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My ten rules of proper wine tasting etiquette

I was invited once to judge for a national wine competition. It was a unique experience on many fronts, especially regarding the wine tasting etiquette.  As a sensory scientist, I discovered indeed that the local wine judges had some unexpected practices.

First and foremost, they started each day by sipping a cup of strong coffee and for some, smoking a cigarette.

Then after judging two flights of 10 wines, we would take a break; coffee this time pastries and coffee were, and some judges would take a smoke break as well. I was shocked to see these fantastic wine talents waste their senses in such practice.

Whether or not you are judging wine at a competition, there are several basic rules to follow. Adopting these 10 rules is essential to attend a wine tasting with a fresh nose, clean palate, and focused mind!

Rule #1: Avoid consuming intensely flavored products BEFORE tasting

At least two hours before the tasting, do not drink any coffee or flavored drinks. The same applies to food: do not eat any intensely flavored or hot spicy foods. 

Why? Intense flavors, creamy texture, or pungent sensations can linger in your mouth for a long time. Besides, they prevent you from smelling or tasting specific wine sensory attributes. 

One of my former panelists had trouble with identifying bitterness in a beverage. While the rest of the group would agree on describing a particular drink as bitter, she consistently argued she could not perceive it. I discarded the fact that she was low sensitive to bitterness; however, she initially passed the taste acuity screening and was not “bitter blind.” After chatting with her, she admitted that she was drinking black coffee every tasting day. We concluded that the coffee bitterness could desensitize her ability to taste bitterness in the beverage. 

Another flavored product is to avoid before a tasting day, ladies: lipstick. Lipsticks are flavored, and their flavor and texture can mix up with the actual wine tastes and aromas.

Rule #2: Be excused if you have a cold

If you have a cold and a stuffy nose, don’t come. 
Why? The mucus accumulated in your nasal cavities will prevent the wine aromas from reaching their target: your olfactory receptors located in the top of the nasal cavity.

Therefore you won’t smell a thing and will be frustrated. By not coming, you won’t spread your germs either, and your fellow tasters will thank you for that! That's all a great wine tasting etiquette rule to follow.

Rule #3: Be excused if you take certain medications

Medications such as antibiotics, antidepressants, or hormone therapy can alter your senses temporarily. You may share this confidential info with the tasting organizers. 

Why? Sensory scientists can check whether your medications have active compounds that may interfere with your sensory abilities, usually by decreasing your sensitivity. Medicines should not be a problem for a one-time event. They could become a concern if wine tasting is part of a series as your performance may show ups and downs. 

Rule #4: Do not wear any perfume or fragrant lotions. 

Why? While your senses will become adapted to the scents, the other tasters will be able to smell them and will be distracted by them.

That's a simple wine tasting etiquette rule to adopt. I have saved some money too by not wearing perfume every day!

Rule #5: Do not smoke one hour before attending the tasting

Do not smoke before entering the room, and do not wear any clothes you had on a smoking day. Smoked tobacco smells persist on clothes.

Know that smoking may not alter your sense of smell. The smoked tobacco odor persists on clothes, and that could disturb the other tasters. 

Rule #6: Be Punctual

Be courteous and arrive on time; call the organizer if you cannot make the tasting.

Why? Setting up a tasting require a lot of work (think of cleaning glasses, labeling glasses, making questionnaire buying enough wine for all). Other participants will appreciate your consideration.

Rule #7: Follow the tasting instructions

Why? When a wine tasting follows the best sensory practices, the order of wine presentation is randomized to minimize biases. Sometimes, the tasting leader is interested in a particular evaluation. Follow the tasting instructions and be focused on the task.

Rule #8: No chit chat

Do not chat with your fellow tasters before the end of the tasting, if you finished your evaluation early.

Why? Your whispers will distract those who are still focusing on the task at hand.

Rule #9 No cell phone

Our phones have become an extension of our lives or hands. We can’t seem to be able to function without them. However, they have no use in a wine tasting room.
Turn them off and focus on the wines. It will be a nice break!

 Rule #10 Be respectful of others

I have said it many times: our senses function differently, and that’s why we can perceive wine flavors and aromas differently. So be respectful. Listen to what others have to say. There is no right or wrong answers. Trust your senses and share your perceptions!

Wine Tasting Etiquette Bonus

I created a cheat sheet you can download and keep it handy. Following these simple wine tasting etiquette rules will enhance your wine tasting experience, for sure.

Published January 6, 2013
Updated October 24, 2019

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