Keep your wits about you at tastings

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There was an anecdote on Twitter recently about an independent wine merchant – hello Paola – who was involved in an unusual spat with a winemaker. The incident happened at a London tasting at which the producer was one of many pouring his wines.

The merchant was taken to task for having the temerity to sample the wines “in the wrong order” and the “rudeness” to step away from the table (surely a gesture of unselfishness?) as she did so. The story is so bizarre that the natural response is simply to laugh at the pomposity of the vigneron. But maybe it shines some light on the rather strange rituals that have grown up around trade tastings.

As we shuffle from table to table, struggling to absorb staccato sermons about elevation, soil type and rainfall and glasses are refilled almost faster than we can empty them, in noisy rooms full of sharp elbows and spittoons around which sockless sommeliers have chosen to have their water-cooler moments, concentration is rarely easy.

What was that last wine you poured me? Was it the 2015 or the 2016? What page of the booklet is it on, if it’s there at all? No, I think I’ve already had the Estate Syrah. Or maybe that was the Reserve that I tried. And actually it was only really the Riesling that I was interested in.

Bags slide clumsily off shoulders. Dropped pens are trodden underfoot. Notebooks are desecrated with Touriga Nacional. Smashed glasses create a momentary hush and glares from spooks in polo shirts. Glossy leaflets, never to be read again, are politely accumulated in back pockets or handbags.

That last wine was very nice. But can we be sure, with this noise, this pressure to rush, these friendly interruptions from old colleagues, these glasses, those miserly samples, and that weird background smell of fresh paint and meat stew?

We each have to make sense of trade tastings in our own way, with our wits about us and our defences up. Any sign of weakness and they’ll leave us dazed and exhausted, dragged into energy-sapping cul-de-sacs of alluvial fans, yeast cultures and genealogy. And unwanted wine.

So yes, we will taste in the wrong order. And we will sometimes step away from the table to gather our thoughts, and to make room for others to have their turn. But if exhibitors forget that this is supposed to be a two-way encounter, not merely a rather crass selling opportunity, we might not return at all.

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