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Race to Review

A recent post caught my eye: “45 Seconds to Judge a Wine.” At the Spieglau International Wine Competition at the Marlborough Convention Center in Blenheim, judges evaluating all varietals of wines are served up to 40 wines at a time, and asked to spend 45 seconds to a minute on each wine. It is not unusual for other wine competitions to ask judges to review upwards of 150 wines a day.

In February of this year, Steve Heimoff interviewed Antonio Galloni (a wine critic for the Wine Advocate), and posted the results on his blog ( Galloni said that at home he begins tasting at 8:30-9:00 a.m. and continues to 6:00-7:00 p.m., with “lots of breaks.” He remarked, “When the wines are great, I don’t ever feel tired.” The number of wines tasted was not mentioned, but one must infer there were many tasted each day. Galloni did mention that when he is traveling to a wine region, he probably tastes 100 to 150 wines a day. He commented, “I think tasting wine is a lot like sports. You build up endurance. I don’t ever feel inebriated.” He denied losing any objectivity over these long periods of tasting.

My experience has been that some alcohol absorption is inevitable in wine tasting, despite the best efforts to spit out all the wine. The seasoned drinker is more resistant to the effects of alcohol, but judgement will inevitably be impaired if a number of wines are evaluated quickly and an increasing amount of alcohol is gradually absorbed. There are no scientific studies to prove this alcohol-induced loss of credibility, but I believe it occurs.

Jancis Robinson, in How to Taste Wine 2008, says, “Even if you carefully spit out every single mouthful, you will probably not escape the effects of alcohol....alcoholic fumes will travel around your mouth, up your nose and retro-nasal passages, and you may feel slightly light-headed. In any case, you will find it extremely difficult not to swallow a single drop of wine.” Robinson estimates that for every 30 wines she tastes and spits, she ingests one glass.

Paul Moloney in “Can Wine Tasting as a Profession Damage Your Health?,” (Wine Business Monthly July 2000) states, “In a social setting, about 3% of the alcohol in a drink is absorbed through the tongue and the lining of the mouth before swallowing.”

Emile Peynaud, in his classic book The Taste of Wine (1987), remarks, “The passage of alcohol across the mucous membranes of mouth and nose also results in a certain fatigue during extended tasting; even spitting all the wine out will not avoid this effect. The taster should not wait until he is tired before breaking off.”

Wine tasting should be a measured, patience exercise, executed in such a fashion as to minimize palate fatigue and imposing inebriation. This is why I taste only 6 to 8 wines daily at home, trying to group the wines with similar alcohol levels, carefully evaluating each wine over a 30 to 60 minute period, trying to minimize the number of spitting passes to remain alert and focused.

I plan to carry out future experiments with an accurate breathalyzer to determine how much alcohol is absorbed after spitting out a number of wines in the setting of a normal wine review session. I plan to use really good Pinot Noir. Any volunteers?

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