6 Rules For Tasting Wine

As a writer on the adult beverage beat, I end up at a lot of wine tastings. This means I routinely encounter pompous schmucks who believe they possess God's own palate, and that they deserve the adulation of everyone around them for swirling some fermented grape juice around in their mouths and pronouncing it "troubling, yet brilliant." The technical term is "wine snob," and I'll admit that I can't legitimately hang with a lot of them, knowledge-wise. However, I also think many of them are missing the point. Knowing, for them, has become more important than enjoying. Trust me, there's no better way to bring good times to a screeching halt than running your mouth about how variances in soil types and altitude affected the ph levels of '07 Alexander Valley cabs.

Why does it matter to you? Because even though you didn't come to compete, they did. And the more pernicious of this breed will use any opportunity to make you look an unsophisticated lout so they can mack on the little-black-dress types in your stead. This injustice must not stand. The key is to achieve a happy medium of wine knowledge. To know enough so you're perceived as an urbane sophisticate, but not so much that you become an insufferable douchebag (or start spending all your time reading oenology journals). Master these six rules and you'll kill at wine tastings without looking like you just matriculated at Asshole University.


Look, wine tasting is subjective. Isolating and identifying what's happening flavor-wise in any given vintage is a crapshoot for all but the most refined palates. Luckily, even when you're at a loss to pinpoint precisely what it is you think you're tasting, if you know these five simple words, no wine snob will ever look at you sideways. They are as follows: "complex," "balanced," "layered," "intense" and "well-rounded." Using these terms to describe a wine is like when a psychic tells a rube they sense concern over affairs of the heart, money or health. It's bulletproof, never-fail bullshit. Bonus tip: when it comes to a wine's "nose," the bolder the better. You can rarely go wrong no matter what you say. Trust me, the second someone suggests hints of yak wool or banana oil in a Pinot Gris, everyone else around will start nodding.

  • You would think that original ideas would be embraced in a roomful of intelligent people at a wine tasting. And you would be wrong. Say something like "What the hell does Robert Parker know anyway?" and they may stone you to death. Instead, stick with bromides such as "wine is made in the vineyard, not the winery" or "the numerical score system employed by the mainstream wine media is bogus" or better yet, "oak should not go into Chardonnay." That last one's got the added advantage of being true.

  • The mere mention of the following three years and regions at a wine tasting is like shouting, "Hey, look, it's Bono!" They are: 1982 Bordeaux, 1996 Champagne and 1970 Northern California. Once you've stopped everyone in their tracks, use the opening as a springboard into subject matter you're more familiar with. As in, "Oh, yeah, that '70 Mayacamas is a real killer. Did you know that Black Sabbath released their debut album on Friday the 13th that same year?"

  • Be careful here, this skirts close to wine snobbery, but it can be very helpful to have just one arena of serious knowledge you can use to brush back a know-it-all when he tries to hijack the conversation and mess with your game. For me, it's corks. I know all about the chemical compound known as 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA for short), the naturally occurring fungi that makes good wines go bad. And I'm well versed in the relative merits of cork alternatives—screwcaps, agglomerates, vino-seal, etc. Carefully deployed, this knowledge can make you look like a badass without moving you into blowhard territory. The key is to drop some obscure nuggets of wisdom—say, high-tech, cork-based closures made up of cork granules that have undergone CO2 saturation—that the snob then has to ask you to explain. Be brief about it and it's instant panty-remover.

  • Nothing gets the snob-stink off you faster than being contrary about the expensive stuff. If you know a few excellent bottles in the $10-20 range, it lets you drop statements like "I'd put a $17 Hahn Estates Central Coast Meritage up against a $75 Stag's Leap any day of the week." When they tutt and fuss, just say "no really, with the money I save I can afford bleacher tickets for the Cubs. I like to smuggle in a Peachy Canyon Zinfandel for the seventh inning stretch." Good candidates for this include Shoofly "Buzz Cut" Tiziano Chianti and Daniel Gehrs "Unoaked" Chardonnay. That last one's got the added advantage of being consistent with your aphorisms.

  • It's a wine tasting, not a construction site.

    With those weapons in your arsenal, you should be able to emerge from any wine tasting unscarred by the worst the world's snobs can dish out. Just remember, enjoying beats knowing every time.