The Fine Art of Spitting

Tim McDonald spits at SFIWC
Tim McDonald – an A+ Spitter at the ’09 SFIWC!

Now, in fairness, tasting six or eight 1-ounce wine samples doesn’t exactly strain one’s liver or raise one’s BAC to dangerous levels.  And the lack of spitters at public tastings is not unusual.  In fact, finding a high percentage of spitters at any wine gathering pretty much assures you it’s a trade tasting.  Those in the trade not only spit, we take pride in it.  Competitive pride.

I’d like to tell you I’m the most accurate wine spitter you’ll ever meet.  That’s what I’d like to tell you.  The truth is that in the realm of professional spitters I come in at, oh, maybe a C.

My limited spitting skills became painfully clear some years ago during a barrel tasting at Napa’s Swanson Winery.  Marco Capelli was their winemaker (now a consulting winemaker in Placerville) and our host for the tasting.   He started the tasting by placing a 5-Gallon plastic bucket in the center of the floor before pulling a barrel sample with the wine thief.  He dispensed a small taste into each of our glasses as he told us about the wine.  One by one, each of us sniffed, sipped and then, taking turns at the spit bucket, bowed our head so that spitting was a combination of gravity and our natural-born ability to dribble.

Then Marco stopped talking and took a small sip.  He performed the requisite swirl and swish, considered it for an instant, and then stood where he was as he let fly a solid, cylindrical stream of wine.  It was heard more than seen, hitting the bucket with such authority that not a single drop had enough nerve to defy the boundary of the bucket.  He was standing comfortably upright, a full four feet from the bucket.

Later, when I could pull him aside, I asked about his enviable spitting technique.  As I dabbed errant wine stains off my shirt, he explained the basics of spitting like a pro:

“First”, he said, “to taste a wine adequately you need far less than most would think – half an ounce is more than enough.  This small amount also helps maintain an accurate spit. When ready, simply pucker your lips and tighten your cheeks (note, your mouth cheeks).  Flatten your tongue so it seals up tight against the molars on each side, allowing the wine to collect between your tongue and the roof of your mouth.  Then quickly force your tongue up towards your teeth.”

“After that it’s all about getting the right muscle control and pressure – just practice in the shower until you can maintain a solid stream of water that accurately hits the target.  I use my shower drain for target practice every morning.”

Well, I’ve been following his advice for a dozen years now, and I’m still not a Grade-A spitter.  But I can stand in the cellar with the best of them and issue forth a stream of sufficient force and accuracy so that I can avoid the heave-ho – one must exhibit sufficient spitting prowess to be worthy of tasting next to the winemaker.

And of course, one must also be able to say something insightful and intelligent about the wine.  But that’s a topic for another posting.

(Related reading – Jancis Robinson’s “How To Taste”, where you’ll find a one-page spitting tutorial buried amidst a mountain of other valuable material.)

Cheers!

Dave the Wine Merchant

2 Replies to “The Fine Art of Spitting”

  1. Dave, you did a fantabulous job conducting our wine tasting schmoozer in Santa Barbara. But spitting? I will gladly spit out cheap tequila, not decent wine. Maybe that means my vino ignorimo is showing… Heck, who cares? The L&L was yummy.

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