Don’t be ‘that guy,’ wine-taster – sip, spit like a pro

Tastes right: There's an art to the science of wine-tasting, according to food-and-beverage cognoscente Ambrose Clancy (and friends).
By AMBROSE CLANCY //

You’ve seen him – and it’s almost always a him – sitting at a restaurant table with a glass of wine. As the waiter stands holding a bottle, our man shakes and swirls the wine into a whirlpool, then sticks his nose into the glass and inhales as if drawing his last breath.

He sips some wine, his cheeks puff out, he propels the wine around his mouth and then – is he gargling? – he gulps and nods to the waiter.

Ambrose Clancy: Fine wining.

Since the Greeks and Italians first perfected winemaking 7,000 years ago, there have been jerks taking the whole thing way too seriously, making unnecessary moves to discover if the wine is drinkable.

Just ask Charles Massoud, the master of Paumanok Vineyards. This family-run jewel in Aquebogue has achieved almost every award a winery can win, including the 2015 New York Winery of the Year presented at the New York Wine Classic.

“Don’t overemphasize anything,” Massoud advises. “If you overthink the process, you’ll miss the pleasure of drinking wine.

“And that’s the whole point, right?”

But Massoud doesn’t mean to just go ahead and tell the waiter or sommelier to pour it out around the table, not without judging what you’re going to be drinking.

You have to smell it, Massoud says, to find out if the wine is “corked.”

Wine corks are made from the bark of living oaks, and corked wine occurs when the bottle’s stopper has been affected by a fungus that taints the wine. “It’s easy to detect,” Massoud says, noting the smell will be sharp and musty.

Charles Massoud: Good times.

“Never forgive the wine,” he adds, meaning that a price tag and a prestigious name means nothing if the wine is tainted. Corked wine should be sent back, and if you’re at home, don’t serve it to your guests. It’s guaranteed to gag them.

After a sniff or two with no telltale stale odor, take a sip and taste. If it’s a red wine and you sense fruit, such as berries, or if it’s white and you smell something similar to pineapples, you’re about to embark on a pleasant evening.

Massoud downplays the hundreds of tastes and smells that are compared to wine by overamped wine geeks, such as saddle leather, cigar boxes and salami (yes, really).

Remember, Massoud says, wine is made from fruit, and if fruit – and not old sweat socks – is hitting your olfactory nerves or taste buds, it’s time for toasting.

The best and most convivial way to learn about wine, and find out what you like, is to take a trip to a tasting room. Massoud offers further tips: don’t chew gum, don’t smoke before tasting and avoid perfume on yourself or companions (if not, even a bold, luscious red will have notes of Midnight in Paris).

Tasting rooms are the only venues that allow you to spit indoors and not be judged as a depraved lout. You’re not just allowed, you’re encouraged to spit wine into spittoons – and do spit, because drooling is frowned on.

The logic is simple: By spitting out the wines, you can sample several wines during your tasting. Start swallowing, and you might stop caring about what’s exceptional and settle for second-rate.

“The spit bucket should be your best friend,” says my friend Gianna Volpe, a journalist and veteran of the hospitality industry and host of “Heart of the East End,” the weekday morning broadcast on WPPB (88.3 FM), Long Island’s only National Public Radio station.

Gianna Volpe: Bucket list.

“It takes three sips of wine to coat your palate enough to get to know it,” Volpe says. “So a one-sip judgment tends to be a pretty weak, uninformed one.”

She suggests tasting with a plan, starting with whites and going through rosés to reds. And before you set forth on a tasting safari, do some prep work, says Melissa Martin of Water Mill’s Duck Walk Vineyards, who notes that if you’re in a party of six or more, it’s best to get a reservation – and don’t plan to hit more than three tasting rooms in a day.

“Cheese, please,” is an essential request when you arrive, Martin adds. “I recommend enjoying some cheese, crackers and charcuterie with your wines. It will enhance your tasting notes.”

She also recommends asking about multiple-bottle discounts of wine you’re enjoying. And, like Massoud, Martin stresses that tasters not forget the whole point of a vineyard visit.

“Sip, savor and stay awhile,” she says. “Get a glass and relax in the seating areas to take in the views, live music or just some quiet time.”

Volpe has seen her share of boorish behavior in tasting rooms, and offers a final bit of advice.

“Be respectful of the spaces you visit and the people serving you,” she says. “If you want to have a great experience when out and about, be someone worthy of one.”

Put another way, it’s good to remember Hemingway, who downed a glass or two and said: “Wine is one of the most civilized things in the world …”

Ambrose Clancy is an award-winning writer/editor and veteran Long Island journalist. He currently serves as the editor of The Shelter Island Reporter.