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Dispatches from Behind the Counter
By Christy Frank
Sep 14, 2021
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When I opened my first wine shop in 2008, I did the very 2008 thing – I started a blog about my adventures behind the counter.  Some of the favorite posts involved peeks behind the magic curtain.  Industry folks enjoyed them because they told the truth.  And “civilians” enjoyed them because, well, who doesn’t love a little glimpse of an emperor in skivvies?  Nearly 15 years later, I’m back behind the counter – and the adventures are as entertaining as ever.  So, on occasion, I’ll use this column to tell them.  Well, some of them – I’ll spare you the retail minutia on how to count out a cash drawer or break down a cardboard box.

‘Tis the Season for Portfolio Tastings

Once upon a time, wine distributors used to throw magical events called Portfolio Tastings.  Held in off-hours restaurants and wine bars, tricked out office/wine bar spaces, and even the occasional ballroom, portfolio tastings often felt like gala events.  In addition to wine, there would be food, sometimes coffee, always finely polished glassware.  While the stated purpose was to sample the latest releases and make purchase decisions for the coming season, they were also social events with buyers and writers, shop people and restaurateurs, sommelier teams and wine school students, all mixing and mingling with the distributor’s sales team, management, portfolio managers and the occasional winemaker.  

These sort of trade tastings seemed to hold a certain fascination for people outside the industry.  Drinking wine…during daylight hours... on weekdays...for free!  Surely this is living the dream!

The reality was never quite as glamorous as the fairytale.  

Somehow, tastings always seem to take place on the same day, strung out across the city as if the distributors were colluding to give smartphone GPS systems – and the wine people they’re attached to - a robust workout.  And these are wine tastings… not drinkings.  And tasting means spitting, which means constantly angling for a straight shot at the spit bucket.  Which often involves bobbing and weaving and trying to time the spit stream so it doesn’t land on someone’s head.  While trying to hold your tasting book, your glass, your pen… and occasionally check your email messages to put out any fire smoldering back at your real work.  Portfolio tastings are surprisingly physical work.  And they are definitely not glamorous.

During 2020 tastings were few and far between, but they’re now starting to return.  Save for last year, the tasting calendar heats up in the fall – it’s the equivalent of new pencils and Trapper Keepers for the wine set.  And this past Monday, it almost felt like old times – with three different tastings on the same day, spread across New York City.  But these days, instead of the grand ballroom-scale events of the past, distributors are planning smaller tasting focused on a country or style or category within their portfolio.  To manage crowd flow, attendees sign up for specific time slots.  And in more than a few cases, personal spit cups are being provided in addition to fancy glassware.  It’s another piece of equipment to balance in already full hands, but it does make managing the all-important spitting process easier.  

Overall, this is a more enjoyable – and somewhat more productive – way to taste.  There’s (generally) more room, there are (theoretically) fewer people to socialize with, and the balancing act required to hold a personal spit cup outweighs (for me at least) the machinations needed to reach a shared spit bucket.  And tasting through a more focused selection of wine means there’s a better chance I’ll be able to taste everything on the tables – and remember it.

What follows are some tips and tricks for anyone new to the portfolio tasting game.  It’s also a helpful refresher for those of us out of practice managing the physical and social requirements of these trade tastings.  

1.    You.  Must.  Spit.  There’s a brilliant book waiting to be written, filled with a collection of essays about first official trade tastings, the failure to spit, and the sloppy aftermath.  Don’t add to that collection.  Just spit. 

(Super secret civilian tip: if you’re at a regular tasting, or in a tasting room, and you pointedly ask for a spit bucket, this is a secret signal that you’re in the industry, or at least serious about tasting versus drinking.  Try it.  It almost always works.)

2.    Bring a toothbrush.  Because there’s a good chance your teeth will turn a lovely shade of purple and once you leave the safety of the event, people will look at you oddly if you have purple teeth.  (Especially if you have to go pick up a kid from school.)

3.    Eat before the tasting.  While it is possible to make a meal of crackers and picked-over cheese platters, it’s best to arrive with a full stomach. 

4.    Give some consideration to your wardrobe.  If you want people to think you work in at fancy restaurant, wear a suit and tie.  If you want people to think you work in at a shop, wear anything you like, just make sure it's covered in dust.  If you carry a bag, something you can sling across your body is a good bet – it provides easy access to whatever you’re toting around and it’s less likely to bother your tasting table neighbors.  Make sure you have ample pockets.  And unless you like to live on the edge, this is probably not the time to wear white.

5.    Bring a portable phone battery.  Not only is this an excellent way to make friends, it will save you from rushing off to another tasting and realizing that you left your phone charging at some random outlet behind one of the tables or in a corner.  Not that this has ever happened to me.  (And it hasn’t happened after I started to bring my portable phone battery.)

6.    If you’re still a paper and ink person, skip the rollerball pens.  Just grab a ballpoint.  Many tasting booklets are printed on sleek, shiny paper.  Sleek, shiny, non-porous paper.  This stuff is the enemy of a rollerball.  Trust me on this.

7.    Map out your tasting plan.  Take a few quiet moments in the corner to go over what’s being poured and make sure you identify any must-taste bottles.  This is especially important if you’re getting to the tasting on the later side.  If your definition of “must-taste” lines up with everyone else’s (old, rare, expensive), they’ll likely pour off before the official last minute. 

8.    Schedule in social time.  Assume that you’ll run into at least one person you haven’t seen in forever before you even taste your first wine.  Actually, these days, three people is a safer assumption.  Just admitting that you’re going to spend as much time socializing as actually tasting, will make it much easier to allocate the appropriate amount of time to each stop on the circuit.

9.    Don't take the fancy collateral material on the tables.  You know you're going to throw them away when you get home, so just leave them and let them look pretty.

10.    Don’t be that person who monopolizes the person pouring the wine.  Unless you’re the only one there, this is not the time to delve into pH levels, vintage minutia, or sulfur levels.  Even if the person behind the table is happy to oblige, keep an eye on your neighbors… if they’re looking a little impatient (or throwing you full-on eye daggers,) it’s time to move one.  You can always ask for a card and follow up later.

11.    BONUS TIP: I know I said spitting is mandatory.  And it is.  Almost always.  But on occasion, you’ll taste something so deliciously wonderful that it haunts you throughout the tasting.  Go back to that table.  Ask for “just a little taste.” And for that one single sip, consider ignoring the spit bucket.  And remind yourself that maybe you are really living the dream. 

That toothbrush however, that is mandatory.  Always.      

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