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03.09.2007

How to Taste 200 Wines and Not Die Trying

Regular readers know that I frequently attend large public tastings at which I regularly taste and evaluate between 100 and 250 wines in the course of a few hours. I've been doing that for a couple of years now, and it's pretty much old hat for me -- I don't think much about it. But recently I've gotten quite a few questions about how it is that I manage to do it, and whether I have any advice for those contemplating attendance at large tasting events.

So, as I promised to several of these individuals who asked, here are my secrets to surviving mass tastings.


TRAINING
Mass tastings are an endurance sport. I'm not joking in the slightest when I say that. I'm not about to suggest that wine tasting become a sport (though some Brits are trying hard to make it one), but tasting wine in large quantities for extended periods of time is really exhausting. Many people have heard the term palate fatigue, but most people forget that tasting involves more of your body than just your mouth. When I go to these tastings I'm on my feet for three to five hours without a break. I'm carrying a notebook, a clipboard, and a wineglass, and usually have a bag slung over my shoulder with a camera in it. At the end of tastings lots of things hurt: my feet, my back, my teeth, and sometimes my head.

Like any physically exhausting activity, mass tasting gets easier with practice. You can get in shape for it just like anything else, and that goes for your palate and your feet. Wine lovers that are interested in getting to the point of being able to taste several hundred wines at a stretch need to work up to it, just as marathon runners work up to their 26 miles. So go to as many tastings as you can, as often as you can and taste as many wines as you can.

Over time, you will find yourself hitting that wall where you simply can't taste anymore later and later into the tasting. You will gradually build up endurance, flexibility, and strength. Now if someone could just show me how to flex my palate, I think I could impress a lot of people.

The other thing that requires practice, of course, is spitting, which is mandatory. I'll admit right out that I'm not a great spitter myself, but I have definitely improved over time, and the best practice I get is actually in the shower. Try spitting so that you get a tight stream of water that jets away (or even slightly up) from your mouth. I've found that protruding my lower lip ever so slightly helps make for a better result, but everyone needs to find their own technique.


PREPARATION
I do several things to prepare for a big tasting. Perhaps the most important is to get a really, really good night's sleep the evening before. I tend to need eight hours of sleep to feel fully rested, and the nights before a big tasting I try to get nine. I'm convinced that this aids my sensitivity and my taste memory the next day.

The day of the tasting, I try to eat well, and only mild, innocuous foods, avoiding strong flavors, spicy foods, and things like garlic and onions. I also try to eat full and regular meals, ideally having a meal about an hour before the tasting so that I've got food in my stomach as I taste. When attending tastings at Fort Mason in San Francisco, I always try to leave time to stop and get a turkey sandwich at Viking Subs. I usually sit in the park and eat it an hour or so before the tasting, which also helps me get a parking spot and arrive at the tasting early and calm, not rushed and frantic.

I try to be at tastings right when they open, as it gets harder to taste at the pace you want to the more people there are in attendance.


TASTING 200 WINES
So here's how I taste. First I figure out how I am going to move through the tasting. Am I going to go straight through and hit every station, or am I going to be selective? Are there wines that I know will run out -- if so, I tend to http://www.vinography.com/archives/images/tasting_gear-thumb.jpghit those first.

If the booklet provided for the tasting is well organized, has spaces for tasting notes, and corresponds to the physical layout of the tasting, then I tend to use the booklet provided. If not, that goes in my bag and I use my own notebook. I have my notebook clipped to a plastic tray, which serves as a clipboard and a plate, and has a notch that can hold my wineglass while I take notes. I also have a bottle of water with me in my bag.

I move through the wine stations quickly but not at a breakneck speed. There's a fine line between the two. I tend to taste most every wine poured at the table, and I do so in a pretty standard fashion: swirl, sniff, sip, aspirate the wine and exhale through my nose to get more aroma, swish it in my mouth, and then spit into the bucket provided (I don't carry a spit cup with me as it is too much to juggle with the notebook and the wine glass).

When I am tasting at big events, as you may know, I don't write tasting notes, mostly because after about 30 of them it becomes really difficult to avoid repeating yourself, and also because while I trust my palate to evaluate the relative quality of a couple hundred different wines in a comparative fashion, I wouldn't trust my palate to pick up every subtlety I would want to craft a proper tasting note for the wine. Not to mention the fact that writing tasting notes takes a lot of time.

If there are a relatively smaller number of wines for tasting (say, less than 100) I'll usually taste whites first, and then reds. However at larger tastings, this is simply impractical, and I've also come to feel that the variation between the wines actually helps keep my palate fresher than if I taste 60 Chardonnays and then 80 Cabernets.

I drink a good bit of water at these events. Usually several gulps every twenty or so wines. I also try to have a bit of bread or cracker at about the same interval. If cheeses are provided at the tasting I find cheddar really tends to clear and neutralize my palate, so I'll chow a few cheddar cubes every twenty or so wines. Jack cheese is a good second choice for me, but I tend to stay away from the goat cheeses (as much as I like them) and the stinkier sorts.

Finally, the other thing that helps me taste so many wines successfully is that I generally don't really talk to people. For many, these wine tastings are as much social as they are about tasting. But with the goal of tasting a lot of wine, there's just no time to stop and chat. Those who have seen me at these tastings know that I'm not much fun to hang out with. Having said that, I do find that pausing for a little while after every hour or so to have a conversation can be refreshing of both the mind and the palate. Talking moves air across the palate and moves different parts of your brain, and I guess it feels like the equivalent of taking a short break to focus your eyes away from the computer monitor every once in a while.

Other little tidbits of advice for these public tastings that I've learned over the years:

  • Don't pick up brochures, tasting sheets, etc. Save the trees and get the info online if you want it. Besides, they will get pretty heavy after four hours on your feet.
  • Wear dark clothes. If you don't splash yourself, someone else will. I generally get both in the course of these things.
  • Carry some napkins in your back pocket to wipe off your glass and hands which will inevitably become stained.
  • If you care about such things, you might want to bring a toothbrush or those strips to clean your teeth after the tasting, as they will be quite stained.
  • Don't be shy. I see people waiting around for minutes while winemakers are talking to other people at the table. Most people are capable of pouring wine and talking at the same time. Stick out your glass and get it filled.
  • Don't hog the table, get your wine, spit and move away. If there are spit buckets elsewhere, you can get your wine and walk away from the table to spit.
  • Be courteous to the folks pouring the wine, and especially to the people who are collecting the full spit buckets. They both have hard jobs. Thank them.


    IF YOU SURVIVE
    I tend to try and get something to eat again, and usually the only wine that I'll want to drink for several hours is Champagne, which is a great palate refresher, as is some fresh air.

    Of course, napping is always good too.

    Comments (24)

    el jefe wrote:
    03.09.07 at 11:22 PM

    Excellent suggestions! I actually have a few things to add...

    - If there are water cups, carry them so that you can easily and discretely spit. Empty them often.

    - Carry a small bottle of Wine-Away. You may not need it yourself, but you might save someone else, and there is a 50-50 chance it will turn into a mini wet T-shirt contest, which is always a plus.

    - Start at "Z". Most everyone will start at "A", by starting at "Z" you fight a smaller crowd.

    - Every time you pass near the rest room, use it. Then use it to wash your glass (and hands). I've noticed after an hour of a serious tasting pace that no amount of casual rinsing will clear out that swill that accumulates.

    - If the idea of tasting EVERYTHING is too much, consider focusing on a specific mission. For example, the first time I tasted at Rhone Rangers I decided to just taste Viognier. This was great because I really got to know the varietal and the different styles in the room without killing myself.

    - Resist the urge to drink many margaritas after the tasting. A margarita has much the same effect after a tasting as champagne, but with bigger side effects. Unfortunately I am apparently unable to follow this advice, but perhaps my example will help save future generations....

    I'll be effecting these strategies and others at the Rhone Rangers tasting on March 18. Alder, hope to see you there!

    03.10.07 at 6:49 AM

    The social aspect is always what gets me, but then I'm usually keeping an ear out for a story, so my motives are different.

    Melissa and I opt for the opposite strategy when it's a few producers and lots of wine (like at a Terry tasting): We want to spend extra time chatting with the producers about their bottles, and then we move to the bottles sitting on their own.

    Dr. Debs wrote:
    03.10.07 at 7:36 AM

    Great post! When I was attempting to become a Cal. State Fair wine judge I was brought to an utter standstill by all zinfandel tastings. They were enough to knock my palate sideways, no matter what I did. I actually prefer the more varied mega tastings because they give your palate a rest. And the most important things, as you note here, are sleep and the right breakfast. Mine was always 2 softboiled eggs and multi-grain toast with some butter and tea (not coffee, which for me utterly screwed up my tastebuds for the morning). God, it really IS like training for an athletic event!

    03.10.07 at 9:53 AM

    Nice job, as usual, Alder. Couple of things from the perspective of the producer: They started offering spit cups at Rhone rangers a few years back, and it struck me as one of those great ideas that should have been obvious long before they started doing it, but I didn't think of it either. I know you said you don't carry one because you already are toting too much other stuff, but from the standpoint of minimizing the enormous congestion around a busy table, it's almost mandatory.
    Second point relates to Derricks' comment; as nice an idea as it might be to be able to chat with the winemaker, when my table is getting slammed, talking to anyone can get pretty stressful. I'd caution people to be a little sensitive to how busy it might be, and to be willing to save their questions until there's a more quiet moment.

    03.10.07 at 1:46 PM

    Steve,

    The crowded wine maker is an excellent point. I try and wait until there's a lull before descending on a table. Of course, as the day progresses those lulls become more and more rare.

    Michelle wrote:
    03.10.07 at 5:18 PM

    Alder:
    Thank you so much for answering my question in your usual thorough manner. You've given me some great tips and ideas. I think I'll definitely have a backpack with me (or my husband will be wearing it) instead of coping with a purse. I can put water, possibly crackers (I tend to find our mega-tasting rather wanting in any sort of food) and some Dixie cup spit cups.
    Thanks again, and happy tasting!

    03.11.07 at 8:44 AM

    Great post, Alder! Just one thing to add to your post and the other responses: try to do some Internet research first. I did this with the Bordeaux 2004 tasting here in NY, and it was fun to compare my notes to the writers I found on the web. This research is also good if you are writing about some of the winemakers, as I do.

    03.12.07 at 12:31 AM

    Dear Alder, from my point of view, the problem is not how not to die trying to taste 200 wines; the problem, my problem (!), is how to face my limitated physical skills. I mean that even sleeping as good as you describe, eating as responsible as you eat before a great taste, I suffer a massive sense blockage after the tasting of 20 great wines one after the other. My last experience: the German riesling's distributor from Span, Michael Wöhrle, organized a taste in Giroma with some 20 wineries, and more than 200 rieslings, gewurzträminers... with GG, Kabinett, ausleses, spätleses, Eisweins GK... an incredible amount of great wines with a lot of sugar. Even only tasting (never drinking!), after the first 50 wines I feel not more able to describe with acuracy and sensibility a wine. I have only experienced that with great red wines (Bordeaux, Barolos, Priorats...), my number of tasted bottles in good sensitive conditions is around 15 bootles.
    So I have to confess that I deeply admire people like you or some Spanish colleagues, who can face a taste of 200 wines and speak about that!
    Cheers,
    Joan

    03.12.07 at 12:38 AM

    Alder, wrote a short post and linked to your post on extreme preparation methods. At some point, can you show us a picture of your notebook and wine device? Or tell us how to construct one?

    Nicole wrote:
    03.12.07 at 6:49 AM

    Great advice, Alder, thanks for sharing your strategy. I have to agree that endurance is the key to survival. Train, train, train! It takes time and patience but it works. Also, I usually feel somewhat guilty about being anti-social so it's nice to hear that I'm not the only one on a mission!

    Alder wrote:
    03.12.07 at 11:01 AM

    OK Marisa, I've added a photo of my tray, my notebook (with notes and wine stains from a recent large tasting) and my pen.

    Alder wrote:
    03.12.07 at 11:04 AM

    Joan,

    Thanks for the comments. I certainly felt the same way when I first began trying to taste a lot of wines. But eventually I got better after making the attempt over and over again. At first it was about 20 wines, then 40, then 100, then 200.

    Rieslings are particularly difficult -- my teeth start to hurt after a while from the sugar and the acids.

    03.12.07 at 2:52 PM

    Yes, Alder, I agree with you that a massive taste of rieslings is extremely difficult both for the mind and for the body!!! I'll try to do my best in my next large tasting sessions, preparing myself carefully. In any case, thanks a lot for your "recipes"!
    Cheers,
    Joan

    Barrld wrote:
    03.12.07 at 4:20 PM

    Great blog Alder. One question, if you're blowing through these wines w/o spending the time you usually do for a full review what are you actually writing down in you notebook? Do you then pick 10 or so for more detailed future tastings?

    Alder wrote:
    03.12.07 at 4:27 PM

    Barrld,

    I'm writing scores and any major distinguishing notes that I want to record (e.g. oak bomb, too tannic, green, etc.) But primarily I'm just scoring wines on my 10 point scale.

    03.13.07 at 1:02 AM

    Thanks so much for the picture! As they say, a picture is worth a 1000 words -- really enjoying this super-useful post as well!

    Chris wrote:
    03.13.07 at 5:22 PM

    Thanks for the advice, Alder! Any recommendations for wines to hit at Rhone Rangers this weekend?

    Alder wrote:
    03.13.07 at 9:26 PM
    Jerry D. Murray wrote:
    03.14.07 at 7:25 PM

    As a wine professional I have to say I am appalled at the notion that someone would taste 200 wines and actually make judgements such as scores about them. I know many winemakers who taste a hundred or so wines in an hour or two for the purposes of detecting flaws ( usually glaringly obvious ). Assembling blends is another matter all together, it requires reflection and retasting. To assign a score to wine that was one of a hundred, or more, is unfair. If you cant get into the nuances of a wine you haven't really tasted it and should not be making any specific value judgements. Additionally your making these judgements without tasting blind and also claim to taste the things that will 'run out first'. I will assume these are the big name brands. Perhaps that is why they always score well they are tasted first, the 'lesser' wines may be judged as such not because of the nature of the wines but because of thier disadvantage of being unknown, plentiful and tasted last. Lets be honest, knowones pallet is as fresh on the 100th taste as it is on the 1st.

    Alder wrote:
    03.14.07 at 8:02 PM

    Jerry,

    That's fine. There are many people who feel like each wine needs to be avaluated on its own merits, slowly, with contemplation, over time, with food, and without comparison to others.

    But you do realize that every major wine competition, every major critic, every major wine magazine, and every retail and restaurant wine buyer in the world makes judgements based on situations in which there are a LARGE number of wines being tasted in rapid succession, right? Most "wine professionals" live in that world every day. Don't you really mean that as a winemaker you are appalled? That seems to make more sense. No one wants their individual wine(s), which has been slaved over, cajoled, caressed, and cared for to be evaluated in 20 seconds along with 80 others. But that's the way that the wine world works, at least some of the time. Luckily, there are an awful lot of critical judgements about wine made in a much more considered fashion, which I think we can all agree is best for everyone.

    As far as tasting things that will run out first and the "bias of the palate" don't you think that if your assumption is that the palate is at its BEST on the first taste, that the taster will be MORE critical of the first wines he tastes than of the last? This is certainly my experience. Also, most of the wines that run out at these tastings are, in fact, the much smaller producers, rather than the big name brands. Saintsbury never runs out of wine. Kosta Browne does.

    Of course no one's palate is as fresh on the 100th taste as it is the first. But as someone who tastes a large number of wines at big tasting events, my palate doesn't have to evaluate wines absolutely, it has to evaluate them relatively. Is this wine worse or better than the one 8 tastes ago? In this manner I can make (what I believe are) relatively consistent judgements about the quality of the wine with a palate that certainly has some level of fatigue.

    Jerry D. Murray wrote:
    03.15.07 at 12:43 PM

    In response to Alder's comments; yes I do understand that the wine world works this way. I would go so far as to suggest that it is the mass tasting that has resulted in the predominance of wine critics favoring bigger, riper, richer wines. The attributes that these wine most posses are blunt and occur early in the wines profile. This gives them an advantage over wines bases on finesse and grace when tasted in a mass tasting.

    I appologize for the confusion; big names, not big brands. I should of described them as 'hot' or 'cult'. And yes, one is likely to be more critical of a wine tasted early, becasue one can be! If Koste Brown is tasted first one might pick up the grace and finesse that these wines may posses. Taste that wine 75th and I doubt these subtleties would be as apparent. What about the unknown and emerging label that gets tasted 82nd? Are ALL of the merits of that wine being judged with the same accuracy and prescion of the Koste Brown ( sorry guys I am not picking your label )?

    Tasters don't judge wine absolutely but reletively? By assigning a score you have made an absolute judement. If scores are to reflect relative judgement then one would have to list the conditions of the tasting such as other wines tasted, number of wines tasted, glasses, conditions of tasting room, what you had for lunch etc. I have yet to see a single critic frame a score with information that would make it relative. This is my fundamental problem with scoring in general and scoring during mass tastings specifically; of course the wines are PERCIEVED relatively but are JUDGED absolutely.

    I appreciate your tranparency in how you taste and evaluate. I simply think that rating wines in these sort of envionments have problems worth mentioning and should be considered when giving weight to a reviewers comments and scores.

    Alder wrote:
    03.15.07 at 8:33 PM

    Jerry,

    Thanks for the considered response. A lot of people talk about comparative wine tastings where only the big bruisers of wines win out. I understand that is where people's intuition points them, but I have to say that my own experience tasting doesn't bear that out. I will readily admit that perhaps some of the 120th wine's subtleties may escape my palate at the point that I taste it, but not ALL of them, and certainly not enough to make me think the wine tastes crappy compared to the 16.2% wine that I had 2 tastes before.

    Yes scores seem like absolute judgements in many respects. But the "relative perception" you correctly describe form the basis for those scores, and those perceptions are "relative" not just to the other wines at the tasting, but also to every wine of the same type the reviewer has ever had. The context is far more than the conditions of the tasting, and the glasses used and that day's lunch.

    kevin wrote:
    03.16.07 at 5:42 AM

    Alder - where can I buy one of those tray thingys? They're great! I live in the UK but perhaps could buy one over the internet?

    Thanks

    Alder wrote:
    03.16.07 at 9:15 AM

    Kevin,

    Unfortunately, I have no idea. I got one at some event I went to and though it was so great that I just kept it. I've been asked about it a million times, but unfortunately I have nowhere to point people when they want one. I should start manufacturing them myself, I'd make a mint.

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