Wine tasting is intimidating. It doesn’t matter where it happens. You could be holding a glass of Merlot across from your grandmother at a bridge game. She asks “How does it taste, dearie?” You panic, throw the glass at the wall and scream “Why don’t you tell me how it tastes, grandma?,” and storm out. (Side note: send Grandma an apology card.)
There are plenty of reasons why the basic practice of describing wine seems so terrifying. For one, wine vocabulary is familiar, but not: wet dog? Sure. I’ve seen wet dogs. I’ve even toweled them off. Did they…touch my wine? Do I need a new glass? I’ll just throw this one out (which is a good idea, since “wet dog” probably means cork taint). Then there’s the larger culture of wine, which, yes, has recently “unbuttoned” a bit, with casual wine bars and tattooed sommeliers in flannel shirts who may or may not also front an Indie Rock band. But a lot of wine culture remains intimidating, from the tiny italicized print of wine lists (dizzingly organized by region, type, color, astrological sign) to this implicit cultural requirement to feel “serious” about wine. “Terroir, yes, exquisite.” (A single tear rolls down your cheek.)
Even your neighborhood wine store can be intimidating, or maybe just too damn quiet. You walk in, goose-necking it over a row of reds, wondering why one label has a picture of a drunk anthropomorphized frog on it, and a store clerk walks up to you. “Need any help?” It’s like when the girl at the GAP asks you how your jeans are fitting. For some reason, the instinct is “Go away, stranger. This is a private crisis of confusion.”
Except wine tastings make that all public. You’re not quietly asking your sommelier what makes a French Malbec different from an Argentine Malbec. You’re glaring at other wine tasters, hate-sweating into the glass of Malbec you’re actually afraid to talk about. To that end, a Cheat Sheet. We’ve compiled a few ways to help you fake it (‘til you make it) through your next wine tasting, whether it’s in a vineyard, graveyard, funky Sonoma winery, packed industry gathering, backstage at the Hanson Reunion Tour, or just at home, sitting by yourself with a glass of wine and an opinion.
PRACTICE AT HOME
Just like dance moves before Prom, practice describing wine at home. Not necessarily to learn (we’re faking it here, though learning is a bonus), but to get used to enunciating something you’ve never enunciated before. Seriously, how often have you been around actual friends and loved ones—the people you’ve allowed to see you in various states of physical and mental compromise—and still been too afraid to say anything about a glass of wine? Start with them.
COME ARMED WITH DESCRIPTIVE TERMS
Since taste is subjective, there’s really no end to what you can say a wine tastes like. (Seriously, if you’re getting notes of Mountain Dew Code Red in that Beaujolais, then by god there’s Mountain Dew Code Red in it.) Of course that kind of description may not earn you placement in the Court of Master Sommeliers, but it’s technically fair. For faking purposes, of course, we want to hit a bit closer to the traditional mark.
The only problem here is there are many, many wine styles and regions, and many ways of describing wine.
Your best faking it bet is to memorize some generally applicable terms. Think tannins (dry out the mouth, like black tea, mostly applies to darker dry reds), acid (applicable to most wines), body (all wines have some kind of body, be it heavy, medium, light, etc.), fruit (all wines also have fruit, “expressing” itself in some form—which reminds us, say “expressing” at some point!), aroma (because this has a huge impact on the flavor), texture (the feel of the wine in your mouth), etc. The trick is not to just say these words, but use them in non-committal phrases like “Interesting body. I loved the texture.” Or, “Noticing the impact of the acidity.” (See, you’re not saying what that impact is…you’re just saying there is one. Someone might follow up with “Oh, I didn’t get much acidity at all…” And you can say “Precisely,” then put on your monocle and walk away.)
Not bummed out. Not on the verge of tears. Just gently, sadly wise, like Charlie Brown. Nothing gives away an amateur like a big grin. And happiness is uncool anyway, right? But if you look kindly disappointed—yet still intrigued—with your sip, you’ll hit just the right combination to say “I’m thinking about this wine, in a way that reaches deeply into my soul and personal experience.”
CONFIDENCE CAN BE QUIET (AND LET THE OTHER GUY GAB)
Whatever descriptive terms or ideas you whip out at a wine tasting, say them confidently, but quietly. Not that you should be whispering things like “smooth mouthfeel” and “notes of gooseberry” to strangers and then giggling. Just make your points with a moderate voice—the best faker never announces. Sidenote: if someone wants to run their mouth about how the wine reminds them of the valley they once saw in Provence, lush with heather and the smell of sweet sun-dried grass, well, let them. Of course if you want to tell a similar story, of how the wine reminds you of a day on the Atlantic City Boardwalk when that seagull attacked you and stole your bag of buttered popcorn (because you detect some salinity cutting through the richness), go for it. Just, per “faking it,” say it with confidence.
CROSS YOUR ARMS AND NOD YOUR HEAD
Body language can indicate interest, as anyone who’s put their head in their hands while listening to a story about a friend’s “disastrous Instragram fiasco” knows. Go for the classic arms gently folded (not the aggressive “You know what you did wrong” pose), with the occasional nod and/or smile of recognition (like when he says “wine”).
FOLLOW THE RAINBOW.
Don’t dive into the deepest, inkiest Cabernet they have at the tasting. Make like Darth Vader and start on the light side but go to the dark side (the sommelier, wine store owner, or wine rep will probably try to guide you this way). A compliment to that rule, start dry, go sweet. The basic idea being heavier, more tannic red wines or sweeter wines (of any color) will overpower your palate, ruining you—and your faking abilities—for any of the other wines.
SWIRL, GIRL, BUT TAKE IT EASY.
Nothing better indicates an amateur than the classic over-swirl. Take the small pour in your glass, look at it first (that’s key, because as anyone who’s anyone–who’s’ not faking it—knows, color and viscosity can hint at what you’re about to taste). Then, when it’s time, gently swirl, just not like you’re doing the Cabbage Patch with a glass of wine. Oh, and don’t hold the glass itself. Hold it by the stem. Your hands warm up the wine, especially if they are clammy with faker sweat.
Swirling releases aromatics. So after you swirl, you sniff. But you don’t have to plunge your nose into a wine glass like you’re trying to snort it. A little dip into the top edge of the glass will make you look interested, but not nasally over-eager.
SIP. OR SLURP. DON’T GARGLE.
Unless you’re trying to seem like some kind of next-level wine professional, or you just didn’t get a chance to Listerine that day, just sip the wine, let it coat your palate, maybe swish it around a tiny bit. And in truth, first sip can really be a primer, since it’s a bit of a palate shocker. If you wanna look extra savvy, take that first sip, spit it out, and make the second one count. Some tasters like to suck air in with the sip, “oxygenating” the sip so they taste more. Don’t do this. Just breathe in gently with the sip and the oxygen in your mouth should do just fine. Plus, you won’t sound like Dr. Lecter from Silence of the Lambs.
It may feel gross and also a waste of fine alcohol, but don’t swallow your wine, unless it’s a small and casual tasting (at a wine store or a friend’s house). Anywhere a tasting bucket, or “spittoon,” is provided, you should spit. Of course, if it’s a small selection or others are casually “keeping” their sips, feel free to do so. Just don’t compromise your now Ninja-level ability to fake it by getting drunk. Plus, when else do you get to use a spittoon?
WHEN IN DOUBT, SAY SOMETHING REAL.
If, in the midst of all this expert faking, you actually think you got some minerality in your Riesling, say so! After all, the only reason you want to fake it at a wine tasting is because you want to go to a wine tasting, so you probably like wine. Or are broke and need a drink. Either way, even the most fumbling attempts at describing wine (seriously, start with “it tastes like grapes”) begin to open it like a verbal decanter. So if find yourself in the uncomfortable territory of having something real to say about what’s in the glass, say it. Chances are, as with many things in life, most people are too concerned about their own faking to notice if you’ve stopped.