I recently finished the second of two wine tasting seminars required of all culinary students, and came away with a startling realization: my taste buds are challenged. While other students detected notes of green apple and oak, warm vanilla and mango, all I could taste, from sip one, were hints and notes of wine in my wine. I so psyched myself out that I was unsure I'd be able to taste the slice of pizza I routinely bought on the way home and, eager to remedy the situation, began to develop a number of ticks and responses to mask my faulty palate, which I perfected on day two. Lest you ever find yourself amidst a group of oenophiles, perhaps these tips will help you blend right in.
1) When first given a glass of wine to taste, hold it at arm's length, swirl vigorously, inhale deeply, using your hand to waft the odor towards your nose, and look perturbed. (Do not, as my father does, pretend to listen to the wine. This is a dead giveaway.) Exhale loudly, look into the middle distance, and say something oblique. For example, "Reminds me of my late grandmother's parasol in foggy London town" is safe. You can take cues from others at the table as to whether you should accentuate the oakiness of the wood in the parasol's handle, the dankness of the wet sidewalk, or, simply, memory. No one can quibble with you about memory.
2) After taking a small sip, swish the wine around in your mouth and pretend to spit it out in your tasting cup. Obviously do not spit it out. You will not be able to make it through an entire evening with oenophiles otherwise.
3) When asked what you taste in the wine, literally anything goes. Most people panic at this point, but have fun with it. We tasted a Riesling in class and were asked to write down our perceptions. I vigorously scribbled down "liquid, wine, grapes, fermented grapes" because hey, I had to write down something, and looked up to see the instructor lost in thought, delicately swishing the wine around her mouth. "I know what you're all thinking," she said, nodding her head slowly. "Kerosene!" A handful of my classmates nodded in agreement. Kerosene?! I tasted again, swishing. Nothing.
3a) Seriously, anything goes. We tasted a Sauvignon Blanc that was labeled, at various points, as having faint hints of cat pee, cilantro, and "anything green and herbal." Anything green.
3b) When at a loss, make a reference to something unfamiliar to others at the table. At one point, our instructor said that a particular wine tasted "like chewing on mango skin." As few of us have ever done this, we could not disagree. "A peanut butter and pickle croquette" or "riding bareback through the Sahara," work well here.
3c) Conjuring up places is also a brilliant move, when at a loss. If you mutter "Puerto Vallarta" or "Chiang Mai," no one will be able to call you out on it. Something in Puerto Vallarta probably resonates with the "correct" hint in the wine.
4) As you will likely have no idea where the wine falls on the light-to-full-bodied spectrum, accentuate body parts. Oenophiles will, probably, have little experience with this type of descriptor. "Voluptuous midriff with waif-like undertones" or "rich complexion and spicy gait" are all so obscure as to cover all your bases.
I managed to make it through the wine seminar without letting others know I was faking it, and reassured myself by rereading Calvin Trillin's "The Red and the White," an essay he published in 2002 on wine tasting, in which he discusses a test conducted at UC Davis: wine tasters, when sipping room temperature wine poured into black glasses, could not distinguish between red and white.
Trillin, a beerophile, admits to selecting his wine based on the label ("I like a nice mountain, preferably in the middle distance"). Thus, I feel ok admitting that even after my snootacious wine class, I still base my picks largely on the cuteness of the label's featured critter: Little Penguin, with tiny penguin footprints inked on the top of each cork, is the runaway winner every time I find myself in a liquor store.
Of course, now, I'll be able to take a sip of my Little Penguin, breathe in deeply, swish it around, and utter, almost in ecstasy, "Ahhh, a carriage ride through Zimbabwe, with piquant notes of yellow Brandywine tomato and roasted bat guano!" and no one will be the wiser.