Increasingly, opportunities to attend big tastings are popping up across the map—some focused on regional wines, some on single varieties and still others offering a mishmash of wines from just about anywhere.
It may seem easiest to just plunge in, tasting everything you come across, getting a happy buzz before your palate waves the surrender flag, but that means you might miss the truly special wines available—not to mention do little to expand your wine knowledge.
The best approach to navigating a big wine tasting is to prepare a game plan. Here are 10 tips to help you get the most out of the experience from start to finish:
1) Do research. Before the event, log onto the event or hosting organization’s Web site to preview what the tasting will offer. Some sites provide the option to download the tasting program and floor plan. For example, the 12th-annual World of Pinot Noir tasting in Shell Beach, California (March 2–3)—which brings together Pinot Noir producers, chefs and sommeliers from around the world together for one massive tasting—provides detailed notes about the event’s participants online. Print this information and scope it out for your benefit. (http://wopn.com/participants.php).
2) Plot your plan. Most events, whether indoors or out, have wineries pouring at tables arranged alphabetically by winery name. Decide on the stops that take precedence and create an efficient path. Worried one or two high-demand wines or wineries might run out early? Check out the Wine Enthusiast Buying Guide to cull recent reviews of top-scoring wines from specific producers and consider those as starting points.
3) Find your focus. This may be on a varietal, vintage, producer or wine region—anything in the way of a theme that will put a bow around the wines you taste. Individual wineries may be pouring different types of wine—or, in the case of a themed tasting, such as ZAP, it’s Zinfandel all the way.
4) Take notes. Bring a notepad so that you can jot down your tasting notes. This is helpful when deciding what to purchase for your home cellar, not to mention it’ll help keep your tasting thoughts in order. Another plus is that winery representatives tend to take notice of tasters scribbling about wines, which could result in more personalized attention from the pourers.
5) Cap it at 15. If you want to have a valuable experience that builds your knowledge, guzzling as many as you can access is not the answer. Assume your capacity to taste successfully stops between 10 and 15 wines. This will ensure that your time was indeed valuable, and you’ll come away with a greater understanding of the wines and wineries.
6) Sparkling first, sweet last. If your focus is to taste some wine from each category, you’re going to have to keep your palate as fresh as you can for as long as possible. Start with sparkling wine first. After that, hit the dry whites and dry reds before finishing with the sweetest options.
7) Taste slowly. Spend one full minute focusing your full attention on each wine you taste and smell. The better the wine, the longer the flavors of the finish will linger after you’ve spit. In fact, in the very best wines, those flavors will keep evolving long after you’ve sipped, so if you jump to the next wine too soon, you’ll miss the encore!
8) Be social. Chat with the winemakers, friends and others tasting the same wine as you to compare thoughts and learn something new. Inquire about things that interest you (try not to fall back on the usual blather about barrels and yeast). Ask the pourer to talk about what he or she likes, what makes the wine unique and what food you might serve with it at home.
9) Eat and drink. Whatever you do, don’t forget to stop for food along the way. To freshen your palate, drink one glass of water for every glass of wine.
10) Spit. Seriously, pitting allows you to taste far more wines than you could if you swallowed. And once you’ve tasted through your top 10–15, pick your favorite, go back to get another glass (and maybe a perfect food pairing), find a quiet corner and enjoy it.