Only Camels Spit
Over spring break, I took my kids to the San Diego Zoo. Towards the end of our bus tour, we came across an egregiously malodorous and wholly disgusting camel, lounging in its sandy enclosure, foaming at the mouth. Really. He was actually foaming. Copious quantities of frothy, white expectoration accumulated all around the beast's mouth as he masticated contentedly. One of my girls shrieked, "What's that smell? Camel poop?" I think a combination of camel dung and fetid spittle would have been more accurate. With the frothing camel now emblazoned in your mind's eye, perhaps you'll recall your mother's oft repeated mantra, "Only camel's spit." Every night in the bathtub, I admonish my kids, "No spitting."
"Get that dirty bathwater out of your mouth. And don't spit it on your sister."
At swim lessons I reiterate, "Get that water out of your mouth. And no spitting."
So why then do most adults blush at the very idea of tasting, swishing and spitting wine in public? Seems, instead, it should be occasion to celebrate the most ingrained transgression of childhood. Shouldn't one relish the perverse pleasure in engaging in an act so offensive that it is only sanctioned in the presence of copious amount of alcohol? Funny though that we all end up wasted on the Napa Valley wine train since we're all too embarrassed to spit.
Most sommeliers I know spit all of the time; they're professionals. Professional posers not only spit but also aim to recreate that weird, guttural whistling as they aerate the wine and suck air though their teeth. I am too self conscious to emulate such posturing...way too fatuous. A confirmed non-spitter, my resistance was recently tested and failed. Here's what went down: we attended a mass market wine tasting called The Family Winemakers of California.
As Brian described in a previous post, we were unable to secure early admission as professional members of "qualified" wine trade and were forced slum it with the masses during the public exhibition. Over 240 family wineries poured and hawked their wares from long rows of plastic tables, preaching to slosh-happy consumers, often 3 deep. In local newspaper, the event had been promoted as a wine tasting for true enthusiasts, empowering either the winemakers or winery owners themselves to promote their craft directly to the consumer. And sometimes this was true. But more often than not, we were the disappointed victims of sales gimmicks or gorilla marketing. Unfortunately, aggressive sales reps in tight T's were more fluent in variations of the Cosmo martini than the pinot clones of Louis Martini (not that Brian minded the mini skirts). Even some of the folksy, hippy types from our beloved Anderson Valley sent regional sales reps instead of enologists.
A well-regarded, sommelier pal suggested we taste a particular pinot. By the time we fought our way to the edge of the table, literally the last pour of the last bottle was tossed back by a large, sweaty guy with a New York accent who'd elbowed himself right in front of my spot. After being nudged repeatedly by a boozy blonde who kept stuttering over the pronunciation of "gewürztraminer," I knew nothing could possibly taste good now. So when some sales gal from some unknown winery guilted me into accepting a plastic cup of her tepid cab, I slogged some back, swished, and then spit. Just like that. It was the perfect venue for nurturing a nascent skill since it was crowded, loud, and everyone around me was toasted. I grabbed another glass of something I couldn't stand to fully consume, and I spit again. It wasn't so bad. Thinking too hard about that thick, unsanitary concoction of saliva and spewed wine induced some temporary nausea, but ick-factor aside, it seemed to work. Still, do I dare spit in the beau colic cocoon of those over produced, mega-million dollar Napa tasting rooms, the ones with the piped in classical music tinkling in the background?
Unsure how to proceed, I commandeered wine star Mollie Battenhouse for free advice. A New York-based Advanced Sommelier and Master of Wine candidate with over ten years experience in the food/wine industry, I knew she'd elucidate the spit/dump/swallow conundrum. Mollie writes, "Ah, spitting. It is tricky, and unfortunately, does require a little practice to get it right (no drooling down the chin or splash back). It is also gross, but, somehow becomes less so once you have to do it all the time. So, most professional tasters will spit while tasting, and if you want to really be able to taste the wines and take notes, tasting more than about 5 wines without spitting is almost too much. Spit if you want to taste a larger amount of wine and be able to really study them, or taste for fun, and don't spit. Another good method is to spit while taking notes, then move on to having a taste to drink of your favorites from the tasting. That's my favorite method."
I was afraid to ask about the liability of spitting within range of tasting notes. Does spittle splatter cause noticeable ink smudge?
Also popular online is the oft quoted and highly detailed spitting how-to from Slate's wine guy Michael Steinberger. He famously asks Daniel Johnnes, Wine Director at Montrachet in NYC, how to spit spectacularly. Mr. Johnnes explains, "It is essential...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."
Still I take Ms. Battenhouse's advice to heart: taste for fun and don't spit. I fear that hocking a huge wine loogie at our favorite, white tablecloth joint would shock and alienate our dining companions beyond reparation. As for now, I am best served to reserve any spitting for the shower, when errant cascades of shampoo inadvertently drip into the corners of my mouth, not unlike that fetid, frothing camel.