Posted on | September 3, 2013
Written by | Andrew Bell
Autumn is Portfolio Tasting Season. On some days in September and October you may have two or three events to choose from. With the right approach, these events can be invaluable educational opportunities.
I encourage anyone in the early stages of his or her career to go to as many tastings as possible. They provide excellent structure for self-guided study and the opportunity to taste a vast range of wines free of charge.
Even for established professionals, a portfolio tasting is a focused opportunity to accomplish a lot in a short amount of time. If you already buy from the supplier, their tasting might offer a rare chance to taste high-end products or products in short supply. And attending the tasting of a supplier that you are not familiar with is the best way to get to know their portfolio. In both cases, tastings also give you a golden opportunity to develop relationships directly with producers.
Plan of Attack
Rule #1 of Portfolio Tastings is BE PREPARED. Preparation makes the difference between time well spent and time wasted. These events are planned months in advance—ask your sales rep to let you know once the date is set. A tasting book and table map should be available within a month of the event. Acquire these early in order to plot your course. Before you even walk in the door you should know which wines you want to taste and, ideally, where they are stationed in the venue.
Do your homework on target producers. Look to producer and supplier websites or online and print publications for background information. Develop questions to ask.
With target list and research in hand, you’re ready to taste. Bring plenty of business cards, but leave as much else as possible at home. While there are usually coat checks, the line to reclaim your possessions can be long and prevent a speedy exit.
To keep your palate sharp, eat a light lunch before the tasting. Arrive early to beat the crowds—you’ll have greater access to the wines and winemakers, and it will ensure that there is still wine to taste! Set a time limit to help maintain focus and prevent the tasting from stretching into a lost afternoon.
How many wines should you plan to taste? Most people begin to experience palate fatigue between 12 and 25 wines. Preferably, you should taste in order from sparkling to light whites, to heavier whites, light reds, heavier reds and, finally, sweet wines. That said, know your priorities and, regardless of style, make sure the most important wines are in the first 12 tasted.
One of the biggest hazards you may face is…excessive socializing! Remember, you are there to taste and learn; don’t get drawn into an afternoon catch-up sessions. Serious professionals will understand and respect this.
After 25 wines it’s easy to forget characteristics of the first. Understand that you can’t capture every nuance of every wine—get the general sense of each with broad strokes: high acid, fruit-forward, new oak, etc. Use simple shorthand to help keep speedy, concise notes, including thoughts on how the wine might fit in your program (by the glass or by the bottle, for example).
Afterward, it’s important to organize and recap your notes as soon as possible—this will help you to internalize the new information. My recommendation is to find an electronic system that works for you. Portfolio tasting books get lost and destroyed, but emails to yourself are forever!
Finally, be sure to follow up with anyone you traded cards with. A quick “loved the wine, thank you” or “great to see you” can go a long way in making sure that YOU are the sommelier who stood out from the portfolio tasting crowd.