everything about the wine before she will allow it to be poured into her glass to make sure that she doesn’t accidentally try something new. She also has strong opinions about Chardonnay and how much wine you should pour in her glass.

Middle Aged Woman begins her tasting experience by closely examining each bottle and confirming the blood type of the winemaker’s grandfather before beginning to consider if she will taste. You can never be too careful, after all.

And the fun is only starting! Now, she holds her glass high and proud, so that the pourer must climb up a step ladder to be able to pour wine. Inspector Gadget would have been a total pro at pouring wine for her with his Go Go Gadget arms!

But she doesn’t stop there, arm extended high above her head, she also adds in an extra challenge for the pourer by waving her glass wildly from side to side. It becomes like an adult version of the airplane game parents play with children just learning to eat solid foods. Fun for everyone!

But then she notices that you are pouring approximately 0.0005 too many ounces into her glass and boldly declares “NO! Just a little bit! I don’t want to waste it!”

Pointing out that she can dump (or spit) what she doesn’t want into the bucket provided for exactly that purpose does no good. Nor does explaining that these bottles were brought here just for tasting and therefore are not being wasted. You’ve shamed her, and yourself, by pouring more into her glass than she wanted. Now she must choose between drinking the entire ounce of wine, or offending all of her ancestors (and yours) by dumping the wine out.

But Middle Aged Woman is actually a lot of fun. And she is likely to buy a bottle or two of anything she likes. For that reason alone, we love her.  She is almost always friendly and feels like she’s treating herself by sipping a little vino at 2pm on a Saturday. To this I say; treat yourself girl! You’ve earned it!

Amateur Wine Taster Number Three: Middle Aged Man

Oh, Middle Aged Man, I can honestly say that I dread you more than all the rest even though when you do buy, you buy in larger quantities than anyone else.  Actually, I should amend this title to Middle Aged Man Who Thinks He Knows More Than Me. Because not every Middle Aged Man feels the need to tell me everything he knows about wine.  But the ones that are eager to share their wealth of knowledge often make some pretty funny mistakes.  Yes, sir, that 2 day trip to Napa you took a decade ago definitely qualifies you to tell me what the proper pronunciation of Chateauneuf-du-Pape is.

A friend of mine experienced this once when a gentlemen told her he knew a lot about wine and then proceeded to wax philosophical about the attributes of Barbarello. Sir, I do not think that word means what you think it does.

Amateur Wine Taster Number Four: Twenty Something Guy

Imagine this: you can spot them from a mile away, traveling in packs of three or four with cases of Bud Light under their arms, baseball caps on backwards and ready to get the day drinking started. Even though you do your best to remain still, avoid eye contact and blend in with your surroundings, they spy you and your free booze. Sigh. Ten minutes of your life and some of your wine is about to be completely wasted, just like Brosef here is going to be soon.

Twenty Something Guy is the polar opposite of Middle Aged Woman. He does not care at all what you pour in his glass. In fact, he does not even taste. He does shots of wine.  You can barely get out the name of the winery before he slams his glass back on the table “hit me!”

It’s best to just resign yourself to your fate. Save your breath to describe the wine someone who actually cares (we’re looking at you, Twenty Something Woman) and accept that Twenty Something Guy will ask for second tastes (shots) of everything.

He is never going to buy anything and is just there for the buzz, but can be funny so maybe the entertainment value is worth your wasted time.

So how do you avoid falling into one of these four stereotypes? I’ve given you plenty of ideas about what NOT to do, but what can you do to look more like a pro when you go to your next wine tasting?

It’s simple: be open, honest and respectful.

Be open to trying something new and to listening to what we have to say about the wine. Knowledge is power, even if that only translates to your next dinner party.

Be honest about how much you know, how much you can spend, and if you’re even in the market for wine that day or just sampling. We don’t expect you to be experts- that’s our job! And while we prefer that you buy, we will understand if you need to come and buy a bottle another day.

Be respectful of the person pouring your wine. It’s far from the worst job in the world, but it can be tough to be on your feet dealing with the Four Amateurs for hours on end. Being kind and showing good manners is something anyone can do.

Now that you are armed with plenty of ways to not embarrass yourself at your next wine tasting, get out there and enjoy! At the end of the day, these tastings are the best way to build your wine proficiency and tasting skills.  Act like a pro and soon enough you will become one. Then when you see one of the four amateurs, you and the person pouring can share a wink and a smile before moving on with your day.

Guest blog courtesy of Meghan Vandette, Sommelier

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