By Nathaniel Bauer Wine and spirits columnist Published Apr 30, 2009 at 4:12 PM

Today's topic is tasting etiquette.

Yes, there is such a thing as tasting etiquette.

Don't worry, I'm not referring to raised pinky fingers or dainty, thin-lipped sips from a glass that are designed to give the perfect impression. We're trying to eliminate the snobbery from wine, remember?

What I'm talking about is the crowd interaction at large-scale wine tastings. The kind of tasting where there are hundreds of open bottles of wine poured by vendors or winemakers and people everywhere waiting in line for a taste. With some big Milwaukee tastings around the corner, I thought this would be an appropriate topic.

The most recent tasting I attended was sponsored by local company Badger Liquor and featured the German and Austrian wines imported by Wein Bauer (no relation -- just good wine). It was a nice little tasting, thanks particularly to my invite from well known Milwaukee wine woman, Kim Fisher. (At the bottom of the column, I've included a list of gems from the tasting you really should check out.)

If you have never been to one of these large format tastings, they are most often open to the public in the form of charity events or festivals. Several great events in Milwaukee every year include the Arthritis Foundation Tasting, the Milwaukee Wine Festival and the Lombardi Food & Wine Experience.

Even if you have experience with large tastings, these 10 guidelines will help you enjoy yourself even more. They will also significantly decrease the likelihood of such mishaps as having wine spilled on you (happened to me twice -- once by the winemaker from Beringer) or making a fool of yourself in front of your girlfriend or boss.

1. Plan ahead. Remember that any time alcohol is involved, judgment is impaired. Lots of wine is poured at big events and if you are planning on enjoying plenty of it, make sure you have arranged for proper transportation.

2. Fashion sense. Whatever you do -- DON'T WEAR WHITE.

3. Spit it out. There are spit buckets on the tables for a reason. You don't have to drink all the wine that's poured. Most of the time, the bottles will have portion control spouts to limit the quantity poured to an ounce or less. But often enough you will get a larger pour. If that's the case, you can taste a small portion and pour the rest in the bucket.

4. Not just for men. Ladies, you expect it from men, but in the wine world, it is not unladylike or gauche to spit into the bucket. The buckets are big and all you need to do is position your head just above the opening and aim toward the sides of the bucket so you don't splash all over yourself or your neighbor. When I go to industry tastings (read: professional cork dorks everywhere) you seldom see anyone who doesn't spit.

5. Look around. Always be aware of your surroundings. There are times when you will be shoulder to shoulder with a lot of people all carrying wine glasses. Back up or turn around without looking at your own risk.

6. Keep the line moving. Believe it or not, there is a method for wiggling in for a taste pour. Unfortunately, not everyone abides by No. 5. When there are lines of people waiting to get a sample, ideally everyone moves in a rotation. If everyone forms an orderly line in front of the wine selections, the front two or three are able to receive a taste and should then move toward the right or left (whichever side has the spit bucket). This allows the next in line to receive a taste and so on. Typically, even a very busy table will have no more than eight people or so waiting, thus allowing everyone to rotate through again.

7. Keep it simple. If you engage the vendor or winemaker in conversation, remember that there are still others behind you who want to try the wine. If you inquire about the product, ask simple and easy to answer questions. If you really want to know when the harvest dates were for last 10 years, what percentage of new French oak barrels were used for each vintage and what pruning methodologies were employed -- ask for a business card and look it up online. In the technological age, wineries almost always post all of the geeky goodies.

8. Don't show off. Nothing spoils the mood more than someone who tries to sound cool and impress people. Everyone should be there to have a good time, not to see who knows the most or has been to which exotic vineyard. Relax, share stories that others will be able to relate to and whatever you do, never try to show up a winemaker. It will make them dislike you instantly (they stand in front of thousands of people just like you every year) and it will guarantee you won't get the phone number of the cute girl standing next to you.

9. Learn to juggle. Shuffling food and wine is a tricky proposition. When I go to tastings, it's for education and sampling. I spit every drop and eat beforehand, so I don't have to worry about juggling a wine glass and a plate of food. I'm the odd one, though, and most of the time, to add to the enjoyment, cheese and crackers and other assorted goodies are available. On the rare occasion that I do eat at a tasting, I have found that grasping the base of the wine glass allows me to hold the plate up against the stem on top of the base in the same hand. I have seen some extra smart people bring their own little clip-on wine glass holders. These people are obviously way brighter than me, and have fewer stains on their clothes when they leave. The two examples pictured above may be had on a variety of online sites.

10. Act tastefully. Depending on what your goal is for the tasting, be it calculated education or relaxed enjoyment, there are methods to prolong the ability of the taste buds. Starting with white is always a good bet -- sparkling wine, even better. For whites, start with lighter, high acid whites and move toward the bigger, rounder-fruit white wines. After you make the switch to red, use the same principle -- start with light pinots and such then move toward big, bad cabs. You will begin to determine how many total wines you can handle without losing your entire palate. As you progress, there are some cheats you can employ to go the extra mile. If your tongue can't stand another big oak and tannin red, go back to some dry sparkling for two or three tastes. The bubbles sting your tongue a bit, but it will thrash your dulled palate back to life for another short stint.

The most important key to enjoy a large tasting? As with all things wine related -- just relax and have a good time. These events are a great chance to taste many different wines next to each other. They are also a terrific way to meet people who share an affinity for wine. Lots of dinner groups and friends have begun as a result of meeting at tastings.

Wein Bauer Tasting highlights:

Available now (All prices approximate retail)

  • 2007 Wolfgang Selbach Bauer Haus Riesling Spätlese, Mosel, Germany $10
  • 2007 Schlink Haus Riesling Kabinett, Nahe, Germany $12

Special Order (Not in retail stores yet -- but any good shop will order them for you)


  • 2007 Nittnaus Sauvignon Blanc, Burgenland, Austria $15

  • 2006 Lehmen Hochgewächs Riesling Trocken, Mosel, Germany $16
  • 2006 Lehman Hochgewächs Riesling Halbtrocken, Mosel, Germany $16
  • 2007 Nittnaus Zweigelt Heideboden-Nittnaus, Burgenland, Austria $16


  • 2006 Jutschitsch Riesling Zobinger, Kamptal, Austria $33

  • 2006 Jurtschisch Grüner Veltliner Dechant Alte Reben, Kamptal, Austria $37

  • 2006 Jurtschisch Grüner Veltliner Schenkenbichl-Jurtschisch, Kamptal, Austria $45 

Nathaniel Bauer Wine and spirits columnist
Nathaniel Bauer has spent the last 10 years as a wine buyer for some of Milwaukee’s finest restaurants. Two standouts include a six-year tenure with Bartolotta’s that culminated at Bacchus as a manager and sommelier, followed by two years as the General Manager and certified sommelier at Dream Dance. Finally late in ‘08 he hung up his wine key to start a family. Even though he is now the Marketing Director for a local software company, Big Bang LLC, wine keeps calling his name. The steady chant that kept him in the restaurant business for more than a decade, even after his several attempts to ignore its call, keeps him up to date on current vintages and producers around the globe. Bauer still visits many Milwaukee establishments, both retail and restaurant, to stay a part of the fantastic wine community in this city. Now, after more than a decade in the wine and restaurant market, he is glad to have no direct affiliations and looks forward to offering an experienced and impartial opinion on how local wine purveyors can be even more successful.