Anyone who has ever passed a wine tasting examination will agree that a solid tasting group is essential to success. The most obvious benefit of tasting with others is that it allows you to gain broad exposure to the world’s wines in a more economical way than you could solo, but the group can also serve as a great support system as you challenge and learn from each other.

Having been in several tasting groups during preparation for the Master of Wine exam, I have a few tips on how to get the most out of them.

  1. Set intentions. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in a group of two or ten, whether you’re taking different exams, or whether each member is preparing for the same qualification; if everyone has the same intention—to pass a tasting exam by participating and sharing knowledge equally—success will follow.
  2. Trust your palate. Though we learn objective approaches within the curricula of the various certifications we pursue, tasting wine is still a very subjective experience. We all have different associations with aromas—one person’s “raspberry” is another’s “strawberry,” and so on. Our taste perceptions (i.e. our “tells”) are incredibly personal, so take what resonates with you and forget the rest.
  3. Be open. Admit what you don’t know, and don’t be afraid to get it wrong. We learn more from our mistakes than our successes.     
  4. Don’t beat yourself up. Wine tasting tends to bring out the worst in perfectionists. But if you really think about it, this is a pretty silly thing we’re doing, so don’t forget to be kind to yourself and enjoy the process. If you learned something from a tasting exercise, that’s a success.
  5. Taste “open label.” You can’t identify blind what you don’t know! Taste “open label” first and make your own very detailed notes, then test yourselves by tasting the wines blind. You will learn so much faster this way, and you’ll save a lot of time, money, and frustration.
  6. The “tiny bottle system.” Purchase a set of 2 oz. or 4 oz. amber apothecary bottles (you can find them on Amazon), number them and bring them with you to every tasting group so you can test yourself again later. Fill them to the very top, cap tightly, and store them in the refrigerator—most reds keep for three or four weeks, while whites last two or three weeks. Keep an organized ledger!
  7. Spit! One of the biggest benefits of tasting groups is also one of the biggest pitfalls. It can be tempting, especially in a semi-social setting, not to want to waste all that wine! Alcohol numbs the palate and the mind, so if you’re serious about learning, get yourself a giant spit cup and use it. You’ll look way cooler drinking wine after you’ve passed that exam, and then you can really celebrate.