Wine Tasting: A Guide for Philistines



Last week a momentous occasion in the Rabbit household occurred: both children went away to camp at the very same time.  This presented the resident adults with an opportunity to engage in a recreational activity of our choice without the need to drag, cajole, or drug the bored children.  And so off we went to the Willamette Valley in Oregon, also known as Wine Country.


Dozens of vineyards and wineries, punctuated by hazelnut groves, dominate the landscape.  Every winery is fronted by a tasting room.  For those of you who are more inclined to suck beer directly from the keg than visit a wine tasting room, I offer a handy guide in case the frat parties (or you) ever get old.


When you walk in, a smiling, well-coiffed employee will hand you a list of wines—called a “flight”—offered for tasting.  A typical flight includes four to seven wines, with a tasting fee of five to ten dollars.  The first wine will be poured into your glass, and you can stand at the bar with it or wander around the room.  Usually there’s art on the walls, framed articles in which the winery is featured, and sometimes there’s a balcony looking out on the vineyard.  From there you can watch the silly parents who brought their children on the wine tour instead of sending them away to camp desperately trying to get their bored, cranky kids to take an interest in the pretty vines without plucking any grapes. 


Each pour is about a quarter or a third of a regular glass of wine.  So if you are tasting seven wines at just the first place you visit, and you actually consume all of it, you will soon be indistinguishable from the keg-sucking frat boys.  If you want to continue looking cool and elegant and also standing upright, share your flight with your travelling companion. 


The mechanics of tasting: take your glass in one hand and swirl it gently to get some air into the wine.  Hold it to your face and breathe in the aroma, called the “nose.”  Describe it in terms of some fruit that isn’t actually in it, like cherry or strawberry.  If it smells like dirt, mention “earth tones.”  If you can’t think of a descriptor, check the menu you were handed.  It’s like a cheat sheet.


Take a mouthful of wine and hold it for a moment, letting it spread over your tongue while you look thoughtful.  Swallow it and describe the flavor.  You may refer to the cheat sheet again.  The taste at the end of the swallow is the “finish,” so be sure and get that word in there.  On our trip, they often gave us young wines (2009 or thereabouts) that did not taste as good as they would several years later.  So we were supposed to imagine them tasting much better after we’d stored them for a while. This was a hard trick for me.  I want what I’m drinking to taste like what it tastes like when I’m tasting it. 


The bar will have a little bucket on it, and if you really want to limit your consumption (or if the wine is awful), you can spit it into the bucket.  In the three days we were in Wine Country, I never once saw anybody spit, for which I am grateful.  You can also dump the remainder of the wine in your glass into the bucket, which seems rather more civilized.


Once you’ve finished or dumped out the contents of your glass, the smiling enologist will pour the next wine in the flight.  Repeat the process until you’ve tried them all. 


Here’s a rather obvious fact I didn’t know until I got there: All of the grapes grown in the same area under the same weather conditions will be the same variety.  Thus, the wines in Oregon are overwhelmingly pinots.  If you are looking for a cabernet, you will have to go elsewhere. 


Here’s a not-so-obvious fact I learned on this trip: Because Oregon’s wine industry is much smaller than California’s, Oregon wineries don’t get the best cork on the market.  So (in the opinion of some, anyway), Oregon wines are better off with screw tops.  I can’t verify this theory, though, as I did not do any cork vs. screw top taste tests.


If you are particularly good at wine talk, the smiling wine profferer may take out a few more bottles for you to try.  My husband got this treatment a number of times.  Personally, I hung about in a silent, glassy-eyed fog after the first few wineries. 


After you’ve finished your flight and any extras your wine-talking companion garnered, it’s decision time.  Do you want to buy any of the wines you just tasted?  If you buy something, they will take the cost of the tasting off of the tab for the wine you buy.  On the other hand, if it’s a hot day and you are going to be winery hopping for some time yet, buying wine means leaving it in the hot car for a long time.  We only bought wine towards the end of the day.  My apologies to the wineries we visited early.  Maybe they should offer complimentary coolers. 


Now you know everything you need to visit a winery without looking like a cheap-beer-swilling idiot.  Bon chance, mes amis.




14 thoughts on “Wine Tasting: A Guide for Philistines

  1. This seems exciting but daunting. I get about 3 sips of wine in me and I’m already getting “spinny”, (which is my terminology for when it feels like ball bearings in a lazy susan circling around my head.)  Still, I think I should try this sometime, just to say I have.  šŸ™‚

  2. What a lovely day!!!  We don’t have any wineries anywhere near us, more’s the pity.  I could do wine tastings all day long.   For two days.  Or three.  I love a good Oregon pinot noir, too, screw top or cork.

  3. What a great way to spend your kids’ camp time!  Wine touring is very popular in my part of Virginia, where there are lots of wineries, but Jon and I have only dabbled in it a bit, as he prefers beer tasting.

  4. We visited every winery we saw on our way from Toronto back to NY at the end of our honeymoon.  Beautiful scenery, delicious ice wines.  We also visited a winery on the North shore of the East end of LI, on our trip to my high school reunion-also beautiful scenery, and a bunch of Hampton-ish snobs milling about, and I did not like a single wine I tried on that trip.And here’s a slight confession (although I feel no remorse in the least-)  when I was about 5 months pregnant, we visited a winery and did a tasting.  Only one winery, and on a whim-it happened to be on the way to our destination.  We did buy wine that time also, which I may or may not have consumed while still in a gestational state.  Moderation is key.  I like wine.

  5. Wine affects me pretty darn quickly, so I don’t drink it too often. However, I’ve done enough research to know the basics. I love the way you describe it. I also heard recently that many folks are switching to screw tops because it means fewer bottles go bad and already-opened wine will last longer. Which could be an issue for me. For some members of my family, however, “an open bottle is an empty bottle.”

  6. Thanks for being less than morbidly serious about this subject, one of my knowledge-gaps which occasionally torments me. I had about a year once where I did the piano trio in the background for a long list of wineries, night after night. Never learned much, except that folks can get pretentious when they’re drunk and think no one will catch them on it. I venture not a comment, ‘cept sometimes ‘Yup, there’s another good one.’ 

  7. Did you take the wines course at Cornell? I did and it was the most fun I had during grad school, that’s for sure.  I learned a lot, too.  I certainly learned enough to know that the wine at Finger Lakes wineries is nasty, only to be outdone by wine at Virginia and North Carolina wineries.  The only wineries I have visited are in these regions, so that’s unfortunate.  At these places, the first wines in the flight are barely drinkable, but no one pours into the bucket because then what’s the point of suffering through the tasting?  The last pour is usually so much better than the first, thanks ONLY to the benefit of comparison to the initial swill.  However, by then you are usually so jacked up on crap wine that you actually get stupid enough to buy a bottle (or sometimes even a case) of the best of the crap wine.  Can I interest you in a 2004 Thomas Jefferson Winery blush wine? It’s long past its time, but we never worked up the courage to drink it and feel bad about dumping wine named after TJ.

  8. @turningreen – No, I didn’t take or even know about a wine course at Cornell.  How did I miss that?  Of course, wine was not my substance of choice at that time.  The worst wine we had on our trip was served at the Air and Space Museum in McMinnville.  Spruce Goose label.  Wine suitable for dehydrating and taking on the ship to the space station.  

  9. @transvestite_rabbit – It’s offered in the hotel school, which is probably why you missed it.  From what I remember, it’s nearly impossible for undergrads who are not hotelies to get into the class.  BUT, if you are a graduate student in any school (I was Hum Ec) you get preferential treatment — reserved spaces and front row seating.  Sweeeet.  The idea is that the businessy grad school types (Johnson School, hotelies, health administration folks like me) need to know about wine so we can impress clients and colleagues.  The truth is that we liked to drink during the day, but whatever reason got me in the door works.Every student got this wine tasting kit, with 2 glasses inside what looked like a clarinet case.  You would get a plastic cafeteria tray on the way in, then set up your glasses on your lap.  Wine would be passed from one aisle across to the other to be poured.  We often got cheese or chocolate or bread to accompany the wines.  We learned about the region the wine was from, with many travel slides taken by the professor.  Very cool.

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