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Spit Take
By Jim Clarke
Mar 20, 2018
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I taste wine with other professionals -- sommeliers, wine writers, and the like -- very often, of course, but it’s been some time since I tasted wines with “regular” wine drinkers, at least anywhere resembling a formal setting.  Recently, however, I’ve had a series of opportunities to do just that, and it’s had me thinking about what some people find to be one the least savory aspects of wine tasting: spitting.

A couple of these tastings only involved 8 or 9 wines, and their timing -- Sunday afternoon, including one that was the day of the Super Bowl -- stretched the meaning of “formal.”  I spat as a matter of habit, and I saw a few disapproving looks from the guests I was presenting to.  From my point of view, I was there as a professional, and it behooved me to behave as one; to these guests’ point of view, it was distasteful.  The overriding rule, it seems, is that fluids don’t leave the body in public, even if they’ve only been inside the body for a matter of seconds.  I have little patience for this attitude, but even baseball, the only other public forum for spitting I can think of, has cut back on the practice.

Nonetheless, spitting, as a professional principle, overruled this form of supposed politeness and decorum.  Even though I was presenting the wines rather than evaluating them, sometimes it’s precisely because one has a Super Bowl party to follow that one moderates one’s consumption earlier in the day.  Pre-gaming, as pre-party drinking is known, is fine for some, but those of us who encounter alcohol every day in our work are more likely to look for opportunities to moderate consumption than occasions to indulge.  I see more and more articles in trade publications about the health challenges of working with alcohol, and while we may indulge at times, we’ve all known peers who found they were unable to balance and control their consumption.  Best to understand when one is working and when one is off-the-clock, and respect the difference.

I’d actually expect the sort of people who pay to attend a wine tasting to understand that, even if they choose not to do so themselves.  I was more intrigued by a different response at another tasting I led, this time for people who were not in the trade, and weren’t even regular wine drinkers, but who, for reasons I’ll leave aside, needed to know a bit about wine for their work.  Some weren’t even drinkers at all.

What surprised me was not any expressions of revulsion to spitting, but rather the feeling that to do so was terribly wasteful.  “Such a shame” to spit it.  A first I thought this was out of respect for the wine’s value, though the wines themselves were not particularly rare or expensive.  What I realized as the comments continued was that the “waste,” in their eyes, was that an alcoholic product was not being given the chance to do what they thought it was supposed to do:  Inebriate.

This attitude bothered me, frankly.  I pointed out, gently, that spitting is only wasteful if one thinks the only value in consuming wine is to get drunk.  If one finds the aromas, flavor, and texture of a wine pleasurable, there is definitely a lot to be gained from tasting this way, especially in situations where there are dozens of wines to be tasted throughout a day.

This argument went down well, and actually encouraged some teetotalers present to accept some wine, not for tasting, but at least for “olfactory examination.”  I think without this discussion, they would have felt self-conscious about supposedly wasting the wine.  I don’t make it a practice to attempt to convert non-drinkers, but it was great that they could understand the wine and play a bigger part of the conversation this way.

Finally, I led a couple of tastings in the past few weeks for a dozen people largely from the beer industry, where spitting is not normally part of the tasting process.  In the days before craft beer, spitting does seem like it wouldn’t have much place in tasting and evaluating beers.  Most of the brews one would encounter would fall around the 5% ABV range, so a day of tasting might catch up to you eventually, but not with the speed that wine tasting does.  Maybe this needs rethinking now that craft brews are all the rage, and are often significantly stronger than the brews of years past.

In any case, we tasted 70 or so wines the first day.  Some spat, some did not, some got sloppy about spitting as the day went on.  A few seem to approach it with a bit of machismo; the implicit idea was that spitting was a sign one couldn’t handle one’s alcohol.  One of the two biggest offenders ended up interrupting the class with enthusiastic raves for the wines and repeated cries of “Let’s get naked!” (I’m not kidding).  Obviously, decorum was out the window; perhaps more circumspectly, let us note that objective evaluation was, too.  The other determined non-spitter, after an impromptu, spirited defense of a couple of the wines served, put his head down on the table and fell asleep.  He was still there when I left, an hour later.

I say this not to mock people in the beer industry.  In fact, there may be something to be said for swallowing beer when tasting; we largely don’t talk about the texture of wine as it goes down the throat, a subject I have seen beer experts wax rhapsodic about on occasion.  Of note was one person who did spit, and happened to own a breathalyzer (his visa status in the U.S. is tied to not having black marks like a DUI on his record).  He was very pleasantly surprised by the numbers, and also didn’t feel that he had missed anything by spitting.  Definitely a convert, this guy, and I know he has taken the practice into his beer tasting as well.

I know I’m preaching to the choir here, as I imagine most readers of Wine Review Online are at least understanding of the practicalities of wine tasting.  I’ve seen wine pros apologize for the practice, and while I think some of our traditions and practices may be silly, or outmoded, spitting isn’t one of them.  I think what surprised me is that the objections to spitting are more numerous and varied than one might think; still, none of them have struck me as having any serious validity.  It has changed how I talk about it, though.