How To Make Wine Evaluation Even Less Objective? Don’t Spit!

Vinted on August 3, 2010 binned in best of, commentary, wine appreciation
62

Lately I’ve found myself at (what I’d consider to be) a lot of (what I would call) professional (or, at least, semi-professional) environments in which I am expected (or at least it seems that way) to taste wine in the hopes that I might critically evaluate it (but with fewer parenthetical interruptions if I do).

I’m rarely alone at those moments – I’m usually part of a small group of bloggers, traditional press, or some mixture thereof. But I am usually alone in at least one respect at those tastings: I’m the one asking for a spit bucket.

Or the one looking around for an open outside door, empty unused glass, drainage grate, or random patch of grass so that I can spit. More often than not, I feel as though I’ve got to explain myself, and/or am left wondering why a winery or event coordinator hasn’t thought to at least provide a plastic cup for spitting purposes.

More concerning to me is that the majority of my peers at these tastings don’t seem to feel the slightest need to spit.

Now, I’m not about to tell someone how they should evaluate wine, and I’m certainly in the "wine tasting is more subjective than objective" camp – but I’m baffled as to how someone can taste several wines without spitting and think that they can remain cogent enough to provide an ounce of objective viewpoint about it all later…

There’s a reason that so many of us like to drink alcoholic beverages. It gets us buzzed, tipsy, pie-eyed, shit-faced… the creative phrases and synonyms for being drunk in the English language are rivaled only by those euphemisms reserved for getting laid. Nothing wrong with that, of course, unless you fancy yourself a wine writer and want people to take you even somewhat seriously in terms of your opinion about wine. Not spitting at a wine tasting – especially when several wines are being poured – is essentially putting you on the express train to Buzzville, no matter how big you or your tolerance happen to be. Never mind not-spitting at several tastings in the same day.

Of course, most of us who are tasting at wineries aren’t doing it professionally, but if your goal is to learn more about wine – and to make sure you’re awake for a nice dinner later that same evening – spitting is your friend. Non-professionals have the luxury of then deciding at which point in their tasting jaunts they want to stop learning and start drinking. Press-minded folks have to keep it together until the last stop on the tour, whether it’s past the point of being fun or not.

And if you want to talk about stuff that’s not-fun, try being the lone sober guy at the end of a long day in a group of well-meaning but intoxicated people. Sure, there are far worse things than hopping from winery to winery to taste wine, but as most of you can probably attest, doing anything all day while sober in the company of people who aren’t sober gets very old, very quickly (that one’s a universal truth, like the speed of light or the karmic law that prevents any lane you’re in during a traffic jam from moving faster than the adjacent lanes…).

The bottom line is that if you’re press and you’re not spitting at a wine tasting, there’s little chance that you can do your job effectively, unless your job happens to be getting very drunk and writing about it later; just bear in mind that your competition in terms of reviewing wine by "F-cked-Up factor" is Sadat X, and I’d say he’s got a lock on the genre. In any case, the calculation, by my reckoning, goes something like this:

More booze = less inhibitions = less objectivity = less reliable coverage

I’d even go so far as to say that not-spitting has a more insidious effect, which is to potentially give a bad name to you, your publication, your writing, your etc. I’m not saying you shouldn’t cut loose from time to time when you’re tasting wine, just don’t expect anybody to take you seriously if that’s all that you do. That’s not helping to democratize the world of wine criticism – more likely it’s perverting the budding world of on-line wine self-publication.

And let’s not forget that those particular buds are still very young and very, very vulnerable.

Cheers!


 

    Comments

  • Amy


    Joe,
    First let me preface by saying I am *not* a wine expert, just married to one, but I think this post is great when considered with the one Alice Feiring brought to everyone's attention from the WSJ about the horribly written and researched Beaujolais article. I know plenty of bloggers who write well and know their stuff, but I think your experience speaks to the degradation of the journalism medium in general. I know my SO would never survive a tasting trip to his producers in France if he didn't spit, and quite frankly it just speaks to a level of amateurishness that needs to be addressed in the wine/journalism world.

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, Amy.

      I should add that I'm not talking about *every* person with me on those trips and tastings, of course. But enough that I've noticed and been concerned. I should also note that the list of non-spitters includes print journalists as well, however I'm more concerned with blogging world for obvious reasons. Cheers!

  • Amy


    Ok, I'm not trying to beat a dead horse, and this will be my last comment, but yeah, I know, and I don't want to sound like a hater or grizzled journalism vet (and I do realize there are folks from established media who behave badly as well). I think (hope?) these issues of legitimacy and credibility will increasingly make their way back to the forefront of the journalism industry as various new and emerging revenue models prove themselves to be viable.

  • Steve Heimoff


    Dude, well said. That's one reason I don't go to those massive public tastings anymore. Too many inebriated people. I always spit when evaluating wine and so do all of the professional tasters I know. I also spit when tasting from tank/barrel in the winery cellar. Now, all I have to do is learn how to direct a straight shoot of spit from a standing position into the floor drain!

    • 1WineDude


      Steve – same here. Though I should add that it's not just public tastings – trade tastings and press tastings I've been to seem to have similar behavior going on, though not as widespread as at public tastings.

  • Mel


    Definitely agree with you 100%. If I'm at an event working, I'll be asking for the spit bucket. (Sometimes it's nice to just go as the general public…but even then, if there's more than three wines to try, I usually want to spit them.) I often get the impression that people are too afraid to spit – they don't want to dribble or miss or otherwise make themselves look silly. Spitting is all about confidence, however. If you just take aim and fire, all the while being proud of what you're doing, you won't look silly. I'm sure we've all got stories of spitting mishaps, but incidentally, all of mine are from the time when I was embarrassed about doing it. Go figure.

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, Mel – LOVE your take on spitting. I'm in the "I'm gonna look stupid anyway so f–k it, I'm just spitting" camp. :)

  • Randy Fuller


    I attended a winemaker luncheon recently in Los Angeles with about a dozen other writers. With fourteen people at the table, only two spit buckets were provided. The winemaker was the only one I noticed using them. We were served all seven wines in separate glasses at once. I limited myself to a small sip of each and left my glasses looking mostly untouched, so my intake was about the same as a glass of wine. Most of the others were drinking the glasses dry, though, with nary a spit observed. I, too, have witnessed wine professionals at events where 100 or so wineries were pouring. A lot of them take the opportunity to make it party time.

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, Randy – it's not just me, then! :)

  • Josh Wade


    Joe, what surprises me about this post is the need for it. While I like a good buzz as much as the next guy, it just seems like a no brainer to spit when being at a wine tasting event as press. I don't drink while I'm doing code at work, nor do I tip a few back during conference calls…why the hell would someone be so unprofessional as to get loaded at a professional tasting.

    You're there to do a job…get smart people…drink the booze after the tasting. If you're an alcoholic…step away from the game.

    Josh
    drinknectar

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, Josh – well stated; the key word there is professional.

      I'm with you – recreationally, I'll toss some back with ya, *after* the tasting is over.

  • Ron Washam, HMW


    Joe,

    The wine business is a very small world, and the folks who don’t spit at wine tastings are quickly put on a list of those not to invite to future tastings. We all knew who they were. And when a new person in the biz didn’t take the time to learn how to spit, well, it wasn’t long before they were also shunned. It’s a reputation that’s very hard to shed.

    Very often wineries are at the mercy of the venue where their event is held. Many places, especially hotels and restaurants, simply don’t have as many spitbuckets as they might need. This is often a problem at huge tastings, and experienced tasters always scout out the nearest bucket before tasting any wine so as not to get stuck swallowing it. Just part of the gig.

    I think I’ve spit far more wine in my life than I’ve actually swallowed. People are squeamish about it, but it is simply and unequivocally part of the job if you want to be taken seriously. I don’t want to be taken seriously, and even I do it.

    • 1WineDude


      Hey Ron – always a pleasure to have you chime in here, btw! – I wonder if we're onto a potential product opportunity here? Collapsible, washable, re-usable spit cups for the busy wine pro on the go?… oh, yeah, and for bloggers, too. ;-)

      • Dale Cruse


        I liken people who don't spit wine to people who don't wash their hands when they're finished in the restroom.

  • Crescentia Nina


    Spitting is a must!! Once I had a tasting room employee yell at me for spitting. It was horrifying. She accused me of not liking the wine in front of a large group of people during spring release weekend in Walla Walla. I am in the industry, so when I go tasting, I spit, afterall, I am tasting not trying to get drunk.

    • 1WineDude


      Crescentia – are you kidding? That's terrible!

      But maybe they got confused because the name of your blog is "Sip It…" so naturally the expected you not to spit! :)

  • Dale Cruse


    I don't care one bit about objectivity when tasting or writing about wine. Why do we even pretend to be objective about a purely subjective experience? Hell, our own taste buds aren't even reliable. Taste something once, give it a score. Taste it again under different circumstances & you'll come up with a different score. Are we going to continue to pretend that's objective?

    • 1WineDude


      Hey Dale – nope. But if you're gonna tell me that you would be just as consistent in evaluating wine (or anything!) when drunk vs. when sober, then I'm gonna call bullshit on that.

  • Dale Cruse


    That's not what I'm saying at all, Joe. I'm saying that we're inconsistent all the time & I don't even bother trying to be objective.

    • 1WineDude


      Dale – I agree on that, what I'm saying is that we're more likely to be wildly inconsistent and inaccurate when inebriated. In other words, you have a chance of making a level-headed (if mostly subjective) assessment when sober. When drunk – much, much less of a chance of doing that.

      I'm not saying that wine tasting is objective (though I'd say some aspects, like whether or not a wine has a flaw, are approaching objective); I'm saying that when you're drunk, your opinion is even more subjective than normal and has a much higher probability of being inaccurate even to your own tastes.

  • swirlgirls


    Hooray! I couldn't agree more with everything you said. I'm often the lone spitter and never felt bad, even when I get those looks.

    • 1WineDude


      Well SG, I get those looks anyway! :)

  • Dale Cruse


    I think the objective parts of wine are the numbers like percent of alcohol, brix, number of cases produced, vintage, etc. But flavor? To me there's virtually nothing objective about it.

    As a side note, I find my own position on this issue ironic, as I am an Objectivist – one who identifies with the philosophies of Ayn Rand. I'm just not objective at all when it comes to flavor.

    • 1WineDude


      Dale – did 2112 turn you onto Ayn Rand? :-)

      • Dale Cruse


        No, the other way around!

  • Arthur


    Making wine assessment as non-objective as possible:
    1. start with the notion that it can't be done and then convince yourself of it
    2. since you have convinced yourself that it can't be done, don't bother learning about wine as a substance that has pretty consistent organoleptic features
    3. since you also believe the fallacy that wine assessment can't be done objectively, there is no reason to train you senses (because, OF COURSE, the same molecule makes one person identify blueberry and another one identify lemon…..)
    4. THEN get sloshed so you can neither pay attention to your sense nor integrate that raw sensory data into something meaningful.

    See? It's easy. In four steps!

    • 1WineDude


      Arthur – Have you considered writing en eBook on that? ;-)

      • Arthur


        It wouldn't sell…..
        But then maybe it will. After all, the best way to get ahead in the world is to validate people's beliefs and opinions – not challenge them.

  • Laura Mohseni


    Another faithful spitter here! We just put on a huge wine event over the weekend- the first Chardonnay Symposium in Santa Maria. Providing personal spit cups to everyone was high on our list; it's my preferred way to go, after all. Buckets could be found everywhere, too, so you don't have to carry around that cup of full of…well, you know.

    Power to the spitters; there really is no other way to judge wine.

    • 1WineDude


      Laura – yes! we have the power!!!

      If I ever show up to your event, I want my spit cup engraved… ;-)

  • WineWonkette


    I would love to be able to spit like most of you guys write in the snow. A big long stream five feet from the spit bucket. But mine is more like a dribble into the spit cup. I often wonder how ANYONE at public tastings can objectively "review" any of the wines based on one taste alone, especially after about 10 wines.

    I don't care how often one spits, the alcohol is still absorbed into the system and which can affect evaluation of all later wines. In fact I've seen, upon more than one occasion, "spitters" who were thoroughly tanked by the end of an evening of tasting and spitting everything they tasted.

    And wine often changes as it opens up in a glass. If the review is written for the man or woman who actually wants to drink the wine, rather than just taste and spit, the "reviewer" has to conduct his tasting with much more than 25 ml of wine swirled, gargled and spit.

    Public tastings, to me, are an opportunity for an initial evaluation of the wine, that I go back to later and taste a number of times, before I write the actual review.

    • 1WineDude


      All true, Amy – but even then, one can spit many times over the course of tasting one glass and let the wine open up over time, etc. Spitting definitely does NOT prevent alcohol from being absorbed by the taster, but it's definitely a lot less alcohol than drinking the wine.

  • WeeRee


    You are right and courageous to say so.

    • 1WineDude


      Not courageous, WeeRee – just frustrated! :-)

  • WinoTripper


    I (totally) agree (mostly). Yes, the only proper way to "judge" wine may be sober, (although I do think Dale Cruse has a point in his argument above). But I think that a wine tasting event set up for professionals to judge wine is different than tasting wine at a winery (for me). In a winery situation, I'm looking to get the entire experience of visiting the winery – the atmosphere, the service, the overall vibe. Regular folks (non-professional wine tasters) reading a wine writer's description of a winery want to know what to expect. And most regular non-pro wine tasters don't spit. In order to give the "everyman's" observations, you gotta have the whole experience, (just ask Hunter S. Thompson), which includes swallowing the wine (that you most likely paid for with a tasting fee). Unless you're writing for DesignatedDriver.com (I'm not – but I would… depending on the hours), nobody reading your blog experiences wineries stone-cold sober.

    Look at acting, for example. Who's gonna be a better drunk on screen? A sober actor who never gets drunk, or Martin Sheen at the beginning of Apocalypse Now (hint: he's actually really fucked up). Should we say that he's not a professional? I'm sure lots of people would (maybe even 1WineDude), even after he performed the scene of a lifetime.

    Bottom line. It's just wine (it's a drink), and writing about it is really just entertainment.

    • 1WineDude


      Hey WT – what I really want to know is, was Brando actually insane in Apocalypse Now?

      • WinoTripper


        I did some research and found that Brando was actually insane in Apocalypse Now and in every role he ever played, including himself in his real life!

        But really… I should say again that I (mostly) agree with you. I think what you're getting at goes beyond professionalism and enters into common sense and general courtesy. If some dude acts like a drunk teenager at a tasting (or at a winery tasting room), that's just somebody being an idiot, professional wine writer or not.

  • Sean P. Sullivan


    Joe, I couldn't agree with you more on this. I actually often carry around spit cups with me when I go to taste wine because they are frequently not there, leaving people with the option of either not drinking the wine or getting inebriated. However, how strange do I feel walking in to a winery with a spit cup! If I had a dollar for every time this has been a problem…

    I have to give some kudos to the folks at the Washington Wine Commission for last year's Taste Washington, Washington's largest annual tasting event. They had spit cups and dump buckets everywhere. First year they have done this and it was a relief – and there were a lot less drunk people.

    • 1WineDude


      Another shout-out for the portable reusable spit-cup idea! :-)

  • Richard Scholtz


    I guess I'm just an amateur still, as I don't really evaluate more than about 4 wines at a time (6 if it's a Big Winos weekend). My standard procedure is to take a small sip, swirl around, swallow, and make my notes. Repeat no more than 5 times. Then, I can go back and drink to my heart's content. I believe there is some credence (although it's minimal) to the notion that you can't get 100% of the effects of a wine if you don't swallow. Something about all those phenols and esters hitting the back of your throat. Granted, professionals spit all the time, and we trust their evaluations. I think that make's me a professional drinker then.

    Joe, wish you could have tasted what I got to try this weekend: a 1995-2005 Elderton Command Shiraz vertical. 'Twas a large time.

    • 1WineDude


      Hey Richard – sounds like a fun time. Though I find the lower-end Elderton's (not the Command series) to be a bit too "cola-ish" for my tastes. Cheers!

  • GregP


    Joe, interesting and same take on the subject that I've heard for a long time now. I just want to ask you, and any professional wine writer/evaluator, one simple question: How do you guys evaluate wine's finish? Without swallowing, that is. For me, wine's finish is key, I have tasted a load of highly rated wines by now that had great entry and mid palates and then simply VANISHED as if I just consume the half an ounce of it. Wine without a (nice) finish is a waste, IMO, and without swallowing some to evaluate acidity and extraction levels how does one determine if its a good wine? Those highly rated and sought after SQN wines have incredible nose, entry and mid and yet just disappear on the finish in about 3 seconds flat, there are plenty more I can point out and I am not picking on SQN. High scores, high praise and I am guessing they are based on "non-swallow" tasting technique.

    I am not saying "go taste and get smashed", but there should be some happy medium that allows for PROPER evaluation and how a wine finishes is part of that. IMHO, of course, I see that I am the only dissenter here.

    • 1WineDude


      Hey GregP – I think finish can be evaluated without swallowing. It just takes patience because the effect is lighter on the throat than if you swallowed the sip, however the length in general should be the same and the qualities on the finish (fruit, etc.) should be the same as well. Having said that, I tend NOT to evaluate the better wines during large tastings, preferring to try the best ones via samples later so I can actually swallow a sip or two and give the finish a proper eval.

  • @winefashionista


    I was just at a wine tasting event this weekend, and hardly any spit buckets were provided. I almost resorted to spitting in my glass. As a wine writer and TV producer I go to many of these events, and usually I'm the one asking for a spit cup (a little more elegant than leaning over a spit bucket). I haven't read all the comments here, but a lot of people drive to these events. Then they have to drive home. That's the more scary part.

  • Brian


    Even though it appears that this has been throuroughly hashed out, I have only recently been to some big tasting events (industry). I couldn't have tasted through nearly the number of wines I did without expectoration.

    It's enlightening, being able to taste 20, 30 or more wines without falling down and traumatizing my liver! Now, I just need to figure out how to work through palate fatigue!

    Cheers,
    Brian
    norcalwingman

  • Mark Cochard


    Dude, Sort of like I don’t know where to start.

    I’m just back from the SWE conference as an example. Start at 8:30 finish around 6:00 – 4 sessions plus lunch average around 50 wines then an evening event from7:00 to 9:00 say another 20 or 30 depending how long I stayed then dinner with anywhere from 4 to 6 bottles then of course after that back at the bar to talk to all then people you missed during the day. If we all did not spit all day long we would not get up the next day X 3 days and another day to visit wineries.

    • 1WineDude


      Mark – sure-fire way to spot the first-time attendees: after Day One, you don't see them anymore! :)

  • Mark Cochard


    Continued
    Imagine trying to take the Diploma exam – tasting starts at 9:00AM followed by theory the rest of the day. Theory papers would not be very well reasoned if not spitting.

    A few years back in a wine region to not to be named 3 successive wineries stated that “we don’t do that here” hence the need to bring your own spit cups. I thought I was in the twilight zone and got the hell out of there.
    Working in a tasting room for along time, customers never spit and typically, if they see me, they are like WTF. Then I need to explain that, if I did not spit, I was not going to be able to enjoy going out to a nice restaurant after work let alone be able to drive home.

  • winethropology


    CANNOT believe you passed up the opportunity to legitimately use the word swallow in the title!

    But seriously, Jesus – I can't imagine not spitting, whether tasting through a handful Turning Leaf's current releases at home or at this tasting. The only flaw I see in your logic is in this theorem:
    More booze = less inhibitions = less objectivity = less reliable coverage

    I might redraw it as more booze = poor judgement = less reliable coverage. At least in the context of wine tasting less inhibition could actually be to objectivity's – or at least honesty's – advantage. For example, if you're uninhibited, you're more likely to shower that Turning Leaf Pinot Noir with praise or pan that overpriced plonk from Burgundy.

    Outside the context of wine, you could really have fun with the equation:
    More booze = less inhibitions = poor judgement = who the hell is this (in my bed)?

    Well written piece!

    • 1WineDude


      winethro – BEST. COMMENT. EVER! Loved the re-working of my mathematical formula!

  • 1WineDude


    I'm with you – those pointing out that they wait to drive home until well after non-spitters have left are probably doing the smart thing!

  • 1WineDude


    Brian – can't help you with palate fatigue :-).

    I top out somewhere around 60 wines.

  • Nick Perdiew


    Great thoughtful post. I actually agree with most folks.
    -You are short-changing your professional judgment of the finish and the Overall if you don't swallow a little

    -AND you're going to have a very short day if you do swallow

    -And you're going to make successively less reliable judgments the further you go along in any tasting (as accelerated by swallowing)

    -Just to take this a little further, I wonder how many others have had the experience that ONE TASTE of a wine is more enjoyable than ONE GLASS of that wine, which usually leads to not liking it any more after 2 glasses of it. While it may be efficient to judge many wines at once, there's little doubt that you trade depth of review for range.

    -And, btw, never spit into big buckets, you don't want an eyesplash of whatever type of weird germs are in there. It's just the thought of it. Ick! As Winethropology implies, there may be more than one way to end up with germs from a wine tasting. :-)

    • 1WineDude


      Nick – I've had the splash-back from spit bucket directly into the eye thing happen many times before… not fun…

  • 1WineDude


    Hey all – there's a GREAT riff on this post and the tasting theme in general over at WinoTripping.com: http://www.winotripping.com/thevine/post.php?p=24

    Thanks, Rich!

    I totally agree with WT regarding palate fatigue, btw – there comes a point at those big tastings when you're just… DONE. Nothing you can do can help and your mouth is simply fried and needs a break. Personally, I've found that can hit me somewhere between 50 & 60 tastes on average (but some days as few as 20 depending on other factors and how I am feeling, etc.).

    Cheers!

  • Kimberly


    I'm somewhat of a newbie to "professional" tastings, however, at a trade tasting a couple months ago, I was astounded by the number of vendors who did not provide spit buckets. (Plenty did, though.) After the first 10 whites we tried, I simply could not bring any objectivity to anything I tasted the rest of the afternoon. Oh well, it was a good learning experience in how not to assess a wine's finer (or lack thereof) qualities!

  • earlmar exclamador


    wine can make me feel gOOd

    • 1WineDude


      Well, yeah, there is that…

  • 1WineDude


    Thanks, Kori – great point about encouraging more objective criticism and comments about a producer's wines.

  • 1WineDude


    Hey Ed – I'll take what I can get, but prefer my own cup vs. the spit bucket. This is entirely due to the fact that as the bucket starts to fill up, I am unable to avoid splashing other people's rejected wine-n-spit juice directly into my eyeballs when spitting…

  • WineWonkette


    I find it surprising when the person you ask to provide a spit cup looks at you as if you have committed some social faux pas, or insulted the wine before you've even tasted it.

  • 1WineDude


    Maybe if they act upset you could offer to spit the wine into their glass? ;-)

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