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How to conduct a wine tasting ritual

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How to conduct a wine tasting ritual

PRSMDave | Dec 4, 2001 06:40 PM

It took me a long time to be able to drink any but the sweetest wines (and I am not excluding, may God pardon my averah, Manischewitz). Then I couldn't drink red wine (so tannic!). Now I enjoy wines of all kinds and have, in fact, become somewhat of a resource for friends with less well-developed palates (in fact, non-Chowhounds). The problem is the wine-at-table ritual. It's performed everywhere from the red-checkered-tishtoch Italian place on Mulberry Street to L'Orangerie in Los Angeles.

I used to sneer at the enormous ritual that the 'wine snobs' went through at table. "Just taste it," I said, "and if it seems like the vintner forgot to take off his socks while trampling the grapes, send it back." This was met with snickers from other people who thought the same thing, and glares from people who knew better.

I went through re-education in France. I learned that yes, the bouquet DOES exist, and yes, when they say, 'hints of chocolate and oak', they are not pulling your leg. I went to more dégustations in the short time I was there than any fourteen people in my extended family. There, the wine is poured into a large glass (think small fishbowl) and you do the tasting business but normally one either doesn't swallow ("Rinse and spit, please. Have you been flossing?") and there is a bucket for the...er...resulting liquid, or there is a barrel into which one tips the remainder of one's glass to make four-star vinegar.

Now we come to the American restaurant. I do not, personally, have the cash flow to be able to dine regularly at restaurants which have a dedicated sommelier. That takes lots of money, honey. Usually there will be one person who knows about the wine collection at the restaurant and I try to get that person to talk to me.

The more common scenario is that the person isn't there, or is in the kitchen cooking, or has flown to the Périgord to stock up on truffles, or something. Now that I have discovered the nuances of truly great wine, I enjoy the tasting (I have come full circle, you see). Now my problem is with inexperienced waitstaff-cum-sommeliers.

Ideally, the wine should be poured so that after you have judged the colour ("Woah... swiiiiiiiirly..."), you tilt it so that the top rim of the glass touches the bridge of your nose and the wine is a scant centimetre or so from the bottom of your nose. This allows you to observe the bouquet of the wine without subjecting your fellow diners to the undignified and prolonged snorting that usually accompanies a wine-tasting by the inexperienced. Sniff the cork only if you intend to eat it.

Unfortunately, a lot of restaurants serve their wine in amusing but completely inefficient stemware which either pokes you in the eye, or is trumpet-shaped rather than bowl-shaped, or requires such an heroic measure of 'tasting' wine that the point of a small sample is lost in the ocean of Cabernet Sauvignon floating in the aquarium-on-a-stick. Also, the waitstaff are not sufficiently trained to know the appropriate amount of wine to pour for a tasting. (If there are any waitstaff reading this, you can do us all a favour by learning to pour correctly. When you pour the wine and tilt the fishbowl-shaped glass on its side so that both base and bowl are touching the tablecloth, the wine should come more than halfway but less than two-thirds of the way to the rim of the glass.)

Next comes the taste. Never mind that the waitperson is glaring at you for having taken 90 seconds so far without so much as a drop of liquid going in your pasta hole. Take a small sip (about the same amount as you would take of mouthwash, but please don't gargle) and chew it. Yes, chew it. Rinse discreetly around your tongue (remember that the whole organ is covered in taste buds and you do the wine a disservice by only sending it coursing over the top) and teeth, and DISCREETLY take in a breath of cold air. Do try not to sound like a Hoover. You should be able to pick three flavours of the bouquet within the first five seconds of a taste. Do not nod at the waitperson until you have done so. No cheating is allowed.

Swallow. There is no barrel for crachage (French for 'disgusting backwash') here, and unless it is an absolute khaloshes (Yiddish for 'disgusting backwash'), it would be an averah to deny your throat the pleasure of the flavour of the first sip.

Now, this is the part that will drive the impatient waitperson ABSOLUTELY OUT OF HIS OR HER BLOOMING MIND. Repeat. Do it again. The first sip of wine, like the first puff of a cigar or the first taste of a dessert, is basically a reconnaissance force. Your palate is not ready for the wine. It is brutally knocked - PAF! - into waking. Taking a second sip tells you what the rest of the glass will taste like.

Take a deep breath. Take another, ignoring the vein popping out on the waitperson's forehead. Consider, and nod. Let the waitperson pour you a glass. Raise a toast to the most beautiful woman (or man) at the table.

Santé.

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