6 Tips for Tasting Wine: What I Learned from Traveling with a Group of Wine Writers

As a beginner in the world of wine, I knew I had a lot to learn about the magic, boozy grape juice. For the past seven years, I confess I've been buying wine based on price (cheap and cheaper, ay ay ay) and if the label appealed to me (look at that swirly font, cute!). So when I had the opportunity to travel to Chile and Argentina on a wine–focused journey last month, I hoped for a crash course on the most celebrated beverage on the planet. What I got was way more than an education; it was wine tasting boot camp guided by the industry's finest writers. Want to know how to taste wine like a pro?

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When wine writers taste they really move that wine around in their mouth. Don't be afraid to reenact your mouthwash routine. They cut that wine loose in there! I was surprised by the intensity of physical activity of this part of the process. But it did allow me to experience the wine more fully when it touched the front, back and sides of my mouth and tongue. It was more explosive this way than politely sipping.

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Speaking of sipping, SIPPING and SWALLOWING IS NOT ALLOWED! I made the mistake of trying to look graceful at our first tasting and just downed sips of each wine we had. A few times. After about 8 different wines, countless sips, no lunch in site and being a lightweight — well, you get the picture. I got up to go to the bathroom towards the end mostly to make sure my legs were still working. I was inappropriately sauced, and this was just our first stop. I quickly learned to embrace the spitting vessel provided at each tasting room. Professional wine people spit out everything and then enjoy wine, liberally I might add, with a meal.

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Wine writers are as concerned about the grapes and the land as the taste of the wine. Of course this seemed obvious to me. The terroir is talked about fairly often on those pretty wine labels I'm swayed by, as well as in movies. (Such reliable sources, I know. Ha!) To appreciate the land and how it influences the flavors of the wine is a beautiful thing. We walked, hiked, journeyed by horseback and rickety truck, all of the vineyards and breathed in the dirt and fresh air — taking the place in with all of our senses before a drop of wine crossed our lips. My travel mates showed me the importance of our hearty walks in priming us for what was to come. The experience, I believe, was critical to our understanding of the wine.

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This group asked questions. They were not daunted by lengthy talks by winemakers; they made themselves heard, jotted down notes at a feverish pace, and dove in for another taste. This is their profession if you can believe it. As glamorous as it sounds, these writers were working it. I've never seen so many video cameras, regular cameras, journals, tasting notes and curious minds in one place. It was wonderful to be a voyeur into this simultaneously intense and fabulous profession.

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They were able to separate the story from the wine. Sort of. I found myself deeply swayed by the charms and personalities of the wine makers at each vineyard. I adored them (it didn't hurt that all the winemakers in Chile and Argentina were ridiculously good looking!), and that influenced the way I approached their wines. It was so hard to think of the wine as its own entity when an enchanting person with a sexy accent was explaining why he or she made it in this style. The wine writers' answer to this — it happens to them, too. But they cultivate two separate sides of keeping score in their mind and try their best to keep them isolated. They take in the story, yes, but they taste the wine with intentions of non–influence. They've gotten better at this separation over time. It takes practice and diligence, but they are good!

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Just because this group of writers had been tasting all day, doesn't mean they couldn't throw the glasses back come dinner time! This special tribe of purple–teethed people had stamina. They were working and celebrating. How can you not enjoy wine? It's a pleasure, not a necessity.

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Sometimes, the best story of the day is beyond the tasting room. Here's one more tip for good measure; something I felt as a photographer and food writer I was able to impart to my new wine friends. While at a winery in Mendoza, Argentina; a band of about thirty motorcyclists rolled into the winery. I politely excused myself from the tasting to explore the scene. One of the perks of being a photographer is that you have full license to leave any given situation for something more exciting, in the name of your work. I descended the hill and was encircled by the enthusiastic motorcyclists. One glass of wine led to many and about two hours later I was being heaved into the air with my Argentine man posse singing "Ole Ole Ole Ole, Leela, Leela!" Here was a moment I was happy to not be a professional wine writer, but a story–seeker and image maker.

We all learned from each other; me asking countless questions of how to taste wine more fully, how did these wines compare to others in different parts of the world, what's the deal with the oak barrels? No question was too big or small to carefully answer for me and I'm grateful for the way each writer articulated their response for a beginner like me. I in turn, was happy to offer up any response to a camera or lighting query. Such fun to exchange skills and opinions!

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(Images: Leela Cyd Ross)