How to spit with the wine pros.

Oct. 1 2002 2:31 PM

Cold Shower

How to spit with the wine pros.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

Spit or swallow? For wine aficionados, the choice is usually dictated by circumstance: At meals you swallow, at tastings you spit (unless the wines being tasted are liquid gold; it would be criminal to cough up even a drop of the 1989 Haut-Brion, for instance). But as with so many other wine-related rituals, spitting is no simple matter. Proper technique and correct form count for a lot more than you might think in wine circles.

Michael Steinberger  Michael Steinberger 

Michael Steinberger is a free-lance journalist.

My method of spitting has always been more or less indistinguishable from my approach to vomiting—place my head above the bucket, open my mouth, and let gravity pretty much handle the rest. It took me a long time to realize the damage this artless splattering was doing to my credibility as a part-time wine journalist. I was certainly aware that there were world-class spitters: Shortly after catching the wine bug, I had come across a priceless photo of Len Evans, a popular Australian wine writer, vintner, and raconteur. In it, Evans is expectorating a laser beam of purple spittle while wearing a suit and tie (with a white shirt!). For weeks thereafter, I kept returning to the picture, gazing at it worshipfully.

Still, I saw no need to emulate Evans; I assumed that projectile spitting was simply a flourish. My opinion did not change even after I started regularly visiting wineries. Several years ago, I paid a call on a Burgundian estate of some renown. The proprietor took me to the cellar, where he poured and I tasted. Knowing that he was watching made me self-conscious, which only made my spitting worse. At one point, as I was dabbing my chin with a tissue while trying to rub the stains out of my khakis, I caught him with an arched eyebrow and an expression that seemed to say, Who sent you here?

Thereafter, I got into the habit of spending a few minutes practicing spitting before heading off to wine country; usually, this involved taking a glass of water, standing in the doorway of the shower, and attempting to blast a cohesive stream out of my mouth. I never succeeded, but that didn't bother me: I had confidence in my palate and figured that as long as I showed myself to be a competent taster, my disposal problem would be forgiven.

Turns out I was wrong. A few weeks ago, I was thumbing through the British wine writer Jancis Robinson's latest book, How To Taste, and discovered that she devotes an entire page and then some to the topic of spitting. One sentence in particular struck a nerve: " 'Spit with pride' might well be the wine taster's motto." It dawned on me that spitting was perhaps more important than I had imagined. I immediately placed a call to Daniel Johnnes, the wine director at Montrachet, who is widely considered the dean of New York sommeliers. He confirmed it: Spitting really is a big deal. I asked Johnnes if he would help spare me any more embarrassment and give me some tips. He graciously agreed and invited me to his office in Tribeca for a lesson.

Johnnes is affable, energetic, and a little cheeky—perfect sommelier material. Within minutes of my arrival, it became clear that this would be a mutually beneficial exercise: He would give me pointers, I would give him a good laugh. As Johnnes fetched a bucket and a bottle of red, the 1999 Chateau de Lascaux from the Languedoc region in France, he explained to me that "there are three types of spitters: droolers, dribblers, and beeline spitters. Dribbling usually becomes spray before it becomes a bead."

I asked him to name some of the more esteemed wine-hockers. "Jancis Robinson is excellent. Robert Parker is a great spitter. But the most famous is probably [New York wine writer] Alex Bespaloff. He has incredible accuracy and distance."

What is considered good distance? "Two feet is standard. Three feet—that's competition spit."

So, how competitive does this stuff get? "Very. When I'm tasting with other sommeliers, we all look out of the corner of the eye to check the other guy's spitting ability. It's noticed, and any sommelier who tells you otherwise is not telling the whole story."

By that point, Johnnes had uncorked the wine and put a generous pour in his glass. Perhaps feeling some performance anxiety himself, he advised me that he was a bit tired and might be off his game that day. With that, he took a swig of wine, held it in his mouth for a few seconds, and then rifled what looked to be a fairly compact effluence into the bucket.

"Better than I expected," he said. "But if you noticed, I lost my form at the end. The finish is the one flaw in my spitting; the pressure drops, and I get just a little dribble at the end. I'm working on it."

Now it was my turn. I gathered my thoughts, took a good sized sip, and let it fly. As I pulled my head away from the bucket, wiping my mouth with my fingers, Johnnes handed me a paper towel. "I think you just created a new category—cascade spitter," he said, chortling. "That was awful. You get a D. But I've seen worse, if it's any consolation."

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

It wasn't. As I set my glass down, Johnnes began a step-by-step explanation of how to spit like a pro. It is essential, he said, to put the right amount of wine in your mouth; he recommends between one-quarter and one-half ounce. Once you have tasted the wine and are ready to expel it, you pucker your lips, tighten your cheeks, and press your tongue up against your top teeth, broadening the tongue so that it extends past the molars on each side. This pools the wine between the top of your tongue and the roof of your mouth. The key, Johnnes says, is muscle control and force: You need to generate sufficient power to push the wine out while maintaining your form throughout the process.

With his instructions in my mind, I refilled my glass and gave it another try, struggling to keep all the parts in place. "Better," Johnnes reported. "A little spray, but tighter, better." Feeling emboldened, I poured some more wine and repeated the drill. Johnnes shook his head. "Bad. You're really going to have to practice. To be honest, the way you are spitting right now, I personally wouldn't want to go into too many cellars." I asked him if it was hopeless.

"You are never going to be great, but you are clearly willing to work on it, and that's half the battle."

I am working on it, every chance I get. Even spitting out mouthwash has become an opportunity to practice. If all this strikes you as a bit asinine and pathetic, you may have a point. After all, stylish spitting does not improve your ability to appraise wine; it only keeps your clothes clean and the floor dry. But the wine world is a clubby, often catty one, with its own rites of passage. If you want to be seen as legit by the Crips, it helps to have a drive-by shooting to your credit. If you want be seen as legit by wine geeks, you need to be able to shoot a mouthful of Chardonnay in a clean, straight line.

No doubt, spitting's importance is amplified by the fact that so much else about wine is subjective. One man's elegant Cabernet is another man's tannic beast. There is no accounting for taste, nor is there much sense in arguing over it. Among the few aspects of wine that can be assessed with some degree of objectivity is spitting. The wine is expunged either in a tidy package or a centrifugal mess—and the tablecloth never lies.

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