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A Wine-Tasting Shouldn’t Intimidate You (But it Probably Does)

A Few Pointers to Make Your First Wine-Tasting Enjoyable

One of the reasons I love wine over all other drinks is this: opening a bottle is a shared act. It is best appreciated when someone else is having the same wine as you. You are meant to drink and enjoy it with family and friends.

And yet, when it comes to tasting wine in front of other people, “wine anxiety” — a self-explanatory term coined by Eric Asimov, The New York Times Wine Critic — often interferes with people’s enjoyment. There is a feeling of awkwardness … of not knowing what to do, what to think, or how to respond.

It is a phenomenon that is most on display in two circumstances: (a) when a bottle of wine is delivered to your table at a restaurant and (b) when you are attending a wine-tasting.

The first circumstance is familiar to everyone, and rife with embarrassment. It doesn’t help that the waiter/sommelier is standing over you, that your friends are politely refraining from conversation while you take a taste, awaiting your judgment. And what if you don’t like the wine at first taste? I mean, are you really going to send it back — in front of everyone?


But the second circumstance — a wine tasting — is the one I want to focus on. In the last three years, my friends and family have all watched with amusement as I have taken off like a rocket headed for Planet Wine. And I would love nothing more than to pass along some of my enthusiasm for wine to these people. It would make sharing a bottle that much more fun.

But therein lies the problem: when it comes to the subject of wine, any imbalance in enthusiasm among friends usually results in an imbalance of comfort. It is commonly believed that with wine, more enthusiasm equals more expertise. And so I frequently hear:

  • “I don’t know much about wine because I never taste any of the things they say I should be tasting.”
  • “I defer to you … you are the expert.”
  • “You order. You know what you are doing.”
  • And even once I heard “you probably know what I like more than I do.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. Your nose and your palate are the only voices you should trust. Everything else is either background and context (at best) or misguided clutter (at worst).

So, the next time you attend a wine-tasting party, or visit a tasting room, here are some things to consider that might make it less intimidating.

Know Why You Are Tasting Wine in the First Place

Wine tasting in Barbaresco. ©Kevin Day

What your senses tell you is never wrong. Its just personal. ©Kevin Day

Odds are, you’re not there because you are thirsty. You are probably there for the social aspect of it, and — more importantly — to learn more about wine.

Tasting a series of similar wines is still the fastest and best way to learn a lot of information about wine, and align it with your preferences. Often, a Cabernet Sauvignon by itself tastes like a bold red wine, and a Cabernet Franc by itself tastes like a bold red wine. But put them next to each other and suddenly, noticeable distinctions emerge. And from there, you begin to learn what you like (or dislike) about each one.

Pay attention to these subtle differences, because — even if your sense of modesty is saying “I don’t know much about wine” — you are building an amazing amount of knowledge with each sip that you truly pay attention to. These details are the basis for becoming more intelligent on what matter’s most: what you like.

Tune Out the Noise

They'll tell you what the wine tastes like before you even raise it to your lips. Ignore them.

They’ll tell you what the wine tastes like before you even raise it to your lips. Ignore them.

Yes, there can be a lot of ceremony involved (the steps of swirling, looking at the wine’s color, smelling the aromas, and so on). And it many tasting rooms, the server has a set script they stick to on each wine. You’ll often hear “this is our Chardonnay. You will notice scents of lemon rind, butterscotch and crushed herbs…”

Take a deep breath and know that you can ignore all of it.

Don’t swirl your wine if it doesn’t feel right. Sure, you might not unleash a tsunami of wonderful aromas, but if you are new to wine tasting and you are worried about sloshing red wine on the counter, don’t worry about it.

And if your server or host is providing too much information, feel free to tell them so. Once you free yourself of their impressions, you become less impressionable — and more capable of deciphering your own taste.

Ultimately, you are the judge. Your nose and palate are the only voice that you should trust.

A Sidenote On Tasting Notes

20140811-Willamette Valley-0005

One of the best tasting room experiences I had was at Coelho Winery in Oregon, where they provided just enough information on their wine to provide context, without dictating taste.

If you are interested in learning more about wine, it really helps to write down your impressions — they don’t even have to be complete sentences, and they shouldn’t even be written down as infallible truths. (Because they aren’t. Infallible truth doesn’t exist in wine tasting).

Simply putting a few words to what you observe helps you make sense of the wine, and gives you a reference point to look back on later. Once I started doing this, I began to remember certain traits about certain wines, and that becomes enormously helpful with each time I went to buy wine. I guarantee it: take notes at wine tastings and your batting average on buying great wine will go up.

At the same time, take other people’s tasting notes with a grain of salt. Just because the winemaker confidently states “this wine displays notes of plum, cassis and tobacco,” what they really ought to be saying is “this wine reminds me of plums, cassis and tobacco.” Again, there is nothing infallible about these descriptors. And truthfully, that plummy note they pick up might taste more like cherry to you. Discrepancies like this happen all the time.

To take a deep dive on this subject, read my mangum opus on tasting notes and how broken they are in wine-writing.

Talk About it Differently

Wine tasting at Knez Winery in the Anderson Valley, California

Don’t want to talk about the wine? Don’t. Ask the winemaker about the best place to get lunch and buy some more time to savor the wine.

Another intimidating aspect of a wine tasting is the language of wine. Many of you would rather give a speech on the Spanish Inquisition to 100 people than be asked to describe a wine.

So change the conversation. Ask questions about the vineyards where the grapes come from. Ask about any family history with the estate. Questions like these help build your sense of connection to the wine, and enhance your knowledge of what you like and don’t like.

And if you are tasting wine at a friends house, dodge the question by describing what kind of occasion or meal the wine might go well with. Again, rituals, impressions and sensory experiences with wine are personal. The context of wine is much more open, universal and less intimidating for everyone. Besides: without context, wine would simply be just fermented grape juice.


I’d love your thoughts in the comments below. How do you overcome your wine-tasting anxieties? How do you help others relax so they can better enjoy themselves? I’d love to know.


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