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Spit or Swallow

By Debra Meiburg MW

It’s always a tough decision for a girl – whether to spit or swallow. After years of imposing fines and espousing propaganda to eradicate spitting, if Hong Kong is to become Asia’s wine hub, then spitting is back in fashion. There are no clear cut guidelines when it comes to spitting, but as a general rule of thumb, spit at tastings and swallow at meals.

Wine judges always spit and apparently that rule also extends to the judges of the United States Supreme Court as spittoons are placed by their chairs daily, though apparently the porcelain buckets haven’t been sullied since the 19th Century. And even then it was mainly tobacco juice spat from America’s legal pillars of justice. Ice cream tasters do spit regularly – to prevent fullness and a numb tongue. Even with the finest spitting skills, alcohol can still be absorbed via mouth tissue, volatilize into air passages and slip down the throat in small droplets. When judging an array of 200-300 wines these forces can sneak up on a taster.

In soccer, players spit in groups around a player who takes the free kick. In wine tasting, players spit in groups around a bucket that takes a free hit. While the boys on the football pitch have plenty of spitting practice, most of us are far less experienced, so it’s good policy not to hang near the spit bucket at a tasting. There are many types of spitting: dribbling, drooling, streaming or straight-as-a-shot. Streaming is probably the easiest. Place your head about one foot above the spit bucket, muster a Bridgette Jones pucker and let the wine stream out your lips. It works, but be careful of splash back. To spit with finesse and elegance takes practice and it’s a skill about which Australian show judges are especially proud.

To build your spitting skills, try practicing each morning in the shower or at the kitchen sink. The trick is to capture the liquid toward the front of your mouth using your tongue muscle to seal it there. Purse your lips and then expel by pushing your tongue hard against the roof of your mouth. The best spitters release the wine in a steady stream – no cabernet spray or pinot spew. With practice, you can use the technique to water your plants. In the meantime, always wear dark clothes to a tasting.

A more graceful approach is to spit discretely into a little private cup, even a paper cup will do. If using a coffee mug, take care not to forget its purpose – an accidental draught of spit is no fun. And keep an eye on your spit-cup, otherwise efficient service staff will whisk it away. Though cup-spitters are occasionally pooh-poohed, they usually have the last laugh the next morning. There’s no point spending an exorbitant sum to attend a special wine event if you can only remember the first wine.

Competitions and spitting seem to go hand in hand. Seed spitting contests make the Guiness Book of World Records regularly and even kudu dung spitting warrants an annual world championship event. Brian “Young Gun” Krause holds the record for spitting a cherry pit 93 feet, 6.5 inches in 2003. Wine tasters need to spit only two feet for professional proficiency; a three-footer will earn the undisputed respect of the wine spitting world. Wineries with tasting rooms will always provide buckets, but many French winemakers expect you to expectorate directly onto the gravel under their barrels. No bending down like a sissy. Apparently spitting is territorial behaviour locked in our genes much like a dog’s compulsion to tinkle on fence posts – genetic behaviour that is not allowed at a wine dinner no matter how much you’ve swallowed.

Comments 4 Comments for “Spit or Swallow”
  1. Tweets that mention Spit or Swallow | Debra Master of Wine -- Topsy.com on 02.15.11 at 18:40

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  2. Bradley on 02.16.11 at 11:02

    Great read. I laughed and was repulsed at the same time. I also was humbled by the cherry pit spitter’s numbers. My own 35 feet or so pales in comparison.
    I’ll be working on my style – with wine and stone fruits!

  3. Lady Catherine on 03.06.11 at 13:44

    I didn’t realize there were so many ways to spit with finesse. I should have read this article before attending the Pinot Summit last weekend. Great Article Debra!

  4. Silas Chan on 09.01.11 at 15:47

    What a good inspiration. I must practise to reach longer distance. Thanks Debra!

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