First appeared on Food Riot, by Amanda Feifer
When I was in grad school, I worked weekends at a small and wonderful California wine-tasting room. Dream job, right? I tasted excellent wines during every shift, learned about the industry from the vintner himself and worked super cool events, some that included pouring wine for celebrities. It was a fantastic break from the drudgery of my many hours of studying.
Our winemaker was quite down to earth. Although he grew organic grapes before organic was even a designation, focused on French-style wines (having planted an off-the-charts Mt. Eden clone in the '70s) and was on the board of the local symphony orchestra, overalls were his favorite attire, a beat pickup truck his favorite ride and he called himself a farmer rather than a vintner, wine-grower or winemaker.
So I was sometimes shocked by the reality of wine insecurity of many tasters. Crazy people who came into the tasting bar often fell into one of two camps: those who thought they knew everything about wine, loudly bragged to and bullied their less-knowledgeable companions and those who were clearly uncomfortable around anything wine-related.
It's been a few years, and I think America has grown more secure in its relationship with wine since then, but I still have a few tips to keep you from being disparaged by staff in the back room next time you hit the tasting bars.
1. Robert Parker -- For the love of God, you pretentious piece, please do not ask about the Robert Parker rating of the wines you are drinking. By the same token, please don't loudly brag to your friends that you'll never consume anything under an RP 92. That only shows you to be a snob who lacks his own sense of taste. Some people love Robert Parker, and there's no question that he is influential. Still, he's one dude with the palate of one dude, and the chances that your taste buds line up exactly to his are quite slim. Furthermore, many quality, smaller wineries do not submit wines to Parker (or to many wine competitions, for that matter) so if you let your own nose and tongue guide you, rather than the plaques on the wall you'll probably leave with bottles that suit you better.
2. How'd they get the raspberries and black pepper in there? -- There is a difference between not being snobby and being straight up ignorant. There's no reason not to ask questions of your pourer, but there's also no reason not to do a bit of research about the product you're heading out to taste. The kind of wine you'll be tasting in tasting rooms, unless otherwise designated, is made with grapes and yeast and not much else. The flavors described on tasting notes are the complexities that appear as a result of the many natural and human inputs that make wine wine. While I would never judge someone for asking a question like this, and I greatly prefer an ignorant, curious customer to a Robert Parker-fanatic, it never hurts to spend 5 minutes with Google before you head out on a new food or beverage adventure.
3. Marriage counselor -- There were times, like early weekdays in winter, when the tasting room probably could have been closed but wasn't. During those times, there would sometimes be a lone couple at the bar, nursing their five, one-ounce pours for an hour or more. This was fine with cool people and sometimes even fun, but unlike a server in a restaurant, I was stuck talking to those people for the entire time they were there. On more than one of these occasions, I was asked to resolve petty marital disputes or figuratively tap dance for people who clearly did not want to talk to each other. If you don't have something nice to say to your spouse, don't take him wine tasting.
4. Sulfites -- Many people complained about sensitivity to sulfites, asking if we used them and informing us that they could only drink wines in France, where sulfites are never used. First, sulfites, in addition to being added to wines, naturally occur in wines. Second, they add them to French wines, too. Third, and most importantly, if you tell me you're sensitive to sulfites while snacking on dried apricots, you will look extremely foolish. Sulfite-sensitivity is a thing. It's just a thing that affects very few people and very seriously prevents them from consuming a whole host of foods, beverages and medications. If you don't have to write in the "Medication Allergies" box for several minutes at the doctor's office, you probably don't have a sulfite allergy.
5. Bashing the Rosé Before You Try It -- As a beggared summer intern in Paris, I occasionally spent the bit of scratch I did have on lovely, low-cost bottles of rosé. It was summer, it was France and it was hot, after all. When I returned to California, I turned blue telling patrons, many of the Robert Parker variety mentioned above, how very dry, and complex our rosé was. I regaled them with tales of my Paris Plage and Parc Monceau picnic rosé sips. Some people blatantly didn't believe me. Many seemed to but refused to try the rosé on principle, nonetheless. All rosé is not white zinfandel, America! And if there's a better thing than rosé to drink on a 90 degree day, I haven't found it yet.
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