The wines kept coming: one glass, then two, then five, every few minutes, refilled with a different white, rosé, or red.
I was overwhelmed by the number of wines arriving while winemakers gave their spiels at the front of the room. It was a Finger Lakes tasting, held in a ritzy Philadelphia downtown hotel with lavish table settings, expensive charcuterie, and dozens of empty wine glasses. I had finagled an invite, not knowing it was a formal sit-down tasting — my first ever — and I was in over my head.
Was I supposed to finish every wine?
Beside me, a friend sipped, swirled, then spewed wine with force into the tableside bucket. I could hear sloshing at the next table as well-dressed wine pros hovered over tall jugs. Some loudly swished and gargled wine inside their mouths like mouthwash before bed. Others dumped still-filled glasses into a center bucket.
Me? I sipped and swallowed. I couldn’t fathom spitting out good, free wine. Yet I couldn’t finish the wines soon enough before another was poured. Twenty wines and two hours later, the alcohol had kicked in and my eyes went fuzzy.
Turns out that not spitting in a room full of winemakers is just as awkward as spitting in front of strangers. So what’s the protocol? And in the age of COVID, what’s the best way to spit without spreading germs?
A history of spitting
There are strong social taboos against spitting, and it’s illegal to do it in public in many places. This wasn’t always the case; spitting in public was common, and there were special vessels to catch it, right up until scientists discovered tuberculosis was carried in sputum. The spittoon re-emerged again in wineries.
Spittoons became an integral part of professional wine tasting, to allow tasters to try multiple wines without getting drunk or overwhelming their palates. Until the pandemic, it was normal to see spitting jugs placed around tasting rooms for people to share. A well-known hazard was “splashback,” when spitting into a too-full bucket meant catching spit-and-wine mix on your clothes, or even worse, in the eye.
For Vanessa Wong, owner of Fishtown Social and Wahine Wine Company, spitting has been an exercise in being comfortable in your own skin and rolling with the punches – especially early on in her wine journey.
“At a tasting, I spat and missed slightly so wine started dripping down the side of my glass. Not having anything to wipe it and not wanting to just plop it back down on the table all drippy, I licked the side of the wine glass. No one noticed and I wasn’t black-listed!”
Hygiene is still top-of-mind. Post-pandemic wine tastings now use individual spittoons rather than group vessels. Adrian Prieto, Hospitality Director at Red Newt Cellars in the Finger Lakes, advises first-time spitters not to be bashful and aim for a strong stream into a wide cup. “Joke about it if you’re unsure,” he adds.
Spit takes gone wrong
Spitting should be for everyone, not just wine professionals ― not least because it means being able to pace through a line-up. That includes tourists driving to and from wineries: spitting is just as important as staying hydrated.
“It should be more widely accepted by non-pros and socially acceptable beyond industry events,” said Sam Decker, Co-founder and President of Wine + Peace.
Still, spitting takes practice and can be messy. Nate Miles of Groove Wines remembers one unexpected turn of events with Napa and Sonoma winemakers, industry insiders, and his non-wine-drinking wife.
“I brought my wife to Ribolla Fest in the backyard of a prominent Napa winemaker’s home. Speaker one starts to talk, the crowd begins to smell and taste, and then: spit spit spit … the whole crowd is just spitting everywhere.”
Miles’ wife was left surprised witnessing the sophisticated crowd unabashedly spitting like a bunch of baseball players. She still finds the whole thing unnatural.
Conquering the spit
After my failed wine tasting event several years back, I needed to redeem myself. I decided to set my embarrassment aside and conquer the spit. I talked with sommeliers near and far, observed others’ spitting routines, and ran some trials and errors at my favorite wine bars.
“If done properly it can really enhance your tasting experience and, most importantly, prevent you from getting hammered,” says Wong, who adds that confidence is key.
The first step I learned was to avoid white clothing, nice outfits, and strong perfume because it interferes with wine aromas. At home, I practiced spitting into a coffee mug. When I tasted in public, I packed a small hand towel, plenty of hand sanitizer, and didn’t hesitate to ask for my own spitting jug. I practiced keeping my spittoon close but not so close to my mouth to minimize splashback. I even taught myself to hold half-ounce pours in my mouth, first swirling and then taking a few deep breaths in to activate my nasal cavity and get a fuller expression of the wines. For extra encouragement during my do-it-yourself spit-target practice, I remembered the ramen bar analogy Miles told me.
“Once you know that slurping is the way, you aren’t self-conscious about slurping your way through a bowl of ramen.”
By the time I arrived at a large German and Austrian Riesling tasting a few short months later, I was spitting with gusto and showing the ropes to a novice wine drinker by my side.
Three years after that first tasting, I’m hurling spit with the best of them, having returned to the Finger Lakes four times visiting countless tasting rooms. A lineup of unfamiliar wines doesn’t faze me anymore. I know how to steady the course and hold my own.