Last week I hosted a fun wine event for attendees of the MarketingProfs seminar at Santa Barbara's beautiful Upham Hotel. In this blind tasting we asked attendees to taste four different pinot noirs (see below for our tasting line-up), each from a different appellation.
Their objective was to match the wine in their mouth with its specific description on their tasting sheet. A difficult task, and the group rose to the occasion, though some seemed to require multiple samplings prior to placing their bets. But in the course of all this tasting I noticed nobody was spitting.
Now, in fairness, tasting four 2-ounce wine samples doesn't exactly strain one's liver or raise one's BAC to dangerous levels. But the lack of spitters at such public events is not unusual. In fact, finding a high percentage of spitters at any wine gathering pretty well assures you're at a trade tasting. Those in the trade not only spit, we take pride in it. Competitive pride.
Having said that, I'd like to tell you that I am the most accurate wine spitter you'll ever meet. That's what I'd like to tell you. The truth is that in the realm of professional spitters I come in at, oh, maybe a C+ or B-.
This limitation of mine became painfully clear about 12 years ago in the Cellar at Swanson Winery. Marco Capelli was Swanson's winemaker (he is now heading up his own small enterprise in Placerville), and I'd been introduced by a mutual friend. "Dave teaches wine classes and has a wine library like I've never seen" she'd said over the phone, hoping that was sufficient justification for him to have us up for a private tasting. Fortunately for me, Marco is a softee.
We met Marco in his house behind the winery, and he quickly put me at ease. I grew more confident that I would be able to say something intelligent about his wines, to gain his respect as a taster.
As we started the barrel tasting, Marco placed a 5-Gallon plastic bucket in the center of the floor before pulling a barrel sample. As he poured a taste into each of our glasses, he told us about the wine as we tasted and then, one at a time, stood next to the spit bucket, bowing our head over it so that expectorating was accomplished through a combination of gravity and our natural-born ability to dribble.
Then Marco stopped talking and took a small sip. He performed the requisite swirl and swish, considered it for an instant, and then let fly a solid stream of tightly compact wine. It was heard more than seen, and as it hit the bucket the group paid silent homage to his feat. He was standing comfortably upright, a full three feet from the bucket, as if this were nothing at all unusual.
Later, when I could pull him aside, I asked about his enviable spitting technique. As I dabbed errant wine stains off my pants legs, he explained the basics of top-rate spitting. I've kept his pearl of wisdom to myself for over a decade, but this seems the right time to share it:
"First", he said, "to taste a wine adequately you need far less than most people put in their mouth - about a half an ounce well-aerated wine is sufficient. This small amount also helps maintain an accurate spit. When ready, simply pucker your lips and tighten your cheeks (note, your mouth cheeks). Flatten your tongue so it seals up tight against the molars on each side, allowing the wine to collect between your tongue and the roof of your mouth. Then quickly force your tongue up towards your teeth."
"After that it's all about getting the right muscle control and pressure - just practice in the shower until you can maintain a solid stream of water that accurately hits the target. I use my shower drain for target practice every morning."
Well, I've been following his advice for a dozen years now, and I'm still not a Grade-A spitter. But I can stand in the cellar with the best of them and issue forth a stream of sufficient force and accuracy so that I can avoid the heave-ho - one must exhibit sufficient spitting prowess to be worthy of tasting next to the winemaker.
And of course, one must also be able to say something insightful and intelligent about the wine. But that's a topic for another posting.
(Related reading - Jancis Robinson's "How To Taste", where you'll find a one-page spitting tutorial buried amidst a mountain of other valuable material.)
The MarketingProfs Wine Line-Up
Lucas & Lewellen, 2003 Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara County. $18 This wine tied for second place among the attendees, being selected "Favorite" by 24% (just one vote shy of first place!) Selected as a wine that shows better than its price would indicate, winemaker Dan Gehrs brings his considerable skill to the fore in producing this most pleasant of value wines.
Tudor Wines, 2004 Radog Pinot Noir, Monterey. $20 This wine is a great value in Pinot Noir, and is the entry-level wine from surfer, mushroom forager and WineMaker, Dan Tudor. This wine is lighter than its three counterparts, exhibiting bright red and blue berries with a hint of rose petal and pleasant oak notes of spice and a touch of vanilla.
J. Wilkes, 2003 Pinot Noir, Vall-Foss Vineyard, Napa. $27 This wine combines Napa fruit with Jeff's Central Coast winemaking aesthetic. The initial impression of delicate cherry gives way to plum, rose petals and earth - all in tandem with pleasant oak spice and vanilla and perhaps an elusive hint of Bacon?
Ortman Family Vineyards, 2003 Pinot Noir, Santa Rita Hills. $30 This wine was the favorite of 27% of the group in attendance, taking first place honors over the other three wines by a single vote. Its deep purple robe and its nose of vanilla and well-integrated oak spices balance with bramble fruits and a touch of sage and a most pleasant earthiness that is coming to the fore as the wine approaches middle age. This wine exhibits a full, balanced finish and layers and layers of evolving flavors.