It is my wont, in these balmy days of leisure and lunacy between the late terror of vintage and the approaching monotony of pruning, to take in the odd consumer (sic) wine tasting. Now those of you who have been party to such rituals will understand that my use of the word "odd" is a pejorative of the mildest kind and any observations here are certainly not necessarily directed at you. After all, you do know there is a difference between a spittoon and a water jug and after the final swig, what IS normal about a wine tasting?
When you think about it, the very concept is a slight-of-hand given that your fellow tasters spend not a little time judging you on your ability to spit the stuff out. And what meets their judgmental eyes? Not for you the pathetic open-mouthed forward arching dribble over the impossibly narrow antique silver goblet (improbably imitating a real spittoon), no, not for you. Yours is a purposeful venerated jet which fires cleanly and precisely from your delicately pursed lips into the very middle of that narrow impossibility every, single, time.
The ease with which this is accomplished says more about you as a worthwhile human being than it could ever possibly say about the quality of the wine under examination. Not that there is any sort of public acclamation with each successful execution of such a feat. No, all you're likely to sense from your fellow tasters, is a slight elevation in the angle of an occasional dandruff dusted eyebrow, or, if you are really lucky, the ever so slight flash of a gold tooth as their unforgiving lips reluctantly part.
However, to every down side there is an upside, or as they say in the classics, you can lead a journalist to a cliche, but you can't make it think. The upside is that, with each splash free spit, you will feel a palpable sigh of relief amongst the anxious kitchen staff arranged white and black in battalions along the linen encrusted walls of the executive room of the Nobs- Rest Motel B.Y.O. Brasserie.
But to the tasting proper. If it's a mass event with a discrete number of wines in a specified order of tasting within a pre-determined time, the early progress will be genteel and ordered; a studied glimpse at the tasting guide, a measured swirl of each wine, a short sharp inhalation of the bouquet on offer followed by a gargle of the stuff itself. A cryptic annotation to the "official" notes is the final ritual step. You know the sort of thing. Scratch out "complex" and insert "oxidised"; substitute "honeydew" for "smoked oysters"...ignore "finesse" and pass the bottle.
Actually, the Riesling type styles appearing as they do early in the proceedings, often receive an inordinate amount of time and consideration. Is there the whiff of apricot betraying a battle with Botrytis; do the aromatics lean more or less toward the lime or the citrus realm of things; is there enough weight and zing in the palate to balance the complex aromas which greet your first sniff? Yes, early on each taster gives their all and, with the exception of the badly suited gent upstage right of the fortified section, the Irish linen embroidered table cloth beneath each spittoon remains, for a time at least, pristine. (Apparently, St Vincent de Tokay somehow has no need for a spittoon).
And yet, as Ethyl begins her magic, things are about to change. There's still some control come Chardonnay time, even enough leeway in the light reds to excuse the occasional accidental splash leaping out of the rapidly filling silverware, but by the turn of the full-bodied Cabernet based reds, all pretence is out the window. Time is running out, the well-dressed jostle for position, and the effects of earlier indiscretions are now in full view.
The Irish linen is developing indigestion, while the remaining bread sticks and chunks of cheese lose identity in a sea of random red wine. The tipping point in such social occasions is when St. Vincent de Tokay is discourteously forced downstage left where he contents himself with the contents of the remnants of the Riesling table. A full scale attack on the fortifieds is about to begin. By now, not one taster knows the whereabouts of, or has even the vaguest need for the spittoon. It, like the previously starched-white linen supporting it may as well be in Ireland.
As the tasting enters the straight, all social restraint is abandoned. As Muscat after Tokay after botrytised Semillon barely touches the palate on the way down to a fate worse than dearth, the minutes flash by. Yes friends, it's value for money time. The Plimsoll line, lately representing the absolute maximum poured into each glass is subject to permanent inundation. The tasting guide mutates into a latter day shopping trolley used as it is to swat competitors aside while maintaining a bee-line to the next sticky. All pretence of order and sobriety is well and truly down the proverbial. That's what St Vincent and the Irish in me really likes about choreographed wine tastings. In the end they are great social levellers which teach us all to be more tolerant of those more fortified than ourselves.