I’m currently in the final preparation stages for a wine course and subsequent certification exam that, if I pass, will render me a WSET Level 3 sommelier and thus eminently qualified to impress your parents. To this end I’ve assembled a weekly study group over the last few months, and it’s about as nerdy as you’d expect from a bunch of people whose idea of a good time is hanging out in the back of a wine store scrutinizing wine labels and looking up unknown regions on maps.
We have a review session this week, and I invited a few non-wine-geek friends to come by, promising it would be an especially fun and low-key evening with no particular wine theme. They asked me a variation of a question I’ve gotten more than perhaps any other in my seven years of wine obsession.
“Can you teach us a few wine terms so we sound like we know what we’re talking about?”
A wine tasting can be an intimidating, confusing affair for newbies; I imagine it elicits the same emotions I feel when invited to a programmer’s hack-a-thon. People generally seem to know that you’re supposed to swirl and smell the wine, but they don’t know what you’re looking for, and as for what to say about it––that’s where the whole enterprise seems to get really scary.
I encourage everyone to learn more about wine, and I’ve tried to make a few wine concepts more accessible through my wine series on this site, but I don’t expect others to become as geeky about it as I am. If you have no interest in furthering your wine knowledge because you’re one of those people, like at least one character in every sitcom ever, who would rather construct an elaborate ruse than admit to not knowing something, it turns out there are a few really good strategies for faking your way through a blind tasting.
1. Repeat the last word said about a wine, then add one more adjective to it.
This one comes courtesy of a sommelier friend: When the person next to you says, “Mmm. Very robust,” you say, “Yes. Robust and dark.” Or, nodding, “Robust and bold.” It really doesn’t matter what the second word is. You’re agreeing with someone, and it will make them feel like they know what the hell they’re talking about, which is all anyone wants from these things. See if you can get this going around the room for a sort of oenology-talk stadium wave/human centipede.
2. Make lots of noise.
Slurping, chewing, and spitting your wine isn’t just a great way to aerate it and coat your taste buds; it serves the magical dual purpose of intimidating people with your obvious commitment to the sensory experience and indicating that you’re clearly busy and can’t talk right now. It’s also kind of gross.
3. Learn one long wine term and how to pronounce it.
When I interviewed for my first wine sales job I had a passion for wine but enormous gaps in my knowledge, and I was doing a great job of hiding them until my soon-to-be-boss asked me to name some of my favorite wines of Spain. While I could have named fifty South African wineries or obscure Long Island bottlings, I had almost no knowledge of the region that supplied this store with more product than any other in the world. I had a single word in my head associated with Spanish wine, and though I knew neither what it meant nor its role in the wine industry, I went ahead and dropped it with confidence.
“Bierzo,” I said with a knowing eyebrow raise, as if I’d just written a diary entry on the subject. “I love the wines of Bierzo.”
My interviewer sat back in his chair and, for a fleeting moment, I feared I’d betrayed myself.
“Wow, you are a wine geek!” he exclaimed approvingly, and launched into a several-minute treatise on his thoughts about the place of Bierzo in the international wine market while I sighed in relief. It would become one of the best jobs I’ve ever had.
With that anecdote to lift your spirits, just practice a sentence like, “It reminds me of a Trockenbeerenauslese” or “Is there Auxerrois in this?” and no one will give you a hard time.
4. Exhibit dislike.
Liking things is for amateurs. If you grimace in disgust and spit the wine into a spittoon as if it’s sour milk, people will assume you are used to such a high quality of libation that you simply can’t stomach their inferior sludge. You may be kicked out of the winery, but your status as a connoisseur should be preserved.
5. Take note.
Bring a moleskine notebook to your tastings and scribble excitedly in it while taking sips, exuding to everyone around you that you are far too busy and deep in thought to be bothered with them. The lyrics to “Alice’s Restaurant” work if you need volume. If anyone asks you what you’re writing, just stare deep into their soul and murmur somberly, as Dom Perignon supposedly did, “I am tasting the stars.”
For those of you who want to learn a little something about wine and don’t mind admitting noob status, I’ll let you in on a wine geek secret: we love layperson perspectives on wine. We sit around together and talk about proprietors and portfolios and acidity and sometimes we feel removed from the actual enjoyment of a delicious glass of wine, to say nothing of the social value of sharing a bottle with friends. It’s downright refreshing to be around people who can just say, “This is good!” or “I don’t love this,” because it gives us clues to the average wine consumer’s interests and it’s delightfully direct.
Best of all, non-wine-geeks ask the best questions and have the best tasting notes. I love it when I bring friends to wine tastings who pick out subtle flavor notes in a wine before I do––because we all come at tasting with completely different expectations and experiences. And it’s only around non-wine-geeks that I get questions like “How would you compare this wine to other white wines?”––questions that are totally awesome because they challenge me to put my wine assumptions in context.