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Spitting a necessary evil with serious wine tasting



Sometimes spelled “ptooey,” it’s “the sound or act of spitting,” says the dictionary.

Perfectly respectable American men in the 1800s did it in saloons and train stations, aiming vaguely at spittoons.

Baseball players do it to calm nerves, thankfully replacing tobacco now with sunflower seeds. Be glad 300-pound football linemen never acquired the habit.

People who eat cherries do it, even holding contests. The Michigan record pit-spit is 93 feet, 6-1/2 inches.

Etiquette arbiters recoil from it. “Miss Manners apologizes that she is incapable of imitating the noise,” she shudders.

In his book “Civilizing the Body Through Time,” historian Pieter Spierenburg ranks it right down there with picking one’s nose: “If you can’t avoid it … you shall do it into your handkerchief … and when you are finished, don’t look into your handkerchief.”

Wine fans on tasting tours mostly don’t do it. Probably they should. If you taste five wines at 10 wineries in a day of touring without expectorating, your palate will be dead before lunch, and you will be in no condition to drive back to the hotel at day’s end.

“Who spits?” I once asked the woman behind the tasting counter at the Kendall-Jackson Wine Center in Santa Rosa, Calif.

“Only winemakers and journalists,” she said. “I’m glad most people don’t spit. I have to clean it up.”

I spit. I have to. I’ve spent decades in professional wine tasting competitions judging as many as 150 wines in a day. So I spit. In fact, after each sip of wine, I spit, then take a sip of water and spit again.

That way, tasters joke, you can go straight to the headache without ever getting the buzz.

At big competitions, wine judges spit into small plastic cups, then pour it into bigger plastic containers, which are emptied by long-suffering volunteers. It’s not a pretty sight.

Wine tour fans, emulate the judges: Take a small plastic cup to spit in, then empty it into the plastic spit bucket you’ll find on nearly every tasting room counter. (Maybe you should tip the counter agent.)

Among professional wine judges, spitting varies by country.

In Spain I once tasted wines in a rudimentary wooden shack among rows of vines at Bodegas Torres winery with Don Miguel Torres himself. We sipped, leaned back and spat out the door into the dirt.

In Italy the spit buckets were on the floor with an inch of sawdust in the bottom. I watched macho Italian tasters turn their heads slightly and spit over their shoulders at the buckets from 5 feet away. And they were no better at it than you or I.

In America even hardened veterans don’t spit every time.

I was at a rare tasting of Bordeaux red wines from the year 1961, sometimes called “the vintage of the century.”

Nobody spits a 1961 Chateau Cheval Blanc Gran Cru Bordeaux.

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