Nobody would think any less of me if I brought a six-pack of Old Milwaukee to a picnic or ordered a Margarita made with house tequila in a swanky cantina. But admit my favorite wine comes in a $7 screw-cap bottle and I’d be labeled a tasteless dork by anyone who knows a thing or two about wine.
So when I was invited to an Italian wine tasting at a local liquor store, I jumped at the opportunity. Maybe it was time I learned a thing or two about wine.
The first thing I learned is that I might have better taste than the wine snobs would have me believe. The problem is that I’ve never tasted wine; I drank it. “Drinking,” our tasting host informed us, “is pouring wine in a glass and swallowing.” His tone made it clear he considers such a practice classy as guzzling from the spit bucket.
Tasting, I soon realized, is a multi-step ritual designed to help hosts decide whether to serve their guests Chateau Margaux or Two Buck Chuck. The first step, our host demonstrated, is holding the glass at an angle and eyeing the wine as if it were covered with mold. I mimicked his expression of distaste, swirled the glass, then plunged my nose in to sniff. Reasonably satisfied this yellowish liquid would not kill me, I held up my glass to drink. But the lesson wasn’t over yet. Our host made sure to point out that drinking during the tasting is allowed, though certainly not required. For those of us sophisticated enough to taste without swallowing, there were extra glasses for spitting. I was pleased to see nobody in my group had that much class.
As we sampled a prosecco, I learned from our host that another reason I might not actually like the $7-a-bottle, screw-cap white I think I like is that I drink it too cold. He said white wine tastes best when taken out of the refrigerator 30 minutes before it’s served. “All these soccer moms who get together and drink wine from a box and pour it over a glass full of ice have no idea what it tastes like,” he said.
Minutes later, the host pointed out a glaring gaffe committed by a member of our group. He caught her cupping the bowl of a stem glass in her hand. “That is such a faux pas,” he said. “The heat from your hand warms the wine. That’s what the stem is for. Use it.”
He went on to pooh-pooh stemless wine glasses, which I always use at home. I’m convinced fat-bottom glasses are safer in my klutzy hands. But if spillage and breakage suggest sophistication, bring on the stems.
The next wine we tried was red. Our host asked what we thought of it. A woman proved she’d read at least one wine review by calling it oaky. Not to be outdone, our host voiced his approval by saying it “tastes like dirt.”
He liked the next red even more, saying it was so rich and full-bodied it made him “feel like cutting it with a knife and chewing.” He went on to describe the taste as being like leather.
Looking at our tasting list, I noticed his enthusiasm for a given wine rose and fell with the price of the bottle. Sure enough, his favorite was the priciest.
“I love that feeling that you’ve got a mouth full of cotton,” he said of the $40-a-bottle red.
By then, I had it down pat – the eyeing, the swirling, the sniffing, the sipping, the describing the taste as anything but a food or drink. I can now taste like the pros. But why would I want to? I still prefer my screw-cap supermarket wine. And if the label on the bottle said $40, I’ll bet the wine snobs would, too.