Attending a Wine Tasting Event

By Ed McCarthy, Mary Ewing-Mulligan

Wine tastings are events designed to give enthusiasts the opportunity to sample a range of wines. The events can be very much like classes (seated, seminar-like events), or they can be more like parties (tasters milling around informally). Compared to a wine class, the participants at a wine tasting are more likely to have various levels of knowledge. Tastings don’t come in beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels — one size fits all.

Wine tastings are popular because they override the limitations of sampling wine alone, at home. How many wines can you taste on your own (unless you don’t mind throwing away nine-tenths of every bottle)? How many wines are you willing to buy on your own? And how much can you learn by tasting wine in isolation — or with a friend whose expertise is no greater than yours?

At wine tastings, you can learn from your fellow tasters, as well as make new friends who share your interest in wine. Most importantly, you can taste wine in the company of some individuals who are more experienced than you, which is a real boon in training your palate.

To find out about wine tastings in your area, contact your local wine merchant. Your local shop might sponsor wine-tasting events occasionally (apart from informal sampling opportunities in the store itself) and staff should also be aware of wine schools or other organizations that conduct wine tastings in your area. The website Local Wine Events is also an excellent source of information about wine-tastings and a platform for registering for many of the events listed on the site.

In case you’ve never been to a wine tasting or wine class, we should warn you that a few matters of etiquette apply. Familiarizing yourself with the etiquette in the following sections will help you feel more comfortable. Otherwise, you’re likely to be appalled by what you see or hear. Why are those people behaving like that?!

To spit or not to spit when tasting wine?

Professional wine tasters long ago discovered that if they swallow every wine they taste, they’re far less thoughtful tasters by the time they reach wine nine or ten. So spitting became acceptable. In wineries, professional tasters sometimes spit right onto the gravel floor or into the drains. In more elegant surroundings, they spit into a spittoon, usually a simple container like a large plastic cup (one per taster) or an ice bucket that two or three tasters share.

At first, naturally, some tasters are loath to spit out wine. Not only have they been brought up to believe that spitting is uncouth, but they’ve also paid good money for the opportunity to taste the wines. Why waste them?

Well, you can drink all of your wine at a wine tasting, if you wish — and some people do. But we don’t advise that you do, for the following reasons:

  • Evaluating the later wines will be difficult if you swallow the earlier ones. The alcohol you consume will cloud your judgment.
  • Swallowing isn’t really necessary in order to taste the wine fully. If you leave the wine in your mouth for eight to ten seconds, you’ll be able to taste it thoroughly — without having to worry about the effects of the alcohol.
  • If you’re driving to the tasting, you’re taking a risk driving home afterwards if you drink instead of spit. The stakes are high — your life and health, others’ lives, and your driver’s license. Why gamble?

The simple solution: Spit out the wine. Just about all experienced wine tasters do. Believe it or not, spitting will seem to be a very normal thing to do at wine tastings after a while. (And, in the meantime, it’s one sure way to appear more experienced than you are!)

If you know that you can’t bring yourself to spit, be sure to have something substantial to eat before going to a wine tasting. You absorb alcohol more slowly on a full stomach — and the simple crackers and bread at most wine tastings are not sufficient to do the trick.

More fine points of wine etiquette

Because smell is such an important aspect of wine tasting, courteous tasters try not to interfere with other tasters’ ability to smell. This means

  • Smoking (anything) is a complete no-no at any wine tasting.
  • Using any scent (perfume, after-shave lotion, scented hair spray, and so on) is unacceptable. These extraneous odors can really interfere with your fellow tasters’ ability to detect the wine’s aroma.

Courteous wine tasters also don’t volunteer their opinions about a wine until other tasters have had a chance to taste the wine. Serious tasters like to form their opinions independently and are sure to throw dirty looks at anyone who interrupts their concentration.

Most of these wine-tasting etiquette guidelines apply to wine classes as well — and are also relevant when you visit wineries around the world.