How to Do Big Tastings...
In the last week, I've attended a couple of portfolio tastings. For those who may not have had that experience, they're occasions where distributors invite representatives from restaurants and wine shops to taste some or all of the wines in their portfolios (or "books," as they're called in the business). Sometimes, they're held in restaurants--like the tasting shown above hosted by Nice Legs LLC at Ruth's Chris Steak House in Crystal City. Sometimes, they're held in the warehouse, like the one recently hosted by International Cellars in their Vienna warehouse. Some of the wines will be presented by owners or winemakers (distributors encourage that)...some by the distributor's staff.
What they have in common is a whole lot of wine. Perhaps 30...40...50...60 wineries...each pouring as many as 10 wines. I learned (re-learned) some lessons this week. So why write about this? Portfolio tastings aren't open to the general public so what good are the lessons? Because the lessons are applicable to any large tasting...MacArthur Beverage's annual California Barrel Tasting and the Wine Spectator Experience that comes to DC periodically are just two examples. There are lots of others. These lessons will help you both enjoy those kind of events more and get more value from them.
The obvious. At all of these, there's more wine than any human being can drink. Doesn't really matter whether it's 100 wines...300 wines...or 500 wines. If you just walk in the door and look around, you will be overwhelmed. So much wine. So many people milling around. There's a natural tendency to just head for the first table that looks at least moderately interesting...or familiar...or just not crowded. I've done it. I kind of did it this week.
Nooooo! You can do better.
Step one. Find out what wineries are going to be pouring--or are likely to be pouring--ahead of time. You can find a list somewhere. Study it a bit. Decide which ones you think might be interesting. They might seem interesting because you've heard good things about them, but never had a chance to taste them. Or they might seem interesting because you've liked earlier versions of the wine but not had the current versions. Or they might seem interesting because they're reputed to be very pleasant wines offered at a price point you can afford by the case--and you want to stock up on everyday wines. The point is that it's ESSENTIAL to do some homework before you show up for the tasting and to select--and write down--the wines you want to seek out. If it seems to you that doing homework will spoil the fun...it won't. Being overwhelmed and ending up not tasting the wines you'd like to taste will spoil the fun. Being prepared will only enable fun.
Step two. As soon as you arrive, figure out the layout so you can find the wines you intend to taste. Some of these events will give you a map. Take a minute to look at it and plan your attack. Some arrange the wineries in alphabetical order. Some arrange them by region. Almost all have some sort of organizational scheme. Picking wines you want to taste is of little value if you can't find them. Five minutes invested in turning your theoretical plan into an actual route is time well spent. Otherwise, even though you've thought about it, you may end up forsaking your plan and settling for random encounters.
Step three. These are wine tastings...not wine drinking contests. If you're uneasy about spitting...get over it! Taste...and spit. Repeat. Just do it. It will not make you look like a slob. If anything, it will make you look like a wine pro. Obviously, if you're assessing wine, drinking any of it will impede your taste and judgment. But even if you're just there to have a good time, you should taste and spit. As the evening (or day) progresses, if you want to sip wine, do it this way--after you've had a chance to taste (and spit) everthing you thought might be really interesting, circle back for more of your favorite(s). I've been to some tastings where people didn't spit and got this way wrong. It's not pretty. But even if you're sure you can control yourself before you get to that point, if you've already drunk five or six (or eight or twelve) small pours, by the time you get to that silky Burgundy or highly rated Barolo, you won't be able to appreciate it.
Step four. Plan a sequence. I recommend light to heavy. You might start with whites and sparklers...then lighter reds...then big reds. It is really, really hard to appreciate a balanced pinot right after your palate has been slammed by a couple of big cabs. Trust me. I've been there. This week.
Step five. You're in charge of what you taste. Not the person pouring. Even when you find a winery that you're interested in, that doesn't mean you're interested in all of their wines. You can (should) be polite...but if you don't assert yourself, you'll end up spending your time and your palate drinking stuff that you don't want. And both (time and palate) are basically zero-sum. Because you don't have time or "palate energy" (I think I just made that term up--more later) to taste everything, for every wine you taste, you are--by definition--skipping another one. So if you drink a wine that does not appear interesting to you, you are forgoing the opportunity to drink something potentially interesting. A pleasant "I'm afraid I don't have time to try everything, could I just taste the riesling" (or whatever) will do the trick.
Step six. That doesn't mean you shouldn't be open to new experiences. Don't fall into the trap of drinking nothing but "old faithfuls." Part of your planning should include identifying wines that you're not familiar with, but you think might be interesting (and if you're being adventurous, some will prove not to be that interesting--which is ok!). And occasionally, if a winery has impressed you and they have more wines on the table, you might say something like "I only have time to try one more--is there something you really think I should taste?" I've found a few winners that way.
Step seven. That "palate energy" idea. We all have our limits. They vary. Top critics reportedly can taste ~100 wines or so a day. Most of us can't. There's a point at which we just say "enough...I'm not really appreciating this any more." There are ways to cope with this to some extent. Take a break. Relax. Sip water. Maybe eat a little something. If you were exercising, and you reached the end of your energy, walking or stretching for a little while might allow you to recover and continue. The same principle applies. But for all of us, there's a point where the best answer becomes just stop! If you miss a couple of wines you wanted to taste, that's a lot better than feeling like you've been beaten with the wine equivalent of a baseball bat! Once again, I've been there...this week.
There might be more, but lists of tips that go on forever aren't very useful. Now, here's the real key. Just knowing this won't do the trick. I knew all of it. But--as my comments suggested--I didn't always follow it this week...at least not all of it. You have to be disciplined.
There are more portfolio tastings coming up (it's the season). I plan to be more disciplined.