How Not To Do A Walkaround Wine Tasting

Walkaround I remember being very, very new to the wine industry. Fresh with a graduate degree and recently hired at a wine PR firm in Santa Rosa called Gracelyn Associates, I knew just enough about wine to get myself in trouble. And of course I did just that.

One of the best places for the wine neophyte to get in trouble is at a large walkaround tasting. That's where I chose to embarrass myself; at my first, large, walk-around wine tasting. I blame my boss and more experienced colleagues. They should have warned me.

I recall walking into the cavernous ballroom and being shocked. All I saw were suits, countless tables manned by more suits, the flash of glasses and wine. Lots and lots of wine. The only thing I knew was that my badge allowed me access to all of it.

This sunday I'll be attending what, by all past accounts, is an outstanding walk-around tasting. It's the Grand Tasting of Pinot On The River at Rodney Strong in Healdsburg. More than 100 Artisan Pinot Noir producers will be pouring multiple bottles of their best. Here's the things I won't do at the Grand Tasting of Pinot on the River because I have the capacity to learn from my mistakes:

1. Swallow
2. Wear white of any kind
3. Carry anything in my hand but a glass
4. Attempt to sound smarter than I am.

So picture this: A drunk wine neophyte wearing a wine stained white shirt and no jacket, holding a glass in one hand and fumbling a bevy of brochures and dropping them on occasion while I explain to Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards why his Lytton Springs bottling would have been better if it had a higher percentage of Petite Sirah in the blend. What made this impromptu lecture at one of America's greatest wine producers a piece of art was the slurring.

The walk-around tasting gets a bad wrap by many wine professionals primarily because it often means crowded rooms, not enough time to talk to the producers pouring the wines and because it's difficult to really assess individual wines when sampling so many in a milieu not best suited for serious evaluation. There's something to be said for this criticism. But the criticism really only applies if you are looking to use a walk-around tasting to seriously evaluate wines.

Don't do that.

Use the walk-around tasting to do three things:

1. Acquaint yourself with wines with which you are not familiar.
2. Network
3. Learn from the folks behind the tables pouring

This is what I'll be doing on Sunday at Pinot on the River's Grand Tasting. This must be one of the most impressive gatherings of serious, truly artisan Pinot producers anywhere. The line up of wineries is ridiculously attractive. There are more than 100 of them including AP Vin, Ahh, Failla, Halleck, Hirsch, Kanzler, Keefer Ranch, Morgan, Peay, Roar, Sea Smoke, Testarossa and The Donum Estate, to name only a few.

Returning to the scene of my first real wine crime, I was finally led away from Paul Draper by a colleague while in mid-lecture. Based on future meetings with Mr. Draper, he appeared not to recall the incident. I was guided into the foyer of the ballroom, sat down on a bench and lectured by my more experienced, unstained colleague. Nicely. It wasn't a fall down drunk or anything. But just enough to teach me the benefits of spitting and keeping my mouth shut most of the time. 

Pinot on the River will be my first walk-around tasting in a while. It's conveniently located in my home county, produced and sponsored by The Pinot Report and has the endorsement of one of the legendary Walk-around Tasters in our business, Alder Yarrow: "Pinot on the River…is one of the best wine tastings I've ever attended."

If you are looking for me, I'll be the guy in black.

20 Responses

  1. Thomas Pellechia - October 22, 2009

    You forgot one thing, Tom, and it should be at the top of anyone’s list.
    After receiving your taste, get out of everyone else’s way so that they can get a taste, too!

  2. Arthur - October 22, 2009

    My friend, you need a “Stainproof wine tasting shirt”

  3. Gretchen Neuman - October 22, 2009

    I at least need a notepad and pen…. How am I supposed to blog about it later?

  4. Greg Brumley - October 22, 2009

    Alan Alda once advised, “Laugh at yourself but don’t ever aim your doubt at yourself.” One of the most-attractive characteristics of Fermentation is that you always have a sense of humor about yourself, and always exude confidence.
    Nice piece, Tom.

  5. Steve Heimoff - October 22, 2009

    I’ve seen more than one well-known wine writer stumbling around at these tastings and slurring his words. Once, I took one of them aside and gave a private warning that he was embarrassing himself. I agree that these huge tastings are NOT the place to take notes or attempt seriously to evaluate the wines. They’re good for exactly what you said, Tom. Still, I don’t go to many of them anymore. Never been to Pinot on the River, although by all accounts it’s one of the classier acts.

  6. Benito - October 22, 2009

    I’ll never forget my favorite walkaround wine tasting: a celebration of Tennessee wines at a NASCAR track near Nashville. It was the first time I saw wine glasses hanging around people’s necks by a strap. The winemakers were pouring full glasses, there was nowhere to spit or pour, and when I stepped out to the racetrack the bleachers were littered with unconscious bodies. Good times, good times…

  7. tom merle - October 22, 2009

    Another mode of attack: look for the QPR giant killers. I don’t know whether Greg’s program lists prices, but I think Family Winemakers does. At last year’s Pinot on the River event I was struck by the quality, of course, but also by the uniformally high cost of paying for that quality. Except for some special few which I duly noted.

  8. Thomas Pellechia - October 22, 2009

    I once saw a “professional” fall down the up escalator after a tasting. Not a petty sight.

  9. Thomas Pellechia - October 22, 2009

    oops..not a pretty sight either.

  10. The Wine Mule - October 22, 2009

    I remember a Gambero Rosso tasting at the Puck Building in New York, must have been January 2004…there were 160 wines, and I felt lucky to make it through about half. My boss, Tom Schmeisser, tasted everything. To this day, I don’t know how he did it.
    I wish I had some adventure to report, other than having to stay overnight at some horrible motel in Queens because our flight back to Boston was snowed out, but the boring truth is, I didn’t spill anything, didn’t fall down, didn’t have any colorful experiences, other than raising my voice and speaking various expletives (all in a positive way) during my encounter with the Sanct Valentin Sauvignon Blanc, which was unbelievably powerful, especially after having tasted umpty-dozen brooding Brunellos…

  11. Ms. Drinkwell - October 23, 2009

    LOL. Thanks for the laugh!
    I’ve witnessed Mr. Draper listening patiently to the ramblings of many a tipsy taster, so rest assured you were not the first and neither will you be the last. He does have a really excellent memory for names and faces though…just an FYI in case you ever run into him again!

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  13. 1WineDude - October 23, 2009

    My advice:
    Oh, yeah – and don’t forget to Spit.

  14. - October 23, 2009

    Nicely written, Tom!
    I am one of those who have mixed feelings about these sorts of tastings, as I wrote on my blog about the Wine&Spirits 100 last week. Tough to give wine any serious (and fair) attention, but very enjoyable nonetheless, especially if they serve good food, and have a trade section where crowds are thinner. For now, I’ve decided it’s better to miss some than rush through most. So sadly I often miss out on real gems. Putting out tasting notes for 100+ wines (like Alder Yarrow and Richard Jennings do) is unthinkable for me. Another approach I follow is — more often than not I look to disqualify real dogs, because anything decent could be really good in a better context – so always beware flashier wines stealing the show, but quieter ones being better in the right context or be a better / more versatile long-term food companion. And one more thing – very good point about not carrying anything but the glass. I found my hands always full: camera, notepad, spitting cup, wine list, you name it! It’s an ordeal that takes away from the experience. I have managed to reduce the baggage to just the glass in my hand, and the rest in my bag behind my back: the wine list, the notepad where I take notes for memorable wines, and the camera. If they don’t have a spittoon, I am spitting on the floor, god dammit!

  15. KF Louis - October 23, 2009

    Thanks Tom. I’ m at the NYC Wine Experience tonight. Black. Spit. Shutup.

  16. Greg Roberts - October 23, 2009

    Great post! – Even spitting, I figure I have about a tolerance of twenty wines to taste at these events. I try to focus on one region of grape variety rather than run the gamut. My survival kit includes a briefcase with shoulder strap for a camera, notebook and most importantly sparkling water.
    Even after spitting, the alcohol somehow gets absorbed and I’m usually incoherent by the end of the day. oh the perils..

  17. Gina - October 23, 2009

    This new blogger thanks you for the advice! See you there.

  18. Dylan - October 24, 2009

    Thomas your escalator comment sounds awful. I consider falling up steps to be much worse than falling down them. Not that it’s something I’ve experienced often, but even once is enough to know.

  19. Jake Skakun - October 26, 2009

    Great points Tom, it’s nice to see them all written out. Even though there are plenty of trade professionals that could use this info, the worst are the public tastings… people trying to drink their price of admission worth without caring about the wine. I’ve see people sprawled out on the floor of fancy dining rooms and all kinds of debauchery.
    And yes, MOVE AWAY FROM THE SPIT BUCKET. I CAN’T tell you that when I have wine in my mouth…

  20. Mike - October 29, 2009

    Excellent checklist. Add to that the following: No matter how specific the event is – Pinot only – or how few wines are being poured, there will usually be more than anyone can drink. Spitting helps but there is a point where even the best palates lose discentable focus. I draw my line at 40…

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