Top 4 Wine-Tasting Gaffes

Dear Helena,
I am going to spend the day in Napa visiting some wineries with my boyfriend's family. They are pretty heavily into wine whereas I frankly can't tell the difference between rotgut from the corner store and a perfectly aged bottle of Chateau-Whatever. I don't know them very well and I want to make a good impression. Before visiting a winery, what do I need to know in terms of "proper" behavior?
—Booze Is Booze

Dear Booze Is Booze,
Don't worry about being a wine ignoramus. According to the tasting room managers I spoke with, you can still impress your potential in-laws with your savoir-faire. All you need to do is avoid the following gaffes.

1. Drinking too much. It's OK to get a buzz, but don't get sloshed. Tour buses and bridal parties are the worst offenders, says Tom Blackwood, director of hospitality for Buena Vista Winery: "Sometimes people have a beer in their hand when they get off the bus." This might seem like obvious advice, but drunkenness can creep up on you. "Even if you're just tasting wines, one tasting could be the equivalent of a glass of wine," says Blackwood. If you're visiting two or three wineries, that adds up. So don't be shy about using the dump bucket. And impress your boyfriend's family with your thoughtfulness by stocking the car with bottled water. Better yet, score major potential-in-law points by offering to be the designated driver.

2. Showing off. There's no shame in not knowing anything about wine. So don't try to impress your companions or the winery tasting staff by pretending to a knowledge you don't have. This will make you look pretentious and insecure. Even those who do know a lot about wine should be wary of monopolizing the conversation. It's all too easy to become a wine bore.

3. Dissing the wine. Wine taste, like literary taste, is very subjective. So if you think something is swill, frame that as a personal preference, not an objective truth. Just say, "I prefer wines with a little more acidity," or even just, "Personally, that's not my style," says Lisa Macek, tasting room manager for Iron Horse Vineyards. If you are too loud and forceful about your opinion, you could influence everyone else there. "The power of suggestion is very strong," says Macek. "If I told everyone the Chardonnay tasted like apples, they would taste apples." If you tell everyone the Chardonnay is one-dimensional, other people will probably find it blah too.

4. Overdoing the lipstick. Lipstick makes wineglasses very hard to clean, says Rebekah Bellingham, tasting room manager for R. Stuart & Co. Winery: "Usually we clean the glasses in the dishwasher, blasting them with very, very hot water to sanitize them. But lipstick has to be scrubbed off by hand." You should skip your perfume too. Blackwood explains: "Scents—perfumes, colognes, lotions—will not only affect you and your ability to taste, but also that of those around you." You should avoid anything that is too distracting for your senses, says Bellingham. Essentially the same principles apply when you're getting ready to taste wine as when you're getting ready to kiss someone: You don't want the smell of a cigarette on your clothes or a strong taste of coffee on your breath. And if you continue to chew gum while you're doing it—as Bellingham says one customer did—you're missing the point of the whole experience.

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