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Wine tasting basics: Swirl, sniff, sip ... and spit!

By Linda Ashton, The Associated Press
Saturday June 08, 2002

LOWDEN, Wash. – The best advice wine grape grower Patricia Gelles ever got on spitting was: “Practice in the shower.” 

Cellarmaster Robert Chowanietz offered this tried-and-true contribution: “Stay close and try not to splash.” 

Once the province of snoose-chewing loggers and major league ballplayers, spitting has joined swirling, sniffing and sipping as a smart part of tasting wine. 

“Otherwise, you get drunk, if you’ve got lots to taste,” said Gelles, a general partner at Klipsun Vineyards on Red Mountain, west of Richland. 

Still, if you were raised anyplace other than a barn, chances are spitting in full view of others or — heaven forbid — indoors, just doesn’t come naturally. 

“It sort of goes against the grain,” said winemaker Kay Simon, who owns Chinook Winery in Prosser. “You don’t taste food and spit it out.” 

Simon keeps on hand a collection of attractive ceramic crocks, which can serve as discreet individual spittoons. 

“Glass containers are sort of gross,” she said. “Opaque containers are good.” 

A lot of people are more comfortable spitting into a handheld cup than aiming for a communal bucket, and those sloppy distance shots rarely make friends anyway. 

“It’s probably a little more genteel to pick the spittoon up and spit into it, rather than standing back two or three feet and hope you make it,” said Terry Flanagan, who owns Ryan Patrick Vineyards in Rock Island. 

The pros almost always spit, even into clean drains or gutters on winery room floors, which can be hosed down. 

“They do make convenient spitting areas,” Flanagan said. “I know I’ve done it many a time myself.” 

At Woodward Canyon Winery in Lowden, west of Walla Walla, Chowanietz might taste 30 times in a single day, usually in the morning on an empty stomach, so there’s no flavor interference with his palate. 

“There’s no drinking involved at all,” he said. “You can’t do your job without spitting.” 

For those who don’t know spit about spitting, the wine world is awash with suggestions. 

Try it in the tub or the kitchen sink. Don’t be shy, and don’t drool. Purse your lips to avoid splatter, aim for the center of the spittoon and put some power behind it. But if the bucket’s full, watch out for splashback. For those iffy early attempts, wear a dark shirt. 

If you’re a musician, think about employing that embouchure, the method of applying the lips and the tongue to the mouthpiece of a wind instrument. 

Even genetics might play a role in successful spitting. 

“It’s all in the tongue shape,” Gelles said. “If it’s wide enough, you can make a sort of little valley.” 

Chowanietz has designed stylish spittoons with stainless steel sinks in old wine barrels to try to encourage the reluctant to give it a try. 

“We were getting kind of concerned about the big open-house weekends right along the highway (U.S. 12), and we were suggesting that people spit when they taste,” he said. 

Jeff Cutter, a prosecutor for the city of Yakima, which calls itself the gateway to Washington wine country, likes the idea of sober tastings. 

“I would just as soon not see those folks in here,” he said. 

If a spittoon isn’t readily apparent in a winery’s tasting room, don’t hestitate to ask, Simon said. 

Jamie Peha, the marketing and promotions director for the Washington Wine Commission, coordinates the state’s biggest wine and food event, Taste Washington, and knows all the ins and outs of accommodating sippers and spitters. 

“People want to taste the wines and keep a clear head while doing it,” she said. “A lot of people are educated that spitting is part of tasting.” 

With 110 wineries pouring for more than 2,500 people, Peha ordered 200-plus plastic spit buckets — which were actually pretty pastel wastebaskets — for the April charity event in Seattle. 

“They’re huge, with two handles on the side, which makes it easy to quickly exchange and empty them,” she said. 

Of course, there are those who contend that spitting is an unfortunate waste of good wine, in which case, a designated driver should probably be part of their tasting plans.