La Dolce Vita: Wine tastings offer a variety of experiences

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When I was thinking about what I would write about a wine tasting event I attended in Calgary last week, it suddenly occurred to me that the timing was interesting. Memories flooded back to our first-ever wine tasting event.

We were visiting Calgary, two young sons in tow, when a radio advertisement caught my attention. It was promoting a large wine tasting event, timed to coincide with Valentine’s Day. Angela agreed with my suggestion that a wine tasting would be a nice way to mark the special occasion. This was about 20 years ago, and we had begun to enjoy visiting wineries in the Okanagan and searching out different wines in our Creston liquor store.

I purchased tickets and we arrived at a northeast Calgary hotel, having no idea what to expect. Several hundred people filled the room, milling about, checking what the dozens of vendors had to offer. With no experience to draw from, we soon realized that we would need some sort of plan. White wines first, we decided, then reds and, finally, dessert wines.

With our embossed tasting glasses in hand, we wandered and sipped, taking in the excitement that builds in a room full of wine enthusiasts who have hundreds of choices. Like any of the wine tasting events we have participated in since, the participants vary in age and purpose. Some are content to narrow their tastes to a specific category, perhaps Chardonnays or Spanish red wines. Others search out wines they haven’t had the opportunity to try. A large number simply want to party — the occasions lend themselves to socializing.

Among the many such events we have attended in the ensuing years, our favourites have been fundraisers that also included silent auctions. The undeniable highlight was an evening at the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival. We were staying at the Pan Pacific, so we didn’t even have to outdoors to get to the festival, which was held in the convention centre next door. More than 600 wines from around the world were available to taste. A huge number of silent auction items were on display and when I took the elevator up to our room, three-litre bottle of wine that I had won at the auction in hand, others in the elevator jokingly tried to get invitations to the party they assumed that was about to happen in our room.

At that first Valentine’s Day tasting in Calgary, it occurred to me that there was probably an opportunity to score some cheap tasting glasses. They were, after all, embossed with a logo and date — not much use to the organizers anymore. I tracked down one of the organizers the next day and eventually managed to purchase a couple of dozen glasses for a very low price. We still have some, though they are almost never used because I prefer much larger glasses — larger surface areas expose more wine to the air and allow aromas to gather in the bowl.

Anyone taking in a wine tasting event is well advised to approach it with a plan. Trying to sample more than a few dozen wines isn’t something I recommend. After a while, one’s palate and nose tend to tire and the subtleties of each wine are no longer detected. And, if there is one bit of etiquette I’d like to see embraced by everyone at a tasting, it is to move away from the table before sipping the sample. Time and time again, I have come across couples, or even groups, who like to congregate in front of a table, chatting and sipping and generally preventing anyone else from getting their own samples.

Personally, when I am at a tasting, I rarely swallow any of the wine. So I take my sample of wine and locate a spit bucket that I can get easy access to and only then do I swirl, sniff and sip. After 20 seconds or so of moving the wine around my mouth, it goes into the bucket and I’m ready to have a bit of water, then to move on to the next sample. The biggest benefit to not swallowing? I can always remember the wines I enjoyed most. And I don’t have a headache the next morning.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.

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