Spitting image

Drink - Victoria Moore learns spittoon etiquette

I wanted to learn how to spit. No one seems to understand this; but in the same way that when I try to throw a ball my arms gangle around my ears and the ball putters a few feet (backwards) along the ground, when I try to spit, instead of projecting a glorious plume of liquid out of my mouth, whale-like, the only result is an incontinent dribble.

This might not sound like much of a problem to you, but it causes havoc at wine tastings. Real wine experts, if they fell on hard times, could probably draw a good salary from a circus. They can spit wine into a bucket of sawdust from the other side of a crowded room. They can also swill it around their gums and tongue without giggling, and do that funny backwards whistling thing where they part their lips and draw in air while the wine is in their mouths, the better to taste its flavours. In short, even before you get to the hoicking stage, you've got your work cut out if you don't want to make a fool of yourself and a mess of your make-up.

Contrary to popular belief, spitting and gargling are not done simply to separate the men from the boys, nor to allow the professional to display his jaded credentials by affecting disinterest in a wine's alcoholic content. Each part of the mouth can detect different tastes (the sides of the tongue, for example, detect acidity, which causes you to salivate), so gargling is essential. Many people claim not to be able to taste wine properly unless they swallow, but Jancis Robinson's Oxford Companion to Wine firmly rubbishes this notion by stating: "There are no taste receptors in the throat." In other words, the only thing that swallowing will do is make you drunk.

Spitting most definitely had to be learnt. So I enrolled on a course with the Wine and Spirit Education Trust. As a drinker rather than a taster, I was thrown into confusion by the instructions that demanded, with no guidance on spittoon etiquette, that I provide my own spittoon. I decided not even to try to solve the spittoon problem, until the day of the course, when I panicked a bit and grabbed a Pyrex measuring jug on my way out of the house. I arrived feeling like an overgrown Brownie, jug sensibly packed in my bag along with the other requirement - a tea towel (evidently other people have problems with dribbling, too) - and began ogling everyone else's bags to see if they concealed shiny, purpose-made chrome spittoons or something equally makeshift.

As it turned out, my jug was just dandy. "People bring all sorts," said the lecturer. "Once somebody carried a plastic dustbin all the way here on the Tube. It wouldn't even fit under the tables. In the end, we had to put it into the middle of the room and get everyone to use it." Bringing the right thing to spit in wasn't necessarily going to help me to spit, but it was a start.

Before the wine got anywhere near the taste buds, however, there were other perils to negotiate. You will have seen the likes of Jilly Goolden tilting her wine glass against a white background, the better to analyse its colour. It is fairly obvious that wine glasses should be held by the stem, especially when doing this, but did you know, as our lecturer firmly rebuked, that you "must never hold your glass up to the light. It's simply not the done thing"?

Oh dear. There was a problem, though, in that everyone was so excited about the wine that they first inhaled it with the vim of a cocaine addict, almost flooding their noses in the process, and then, when it came to the tasting, swilled huge gulps of it in a very cursory way around the gums before swallowing. Yes, swallowing. Amid this enthusiasm, it seemed churlish - not to say impolite - to seek instruction on spitting. Oh well, maybe next week.

This article first appeared in the 02 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Nightmare on Downing Street