Friday, April 24, 2009

Spit or Swallow?


No, it is not what you think, get your mind out of the gutter. The etiquette in question is oenological, not sexual, although another writer might well draw parallels between the adult pleasures of wine, sensuality, and physical arousal. For a wine professional, of course, it is really no question at all. Faced with a long lineup of vintages for tasting, the thing to do is to sip, swish, and spit. Etiquette likely isn't even a concern; it's just standard practice, reflexive. For a twentysomething woman raised with good manners, who has never been on a wine tasting before, however, spitting is just not an easy thing to do. These days, of course, I know better. I am the wife of a sommelier, and after ten years of dating and marriage, I have been to enough tastings to know that any highfalutin idea of manners may be safely (and should prudently be) forgotten. But back in 1998, I knew no such thing. In October of that year, I traveled to southwest France to meet my husband (then just a boyfriend) on his home turf for the first time. He was there for a two-week visit; I, due to a series of writing deadlines, could spare four days only. They were a blur of jet lag and jitters (meeting family I already suspected might become in-laws one day); they were a whirlwind of names, faces, and altogether too much foie gras. And, on one all-day road trip through the appellations of Corbières and Minervois, I was initiated into the world of professional wine tasting. We were three: my husband (I'll call him that throughout, to make things simple), a friend and fellow wine professional I'll call P., and me. We set out mid-morning by car and went to a vineyard in Minervois. For the life of me I cannot at the moment recall the name of this first property, but I do remember the walking tour of the grounds, on which stood an old "capitelle," or shepherd's dwelling, which was a hut made of stone. It was a sunny day, and the light warmed the stones to the touch. I did a rough sketch in my notebook. We sampled some red wine, and this is the first time I noticed the "crachoire" or spittoon, which I don't believe my husband and P. were using yet. From there we went on to a tiny property in Corbières called Faillenc Sainte Marie, owned by Dominique and Marie-Therese Gibert and now run by their son, Jean-Baptiste. Here I felt at home, sitting on the porch of their house among the vines, enjoying good humor and great wines. It was here that I tasted (still without spitting) the first rosé I ever liked—no, better to say I loved it—and also here that I was gifted with two beautiful, ornately drawn labels from the current vintage that I could save as souvenirs (you can see the labels and more on Faillenc here). For sentimental reasons, Domaine Faillenc remains close to my heart. The small-yield, artisan, and organic approach to winemaking truly results in fine bottles, and I was reluctant to part with any of what was in my glass. At this point, though, I had to; we were served a flight of three wines (white, rose, then red), and there was no way I could finish them all (nor did anyone expect me to)—still, it was hard to see that lovely wine go to waste, poured into the bucket which was set on the table for that purpose. Next we stopped for lunch at a small restaurant in Perpignan, owned by a chef friend. Excellent food, more wine. I am sad to say that Côté Théâtre is closed now (I may yet write a post about it, nevertheless), but happy to report that the chef has moved on to Bordeaux, where he has just earned a second Michelin star at Le Saint-James in Bouliac (link here, and follow menu items "Cuisine" and "The World of the Chef"). By now, a lightweight like me was having trouble staying completely sober. Or maybe it was just the combination of sunshine in autumn and a new love in my life. No, I'm sure the wine played no small role. Our third and final tour of the day: Domaine Gauby, a biodynamic vineyard run by Gérard Gauby, about twenty kilometers northwest of Perpignan; it is no doubt considered by many as the grand cru of Roussillon (website, in French). Here, finally, is where I had to come to terms with the crachoire. Out of the sun, amid large oak casks, we were set up with what seemed to me an impossible number of bottles to taste. My husband and P. were by now spitting regularly, casually, elegantly even—or if elegant is not the word, then I should say they were at least efficient. I'm sure they were taught this in their trade, or just by force of repetition. Unless you are in the wine trade, though, no one teaches a woman to spit. I was the only female there, and in general, I found myself (as had been the case all day) wanting to make a good impression. Because I was meeting friends of the man I was dating; because I was the only woman; because I was American and did my best to avert any negative assessments that may have affixed due to my nationality; because I care about the French language and do my best to use it properly, though my shallow vocabulary can often give others a false impression of shyness. I took tiny sips of the wine poured into my glass. I took one sip for every three taken by my companions. I poured out remnants of glasses. I did pretty much everything I could to avoid spitting into the communal bucket. To me, spitting had always been crass. Something you were not ever supposed to do. Spitting made me think of slobs on the street, of baseball players with wads of chew, of cowboys in the Old West with their tobacco. When my future husband asked me if I was all right, I nodded and smiled and said yes. But eventually, the moment arrived when I simply could not swallow another sip of wine, no matter how good it tasted. I had had more than my fill, and my head was swimming. So, spit I did. Let me tell you, it takes some getting used to. It takes practice. I had no trouble hitting the bucket, of course—it was right there under my chin, after all—but my chin was pretty much the problem. I'm sure I remember it as a more magnified incident than it was, out of pure self-consciousness. Still, I managed to dribble from my lip nearly the amount I spat directly into the bucket. It was hardly the purposeful, determined "pftht" that punctuated the others' mouthfuls. In trying to find a more dainty manner of spitting—in trying to not make noise or call attention to myself—I was just infinitely more clumsy. If anyone noticed my awkwardness or inexperience, though, they were too polite to even crack a smile. Bless them. I repeated the process a few more times, getting a little better with each spit, but never relaxing into it. Eventually, the interminable tasting over, we were treated to an off-road Jeep ride across the stunning expanse of wild, mountainous, terraced landscape that makes up the Gauby estate. And then it was time to make the drive back toward Toulouse. A day of tasting and my initiation into the cult of the crachoire was complete. Nowadays, the spitting is no big deal. I find that the more forceful, and consequently the noisier I am, the more effective, quick, and painless the whole thing is. I don't think about it much anymore, which is good. I just enjoy the wine and avoid its intoxicating effects. But somewhere in my memory, there will always be a day dominated by the crude question of this post's title, the question of whether to swallow or to spit the stuff out.

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