I have enjoyed tasting wine since even before my father bought me a mixed case of Almaden varietal wines for my 21st birthday. In the years following my graduation with a chemistry degree, wine tasting became a regular feature of holidays and vacations. I was living in the Los Angeles area and visited the few remaining wineries in and around Cucamonga. Later trips included visits to Napa, Sonoma, Temecula, and other California wine regions. Wherever we went, my wife Marty White and I would visit wineries, take tours, and learn about wine.
In 1993, a new job opportunity brought me to Sonoma County. Soon after my arrival, my new co-workers told me that the Sonoma County Harvest Fair was the following weekend, featuring a large hall filled with wineries offering tastes. Since my family hadn't joined me yet, I went on my own and spent an eye-opening afternoon at the fairgrounds. The room was huge and there were something like 100 wineries pouring. A small fee paid for a souvenir glass and a few tastes, with additional taste tickets available for purchase. It sounds like a party, and it was a lot of fun, but the focus is definitely on tasting at this annual event. Locals and tourists alike relish the opportunity to sample the award-winning wines, all in one place.
Soon my family relocated as well and we bought a place just out of town on the west side of Petaluma, California. With a large backyard, I decided I wanted a hobby vineyard. Leading up to planting, I took classes at Santa Rosa Junior College on viticulture and enology. Both programs included some tasting, but the enology class was especially informative. The class met one evening a week for three hours. At each session, the instructor would lecture first, then spend the last half-hour on tasting. He brought in three or four wines to each class, themed by variety, style, or country of origin. The semester also featured field trips to several local wineries, each offering guided tastings. I went on to enroll in classes focused on tasting, like Winemakers of Sonoma County, where each weekly session featured selected wines and discussion about them.
In 1999, my vines went in the ground. Meanwhile, Marty and I periodically entertained friends and relatives from out of town by taking them wine tasting around the Sonoma County region. In 2000, I started work as General Manager at Vinquiry, a wine-testing laboratory in Windsor, California. That is where I began the transition from recreational "wine tasting" to professional "sensory evaluation." At first, I received informal training in wine evaluation from enologists on the staff, as well as from Vinquiry's owners. When a wine submitted for analysis was especially good (or spectacularly bad!), one of them would bring a taste to my office or call me into the sensory evaluation room to share the experience and possibly join the discussion. During that time, I learned the necessary technique for sip-and-spit. It is a bit awkward at first, but a taster could never get through judging a serious competition if he or she swallowed every taste....