An attendee at this weekend's Kirkland Uncorked, where 20 Washington wineries were offering samples of nearly 100 different wines, was so puzzled by my tasting behavior that she tapped my elbow to inquire.
"Why are you moving your glass around?" she asked.
I quickly explained the importance of swirling, sniffing, and sipping, but I realized she probably wasn't the only drinker wondering. Like most of the tasting events I've attended, Kirkland Uncorked didn't provide its patrons with any guidelines to help them properly assess--and enjoy--the wines being poured.
"The wine industry has done a hideous job of teaching people how to enjoy wine," says Steven Brown, owner of 12th & Olive Wine Company and a member of the Society of Wine Educators. "They drag people to Walla Walla, they drag them to Woodinville, they drag them to the Sculpture Garden, and no one is telling them how to enjoy this."
Brown, who serves as an instructor at South Seattle Community College's Northwest Wine Academy, says his in-store classes fill with aspiring wine drinkers who've felt adrift at tasting parties. Wine festivals and other unguided events have spawned so much confusion that Brown's shop is setting up a booth at next month's 12th Avenue Neighborhood Festival to "answer stupid wine questions." Brown likens the setup to Lucy's pop-up psychiatric clinic in the Peanuts comic strip.
"We'll talk about what type of wine glass is a good wine glass, why do you swirl, why do you spit, and how come you serve red wine with meat," Brown says. "The curious will show up."
Brown believes a "smarter customer is a better customer," but doubts many wine makers, sellers, and promoters subscribe to the same theory. "They're too worried about pillaging customers' money," he says.
Ideally, Brown says, only certified wine educators would be allowed to pour wine: "Most of the people who staff these things don't know jack," he says. "They're well-intentioned amateurs."
A more feasible solution might involve issuing a handout or posting signs that explain how to best approach a glass of wine, and warn against wearing out the palate by drinking all whites followed by all reds.
"There are all kinds of procedural things that would enhance the experience," Brown says.
Still, many festival-going drinkers are unlikely to ever use a spit bucket, no matter how well the rationale is explained.
"They just want to get a buzz and look good in their black dresses," Brown says.