My first wine tasting was so revolting, it nearly put me off wine for life.
I’d joined a company called Cellarmaster Wines, where my job was to write brochures filled with wine notes – which meant wine tastings, something I’d never done before. On my very first day, I’d only just managed to turn on the computer when a woman swept in.
“New vintage tasting!” she announced.
I followed my co-workers into a small, windowless room with a long table covered in glasses and bottles. It was our job, apparently, to taste all the wines just added to the inventory. A job with mandatory drinking! I couldn’t believe my luck.
I picked up my first glass and tried it. Then another. And then another. I didn’t use the spit bucket, because I was mortified by the thought of spitting in public. By midday, I was listing off my stool, like a ship foundering on the rocks. By three o’clock, I was sick. It was horrible.
The others, professionals all, were unaffected—and unimpressed with their new colleague.
Spitting is critical to wine tasting, yet it’s something we don’t teach consumers. It’s also disgusting. How do we reconcile these things in the age of coronavirus?
Why spitting is important
A couple of weeks ago, I helped pour wines at a consumer event in North America. I enjoyed discovering what people liked to drink and introducing them to new experiences.
Yet despite the big spit buckets, nobody spat. Instead, people swallowed whatever was left in their glass, before moving on to the next wine. Sometimes, they slammed back pours that looked to be 40ml or 50ml. Although I only saw one person visibly affected by alcohol, the amount being consumed wasn’t healthy – and it also meant people tried fewer wines, as they realised they’d drunk too much.
Then I poured for three young women who were highly engaged and wanted to learn more. I suggested they learn to spit, and even demonstrated. But not only did none of them try it, they also seemed particularly uncomfortable with the idea of pouring out wine.
I guess it wasn’t surprising. Children are taught to finish whatever they’ve been served and are generally punished for spitting. Asking people to spit and dump wine is to try and overturn two deeply ingrained behaviours.
But nobody benefits from drinking all the samples. It’s unhealthy and limits the amount anyone can try. And, for some, there’s the risk of being sick on the bus.
Considering the health lobby crackdown on alcohol, this is one area where the wine trade can show it’s operating in good faith. Spitting needs to become as much a part of the consumer tasting ritual as it is for professionals, starting with demonstrations to make people aware spitting is expected behaviour. Public tastings and cellar doors should have posters pointing out the spittoons and showing how to use them. People should also know they don’t have to drink the whole sample.
Yet I can’t count the number of wineries I’ve been into where spittoons are nowhere to be seen, or only available at a counter besieged by visitors. I’ve even seen the occasional staff member frown as wine was poured away.
It would also help if spittoons were freestanding, rather than small buckets that are hard to get to. Obviously, they need to be emptied regularly – splashback is vile, especially if it hits you in the eye.
The health risks
The risk of transmitting an infection to someone else through saliva is actually relatively low, according to Michael Benninger MD of the Cleveland Clinic. Yet few people want to try their luck, especially as diseases that can be spread through spit include colds and flus. The wine trade can hardly ask people to risk contact with spit or airborne droplets, particularly in the middle of an epidemic.
The solution is probably freestanding spittoons, plastic-lined bins or individual cups, rather than small spittoons that you have to reach over other people to spit into. The people who empty them should be protected too, with rubber gloves and hand sanitizer.
There are already signs that things are changing. The upcoming Weinsalon Naturel in Cologne will give visitors their own cup and get everyone to mark their glasses with masking tape and pen.
These are the kinds of precautions that should be adopted by the entire wine trade – not least because it will reassure the public that it’s safe for them to spit.
It sounds like a small thing, but it’s not. Learning to spit is the difference between someone getting drunk and deciding wine tastings are not for them, and someone tasting through a room to find something that delights them.
It worked for me. Twenty years after that first, horrendous experience, I’m still here. But only because I learned to spit and dump the wine.