How to Fake Your Way Through a Wine Tasting

Don't know your Brix from your brut? Use this cheat sheet to feel comfortable and confident while formally tasting wines.

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Fake It Till You Make It

If you're new to the world of wine, tastings can be intimidating. They don't have to be. While you may feel out of place or unsure of yourself, take comfort in the fact that you're surrounded by an enthusiastic crowd of people who are there to teach. Here are a few tips to make your first tasting comfortable, educational and easy — even fun.

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Dress for Success

Unless you know that the tasting is a black-tie fundraiser or a casual hour in a laid-back wine shop, go for business casual attire. Avoid wearing perfume or cologne, and above (or below) all, wear comfortable shoes. You're going to be on your feet for a while, and you'll be drinking — two reasons to keep things low-heeled and broken in. Padded insoles and happy feet beat blisters and elegance, and they will lead to a happier wine-tasting experience.

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Eat Something

Have a light bite before you go, yes, but also take advantage of the food tables. While waiting, you'll meet merchants on neutral ground, and the snacks will keep your body in a healthy state for sipping. Pick proteins — hummus, cheese, meat — and fresh produce, and avoid anything too sugary. Before you return to tasting, eat something neutral, like plain crackers or water biscuits. You won't be able to taste champagne with hummus on your tongue.

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Map It Out

Walk around before you start sampling. Find the food and note where the restrooms are located. Scan the folks behind the wines and see who looks most inviting. You can visit the scary-looking elder statesmen after you've built up confidence. Mark labels you've always wanted to try and labels that are new to you. If you don't get to everything — and you probably won't — then you'll have tasted and talked with the wines and people that mattered most. Focus on good memories, new knowledge and no regrets.

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Choose Your Own Adventure

Fond of crisp Rieslings? Track down a tasting of unoaked white wines and discover Riesling's neighbors — not in location, but in taste and character. Never ventured beyond whites and rosés? Go to a tasting of Burgundy, Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon — or try Zinfandel, which runs the spectrum from peach to crimson. It's fun to flirt with something new, and you might fall in love with a red.

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Raise a Glass

The glass you get at the beginning of the tasting is a loaner, chosen to show wine at its best. In between wines, rinse your glass with plain water and dump it into the spit bucket. That way, you won't season a pour of rosé with a dash of Cabernet Sauvignon. If you feel like your glass has seen too much wine, trade it for a fresh one. Set your glass on a table by the door before you leave.

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Use All Your Senses

Tasting wine is a multisensory experience. First look at the color. If there are bright lights or sunlight, tilt your glass and look at the white tablecloth, where you'll see the color of the light that passes through the wine. Now put your nose way down into your glass and smell the wine. Note that the “nose” of a wine may be very different than its taste. Sip the wine, let it rinse your mouth, teeth and tongue, all the way to the back of your mouth. Part your lips a little, and inhale, letting the air move across the wine coating your mouth. Spit (more on that next) and take another taste.

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Spit It Out!

Unless you want to wake up in another country tomorrow morning, married to a wine merchant you don't remember meeting, do not swallow everything you taste. Pros spit. Amateurs swallow. There's a bucket on every table. So make like a sommelier, and spit.

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Drink Something

Not wine, but water. At larger tastings, water will be plentiful and readily available. If you're in a smaller tasting, and you don't see drinking water, ask a staff member to help you find some. It will keep you on the sober side and help your body process the wine. It will also keep your palate clear, allowing you to do what you're there for: taste.

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Ask Questions

Winemakers, importers and wine shop owners are obsessed with wine. Don't know what a term means? Ask for an explanation. The professionals in front of you will be delighted to explain their perspectives. This is a great opportunity to find out what steel vats versus oak barrels do to wines, or discover an incredible food pairing. If an answer leads to more questions, congratulations! You're having a conversation, and you are on your way to knowing even more about wine. It's a win-win.

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Take Notes, Not Selfies

At any wine tasting, you're inevitably receiving lots of information at once. Make use of the tasting book you were given and write down your perceptions of each wine. Straw or wet straw? Fresh plums or baked? What kinds of spices? This is also a great time to use your smartphone. Photograph the labels of bottles you want to remember. After the event, you can pair your notes with the photos.

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Trust Yourself

What you smell and taste depends on where you grew up, what you've eaten and smelled across your lifetime, what you like and dislike, and associations as big as a breakup or as small as an old friend's smile. There are no wrong answers. At the end of the tasting, you'll have notes that make sense to you, and that's all that matters.

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Remember, It's Only Wine!

You've come to the tasting to try wines, make discoveries and learn. The presenters are there to introduce you to their wines, share knowledge and convince you that this is what you want to drink. There is no hierarchy here. No buyer, no market. No market, no wine. No wine, significantly less pleasure in the world. Everybody at that tasting needs everyone else. So leave your fear at the door and enjoy yourself!

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