My job requires spitting. Well-aimed, unself-conscious, fine-streamed expectoration. A few times each week, I sit at a meeting room table or perch on a chair in my boss’s crowded cubicle with a winemaker, vendor, or importer sampling their liquid wares. After swirls, sniffs and sips, accompanied by audible swishes and slurps- and if the mouthful is a pleasing one- hums of pleasure and affirmation, we pass around an aluminum bucket for the obligatory expelling of libation and saliva we have stirred up in our oral cavities.
I consider it fortunate that we are romanced by visitors and thus can avoid the cocktail party scene of industry tastings. Set up just like the study abroad fairs I organized or participated in so many lifetimes ago, vendors open their portfolios and representatives rattle off canned speeches about their products. Spitting is optional. Industry colleagues happily capitalize on the free plonk and party platters and as the afternoon wears on, the volume level rises to that of Happy Hour at Tini Bigs. The big chain buyers, slick players in Men’s Wearhouse off-the-rack, slap palms and talk golf, while the restaurant sommeliers clump in a corner, sniffing haughtily at the retail grocery types who tipsily calculate margins on the latest California-style Riojas.
Yet this personalized wooing means I’ve had to refine my spitting technique, as there is no way to cover gaffes or spittle in the quiet of our cramped offices.
Communal spitting is not for the squeamish, as the gross-out factor is high. When four people taste eight wines from the Republic of Georgia, that spit bucket fills up quickly with a thick and foamy mixture of wine and slime. When it comes sloshing your way 3/4 full, you must carefully gauge the force of your discharge. Too vigorous and you risk splashback of vin de sputum. Too delicately and your own drool will trickle down your chin in a thin red rope.
Beer presents its own unique hazards. The lovely froth of cream that forms a beer’s head does not lend itself to a clean ejection from pursed lips- the bubbles insist on clinging to your tongue or tucking themselves into the space between your lower lip and your teeth.
Fortified wines and stickies – the ports, sherries, Muscats, late harvest delicacies, vins doux naturels, Sauternes- are such flirts. Their rich viscosity remains in your mouth, coating your tongue and your teeth and sweetening your lips, despite your best efforts to clear your mouth of their fanciful tendrils.
All this spitting- what a waste of beautiful libation, no? Of course, drinking on the job is verboten, but even if swallowing were permitted, this would be the tragic waste. It takes only a few ingested sips to dull the senses and swell the palate to a woolly thickness. At least half the story is told in the deep inhale of aromas that releases as the wine touches the air; the rest unfolds in your mouth, as the aromas connect with the nasal passages at the back of your mouth, as your palate discerns the weight of the alcohol, the strength of the tannins, the degree of acidity- your bloodstream and belly aren’t part of the analytical equation.
Not to mention how doomed to inertia would I be when faced with another fours hours of correcting price codes mangled by a software upgrade after allowing the sparkling wines and Champagnes we’re bringing in for the holiday season to pass my throat’s threshold. Oy. Of course, you can’t escape the trace amounts that are absorbed by the mouth’s skin and the trickles that invariably slip down the back of your throat, but such are the workplace hazards. It really just calls for more practice.
All this spitting doesn’t for a moment diminish the pleasure of uncorking a bottle at home or being served a glass of something gorgeous when out on the town. Wine (and beer!) brings out the best in food – they are Bogart and Bacall, Ginger and Fred, John and Yoko- damn good on their own, to be sure, but together: Be still my heart (of course, things can go badly astray and you might end up with Tipper and Al or Angelina and Billy Bob, but really, just drink what you like with what you like to eat- it’s all about the adventure). Give me the glories of albariño and mussels, of Barolo and mushroom risotto, of syrah and Moroccan stew, of riesling d’Alsace and pork loin, of Côtes du Rhône and roast chicken, of zinfandel and black bean chili , of pinot noir and salmon, dark chocolate souffle and Russian Imperial Stout. And watch me swallow.