The history of wine tasting is inextricably linked to the history of wine itself. The earliest vines, found in the Mesopotamian region in 6,000 to 4,000b.c., produced the beverage esteemed by the ancient Babylonian and Egyptian royalty; wine's popularity spread among the elite of Greece, Rome, and, later, Europe in the millennia following. Once the merchant trade in wine was established, it was necessary for both sellers and buyers to develop skills in tasting and evaluating the products for sale.
In more recent times, wine tasting has become increasingly popular as a leisure activity. The 1970s to 1990s in America saw the explosive growth of wine bars and cafés, festivals, and tasting events. Once attended only by upper-class connoisseurs, modern wine-tasting events are enjoyed by a wide range of people of varying backgrounds, interests, and positions, though some perceptions of elitism still exist. Many tasting events are coupled with food and sponsored by either restaurants or vineyards. In fact, many feel that wine is at its best when served alongside a meal, not only emphasizing the quality of the wine, but also enhancing the dining experience itself.
Several books and classes on wine tasting are available across the globe, which usually have the purpose of demystifying what can be a daunting activity for many. Some novice tasters desire simply to understand better which wine to order or serve with a meal, while others strive to learn how to identify regional and varietal differences in wines. The general interest in wines—both selection and taste—is evident in the number of articles and recurring columns on the topic found in daily and weekly newspapers and magazines.
Wine-tasting events are held informally among friends, as fund-raising events for nonprofit agencies, as tourist attractions, and as sales and marketing tools employed by wine makers and retailers. The act of wine tasting itself can be highly scientific, involving the senses of smell, taste, and sight, and there are many professional wine tasters who judge or rate wines for a variety of purposes, such as magazine or newspaper reviews. However, wine tasting as a recreation and leisure activity is often less formally structured, though those in attendance might have some background in the art and science of tasting.
Wine Tasting as Leisure Education and Social Recreation
Whether sponsored informally by wine enthusiasts or formally by wine merchants, clubs, or societies, many wine tastings are held for the purpose of educating those in attendance about wine. Commercial sponsors, including wine makers, wine merchants, and wine bars, hold such tastings as a means to increase sales. Additionally, wine-tasting events are frequently held by nonprofit organizations (including those associated with leisure and recreation) for fund-raising purposes. Whether formal or informal, commercial or not-for-profit, tasting (and drinking) wine is, for most, an enjoyable and freely chosen activity. However, the vast array of types and prices of wines, as well as the "rules" many associate with wine selection, create a sometimes-intimidating aura surrounding wine.
These events serve as leisure education in that they enable tasters to learn better how to select wine, how to judge its quality, and how to differentiate between varieties, vineyards, regions, and countries, all of which lead to an improved quality of experience for those who enjoy wine. Additionally, because tastings are typically social activities, conducted in social settings, one of their positive by-products is the social interaction enjoyed by participants. Many tasting events are actually theme parties, based on vintage, type, price range, vintner, region, or country, for example. There are even games and wine-tasting party kits available for purchase by those wishing to host parties themselves.
In addition to tasting events and the vast array of wine-tasting information available on the Internet and in books, magazines, and newspapers, many colleges and universities offer continuing education courses in wine appreciation. Those wishing to hone their wine-tasting skills further can enroll in certification programs sponsored by organizations such as the Court of Master Sommeliers and the International Wine Guild.
As a result of improvements in technology and changes in growing techniques, there are now vineyards and wineries in every state in the United States and in most countries of the world. Long popular in regions such as the Napa Valley in California, the growing wine tourism industry merges leisure travel, education, cultural opportunities, tourism destination marketing, economic development, and quality-of-life issues, providing substantial benefits to rural communities in particular. Whether for day trips or longer excursions, wine enthusiasts the world over enjoy trips to vineyards to learn more about the wineries' offerings, to have the opportunity to purchase wine at attractive prices, and to enjoy the natural beauty of the vineyards themselves.
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L. Allison Stringer