"I don't think I can taste wine. I don't know how to spit."
Christian Payne was once a war photographer. He's not afraid of meeting Syrian rebels at a clandestine location in eastern Turkey. But at a tasting we were both attending, the idea of spitting improperly in front of wine critics intimidated him.
I tried to reassure him. "Everybody knows how to spit. All that matters is getting the wine out of your mouth into a cup."
Payne was unconvinced. "I've seen some very complicated spitting here," he said.
I remained nonchalant, but I should have genuflected, because I was in the presence of spitting royalty. The spitter's spitter. (I'll tell you who soon.)
Fortunately, unlike Payne, I'm American. As with so many other Continental manners, perfect spitting isn't something we aspire to or even understand. Only while working on this story have I come to realize that my British colleagues have likely been raising a discreet eyebrow at my own spitting for years.
Spitting prowess matters in England. Jancis Robinson MW told me, "I followed the advice of Pamela Vandyke Price, then wine correspondent of the London Times, to practice in the bath."
But it's not as important in the U.S. "I suck at it," says Shayn Bjornholm, who is not only a Master Sommelier in Seattle; he's examination director for the Court of Master Sommeliers. "If you've ever seen me, it's like somebody filled a whoopee cushion with water and sat on it."
Bjornholm says he still remembers his initial introduction to professional spitters, at the first tasting he did as a wine buyer.
"This guy looked like a cross between one of Jim Henson's Muppets and Jimi Hendrix on acid," Bjornholm recalls. "He was walking around with a chain bucket around his neck. He would take a sip of wine and spit into it. I knew people spit. I knew Jancis Robinson could shoot a bird out of a tree from 50 feet away. I thought that was cool. But up close, it was disgusting."
There's a reason professional tasters need to spit: it's the only way to taste wines without getting drunk.
This year, three researchers in the Netherlands published a paper in the journal Wine Studies, comparing the blood-alcohol levels of wine tasters who spit versus those who don't. Volunteers tasted 10 wines in an hour. In the first session, they spat out the wine, then rinsed their mouth with water. Two weeks later, the same volunteers (to avoid bias from body types) drank a 15-ml taste of each wine.
The researchers – from the Meander Medical Centre, a Dutch clinical hospital – chose five white wines and five reds, all between 11.5 percent and 13.5 percent alcohol.
All told, the 10 samples equaled about one glass of wine, consumed slowly over an hour. Yet five of the volunteers who swallowed had blood-alcohol levels in excess of the Netherlands' legal limit of 0.5. In contrast, the volunteers who spat averaged 0.025, indicating that spitting prevented them from absorbing about 95 percent of the alcohol in wine.
I wanted spitting pointers, so I went to the top. Robinson once wrote an article for Harpers & Queen magazine entitled "I spit for a living," and included a section on spitting in her 2000 book, "How to Taste."
"I suppose the main thing is to purse your lips so that the wine comes out of quite a small area, and to put a certain amount of force behind it," Robinson told me. "Oh, and decent aim is a good idea."
As her spitting is the subject of respect from American sommeliers, I asked her which spitters she looked up to.
"The late Len Evans, Australia’s Mr Wine, was fiercely competitive in everything he did," Robinson said. "I remember his coming for dinner once and doing a spitting demo into a bucket for the assembled company – though I think I may have encouraged him. Also, my fellow British wine writer Charles Metcalfe is a particularly fine expectorator."
And here's where the story comes full circle, because the spitter who intimidated Payne – an ex-war photographer, remember – was that very Charles Metcalfe, co-founder of the International Wine Challenge, sitting just to my right.
I heard Metcalfe spit before I saw it. He's a former opera singer and his spitting warmup has a rumbling baritone, moments before a tight stream of cabernet flies into a bucket further away than most people would deem sensible.
Weeks after the tasting, I emailed Metcalfe to ask how he learned to spit, and discovered he shares something with Robinson: "I used to lie in the bath and aim at the plughole the other end, and eventually, when I could do that, see if I could hit individual toes," he replied.
Metcalfe has this tip for aspirants: "I think it is more difficult to spit accurately if you take enormous mouthfuls. You don’t need huge quantities to taste effectively, anyway. It’s all about concentration."
He says spitting is sometimes a pleasure unto itself: "There is a certain satisfaction of spitting hard and accurately into a receptacle – particularly if it’s metal and you get a resounding bell-like sound. I always remember the written-out sounds of spitting in MAD magazine – 'thock, ptui, spang.' But beware of unexpected curves that spray the wine back over you – or, worse – over someone else. For that reason, it’s never a good idea to stand too close to a spittoon at a tasting. Other spitters may be less accurate than you."
And yet, that's just what I do, with my North American just-get-it-out-of-your-mouth lack of style. I hold a cup right under my mouth and hope to keep the wine off my shirt. Payne was sitting at a table with the Grand Master of Spitting, but he asked me for tips.
I checked in on him after we had tasted four or five wines. He gave me a purple-toothed smile. "No problem at all," Payne said. "The gap between my front teeth is really helpful."
Another English spitting prodigy. I foresee purple bathtub stains in his future.