How To Navigate Big Wine Events: A Master Sommelier’s Advice

As a major hub for top-notch cuisine, wine, cocktails and beer, there are constantly big wine tasting events in Houston. Some annual showcases, such as Houston Rodeo Uncorked! Best Bites, The Wine Rendezvous Grand Tasting during Wine & Food Week in The Woodlands and Sugar Land Wine & Food Affair’s Grand Tasting offer dozens — if not hundreds — of different kinds of wine to try. These events are enthralling at best and overwhelming at worst, particularly when attendees face enormous halls filled with wines, winemakers and virtually unlimited access to samples. Approached with a strategy, though, big wine tastings are prime learning opportunities for novices and a chance for seasoned wine drinkers to expand their knowledge and find new favorites.

Seasoned pros have their own approaches to large-scale tastings to make the most of the evening. Guy Stout, director of wine education at distributor Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits, was only the second in Houston to pass the grueling tests needed to earn the Court of Master Sommelier. That was in 2005 and, to this day, he’s still only one of 215 Master Sommeliers in the world. We asked him for his advice on drinking through the haze of bottles and enjoying the evening while still learning something new along the way.

According to Stout, a common surprise for first-time attendees is the sheer inventory of wines available for tasting. “It’s a shock,” he says. “It’s not sticker shock but the realization of just how much there is out there. Then people wonder where to begin. Where do I start? What do I do?”

The first step in combatting this uncertainty is to prepare for the evening in the day or days leading up to the event. “Do your homework. Look the list of vendors over and make sure you get to see the people you want to see,” he advises. “Make sure that you taste the types of wine that you know you enjoy and that you might want to stock up on for special occasions. Look at the style of wines you like to enjoy and then go after those kinds of wines. You bought the ticket [so] utilize it.”

Those tasting event tickets, after all, don’t come cheap. That said, attendees are missing out on some of the fun if they don’t venture into unfamiliar territory on occasion. “Don’t be afraid to try wines you’re not familiar with,” Stout says. “Get outside the box. Don’t pre-judge a grape just because you’re not that familiar with it or you’ve had bad examples of that variety.” This is an opportunity to try new wines without spending money on a bottle.

Wine tasting events provide an opportunity to sample wines without committing to buying a bottle. Photo by Phaedra Cook

Common wisdom when tasting through a flight of wines in a restaurant or bar is to drink from “light to heavy.” It’s the same with wine tasting events, says Stout. Begin with lighter whites like dry sparkling wines (such as Champagne), Pinot Gris, Pinot Grigio, and chardonnay. “Definitely do the white wines first. That way they’re fresh and they’re lively and then build up to the big red wines. Start light and dry and build up to big and bold or sweet. I prefer to start with whites and move into reds, but some people just hop back and forth.”

With so many wines going down palate saturation is a valid concern. “We all have our palate limitations,” says Stout. “There are only so many wines that we can taste. My advice is to get a nice size plastic cup and expectorate [spit]. Don’t try to drink all the wines. If you start with white you don’t have to rinse your glass between every wine. [It will dilute the wine.] Just keep going and just make sure you’re going from light to full.” He saves rinsing his glass until he’s ready for the reds and drinking the rinse water. This strategy ensures he is hydrating as he goes. “You aren’t getting much wine but you are getting water,” he explained. “I highly recommend that technique [because] it works and it keeps you on the sober side.”

Some guests balk at the idea of spitting, especially in regard to expensive wines. “I feel guilty — but I also want to be the last man standing,” admits Stout. “I don’t want to be the first one laying down. You can always go back for a second taste but you’re there for a tasting, not for a drinking.”

Writing down what you like also ensures you’ll still remember what you had the morning after. “It does not have to be a complicated note. Just make a note that you like a particular wine and if you have a word or two or a small sentence write why you liked it. The acid, the fruit forwardness, the oak, the structure or ‘It was lovely,’ ‘It was super juicy, sexy-sexy,’ ‘It was floral’ – whatever it needs to be. Just put a word or two to help you remember why you liked it.”

Stout also advises against asking too many questions of a winemaker or representative right off the bat. “Put it in the glass. Taste the damn wine. That will answer most of the questions you want to ask.” He says it’s fine to ask technical questions but “please don’t be the person who asks the winemaker or the rep what’s the alcohol on that wine. It’s not important unless the alcohol seems very apparent to you. Otherwise you’re just asking a question that’s not relevant.”

Annual wine tasting events like Wine & Food Week in The Woodlands are often social and festive. Photo courtesy of Integrate Agency

If your budget allows, take advantage of private tasting events such as the Platinum Wine Vault at Wine & Food Week. “That’s where the different vendors and small lots are being offered,” explains Stout. “They’re not being offered in the large tasting. It is a much smaller crowd and you’re able to visit with the winemaker. It’s a lot more personal and you’re trying their single vineyard, more exclusive wines.”

When it comes to eating during a wine and food tasting event, attendees face a dilemma: snacking on chef’s dishes can muddy the palate but skipping food altogether is an obvious bad move. According to Stout, the ideal route is to stick to basics like cheese and crackers or crudités and save dinner for after the event.

You need to eat something,” he says. “I usually take a break between whites and reds to relax and drink a bottle of water. I try to cleanse my palate but I also try not to eat too much. Don’t distract your palate. Cheese and crackers are perfect. They are really good with wines and they set the tasting up to be successful. I don’t do much beyond that because I want to cleanse and jump back in and blast off in search of the reds.”

Tasting events are a practical link for consumers, winemakers, and other industry professionals. “Wine events are important for wineries to showcase their wines and convey their story to the trade and consumers. Many consumers can’t take time off to go visit wineries and taste wines. Attending a tasting and hearing the stories from the owners is like taking a trip without leaving home. Every time you buy that bottle you will remember the story and the day you first tasted it…and it’s much cheaper than a plane ticket!”

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