There’s a great scene in the 2019 film Wine Country. Amy Poehler and Rachel Dratch are standing outdoors at a beautiful but somewhat intimidating Napa Valley tasting bar. The sommelier pours them a white, and throws down the gauntlet by saying, “Let me know what you smell; there are no wrong answers.”
The events that follow come from the playbook of bad wine dreams. While everything that Amy picks up in the wine is “right” according to the somm (e.g., “yes, lemon; good job,”), everything that Rachel tastes is, according to the somm, most definitely wrong. Even though there are no wrong answers, it’s clear that there are. The look of disdain from the somm is unmistakable. There must be shame. Shame reigns.
We’ve all been there – feeling inadequate about our wine knowledge and afraid that others will figure out how clueless we are. Historically wine has been used as a social wedge. Those who knew about wine could embrace their sense of smugness. Those who were intimated by wine could slunk off to a corner. In disgrace.
In recent years, the tables have started to turn. Just as wine has been transformed from a symbol of the privileged few to something more representative of fun and friends, the times, they are a’changing. The changes are being driven by people, young and old, who are pushing the societal norms of wine and wine drinking.
People are seeking a wine experience that feels more like a picnic and less like a multiple-choice test. Yes, democracy, rather than autocracy, is spilling into the wine market. Let’s drink to that!
Wine Tasting is Just as Unique as You Are
So, how does this brave new world apply to you and your wine-tasting experience? Well, the first thing is to remember that wine tasting refers to just that. To what “you” taste. You. Not anyone else. It’s not a contest unless you are studying for a sommelier exam.
I’ve said this before, but one of the most important wine-tasting behaviors to adopt is to be centered in your own head. Turn down the external noise, including the double speak in your own head. Then pick your own process.
There are a zillion wine-tasting processes out there, with most of them translating into some derivation of the five S’s. See, Swirl, Sniff, Sip, and Savor. When you taste, work your process. See—and deeply look at the wine for color, viscosity, opacity. Keep going and follow your process. Sniff, Sip, and Savor leisurely and thoughtfully.
How to Wine Taste Like a Pro
Here are a few more tips to remember when you’re at risk of feeling inadequate or intimidated at tasting events.
Tip #1. Remember that our palates are complex and variable. A wine I taste at 1 p.m. often tastes different to me at 7 p.m. Not the wine, but me. Our perceptions of taste and odor are not static, and there is no formulaic or “correct” answer to “What are you picking up on the nose?”
Tip #2. Taste lots of wine. I recall speaking with a wine expert several years back. She made a comment, “You learn a lot by tasting a lot.” For a while, I did not fully appreciate the veracity of her comment. But in time, I came to appreciate what she was getting at.
Learning how to appreciate wine is a lot like learning how to appreciate food. You can’t expect someone who has only tasted tarragon once or twice to be able to identify it. The same goes for wine. The more you seek out opportunities to taste wine, the more confident you’ll feel and the sharper your ability to pick out wine traits will become. And you’ll learn along the way.
Tip #3 is to have fun. Wine tasting is fun. Fun. Don’t forget that.
Own Your Wine Tasting Experience
Back to the scene in Wine Country when the sommelier Mason (yep, that’s his name) tries to wine-shame Rachel’s character, it doesn’t shake out like you would imagine. After a few jabs of intimidation by the pretentious somm, Rachel and Amy come together, find their voice, and throw out a series of bad wine puns; the results are both hilarious and empowering.
In the end, Mason the somm turns away and moves on. Rachel and Amy have a good laugh and say they want a glass of “pinot-egregious.” Love it. Owning their own sipping and silliness.
Dr. Patricia Butterfield
Patricia Butterfield, PhD, RN, is a public health scientist and recovering dean. She and her husband Phil own Winescape, a production winery and tasting room on Spokane’s South Hill. Winescape was selected as the 2023 Washington Winery to Watch by Great NW Wine Magazine critics.