Wine Questionary:

Zinfandel: Where's it from?

One of the most effective ways to gain a lot of wine knowledge in a hurry is to wangle an invitation to a large trade or commercial tasting where scores of wines are being served. But the scene at such a tasting can be daunting, with hundreds of participants jammed around dozens of tasting tables, reaching out their wine glasses like baby birds demanding tidbits from their Mom.

How can you get the most out of a major event like the huge October 1999 tasting sponsored by the Schneider's of Capitol Hill wine shop at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., where some three dozen importers and distributors were offering samples of more than 200 wines?

There's no practical way to taste them all, so your options are clear: Take a random walk, sampling whatever you encounter (not entirely a bad idea) ... or spend a few moments making a coherent plan before you dive in to the mob scene. Here's how I handled the Schneider's tasting:

  • Scan the list of wines to spot specific items that you really want to taste. I knew my pal Peter Finkelstein would be there, representing Philadelphia-based World Shippers and Importers Co., so I made a note to drop by Peter's table and taste what he was pouring. I also added to my "must" list the fine Spanish wines Pesquera and Condada de Haza, two favorites from the Ribera del Duero; and I highlighted the Feuillate Champagnes in hopes of finding bubblies of exceptional value.
  • Focus on broad categories. Realizing that I wouldn't be able to try all 200-plus in the tasting, I decided to stay mostly with reds - and, frankly, primarily the most expensive and sought-after items, wines that I would be unlikely to purchase on my own.
  • Don't be ashamed to spit and dump. Being serious about wine doesn't make you immune to alcohol impairment, and a few dozen tiny sips can add up quickly. That's why professional tastings always have plenty of buckets available, and no one is insulted when you use them.
  • Avoid the crowds that gather around the "cult" items. Unless you're desperate to try a specific wine, avoid the traffic jams at the tables with the most sought-after items and enjoy the relative calm around the rest.
  • Take plenty of notes. Use the sheets that the tasting organizers provide or bring your own notebook. Either way, jot down your impressions of the wines you like, a procedure that will help fix them in your memory as well as giving you a written shopping list to use later.
  • Finally, if you're not in the wine business, don't despair of your chances at getting in to tastings like this. While many are limited to people in the industry, other major tastings - like this one - are open to any interested wine lover. Get to know the folks at your local wine shop, express your interest in tastings, and chances are they'll let you know when the next one comes along.
  • I took notes on no more than two dozen of the wines at this tasting and left feeling that I had done a good job of culling the list. My tasting notes are too voluminous to include here, but if you'd like to read them, they're archived on The Wine Lovers' Page at

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