Wine deemed essential, so learn to taste like a pro

By Mary Ross

Daily Herald correspondent

Along with toilet paper and hand sanitizer, our government has designated wine as essential to our daily existence. We knew it all along.

While lost restaurant sales hit the U.S. wine industry in March by about $400-million, according to The National Association of American Wineries, Nielsen reports retail sales are up 27.6% (week ending March 14); wine apps boast new memberships up by 600%! Currently, retail wine sales are out-distancing spirits, even beer.

So, for new wine explorers and seasoned drinkers, now is the time to hone your tasting skills with no fear of DUI. "Taste with an open mind," is the primary advice from Jerald O'Kennard, Executive Director of Beverage Testing Institute (BTI). "Allow yourself permission to explore new flavors, to change your established opinions."

He should know. BTI has provided independent, professional and unbiased ratings and reviews for the entire beverage spectrum, both in print and online, since 1981 - almost before "online" existed.

In their pristine tasting room, vetted industry professionals slurp, spit and chronicle impressions both numerically and verbally. Tastings are blind, i.e., producers are unknown, or even double-blind, in which all product details are strictly secret. The procedure is meticulously standardized, including ounces poured in each glass and minutes allotted to each tasting-flight.

"We're a convergence of beverage expertise and test design," explains BTI Associate Director Laura Kruming-Berg.

"Tastings" is BTI's consumer publication, providing product reviews for wine, beer, spirits, sake, mead and non-alcohol drinks. It also includes easy-to-absorb education, including "Drinkipedia" with brief definitions from Abruzzo (a region in central-east Italy) to Zymase (a mixture of enzymes obtained from yeast that catalyze the breakdown of sugars into alcohol). Tap into the world of beverages at It's free!

So who pays? Not you and not ad revenue, which BTI doesn't accept.

BTI derives operating capital from services to the trade. International producers turn to BTI's impartial data for product development and pre-market screening, for feed-back from a diverse group of industry professionals and credence in advertising claims. Even the U.S. government turns to BTI, to substantiate the quality and provenance of certain beverages in cases of fraud, for instance.

It may come as a surprise that BTI, America's first and still prominent taste-testing organization overlooks Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago, not Madison Avenue, NYC.

Tasting panelists are primarily Chicago-based industry professionals who turn to BTI to keep current in their stock-in-trade. Your favorite sommelier or wine merchant may have recommended wine to you that they discovered at BTI.

Here are more BTI tips for developing your tasting skill:

1. Control your environment: adequate light, no distracting noise, and especially no distracting odor. 2. Use standardized, squeaky-clean glasses. 3. Taste and spit. There are no taste buds in your throat, only your mouth. 4. Tasting is a skill, not a talent. Just like playing the piano, if you practice every day, you get better at it. Even without alcohol, you can hone your nose, for instance, with a trip to the grocery. To understand what the "appley" descriptor means, smell an apple. To understand "vegetal," smell a bell pepper. 5. Taste without food, then with food. O'Kennard reminds us, "It's all about increasing pleasure!"

Kruming-Berg advises solidifying your impressions into words. Use everyday wine terms such as "dry" (i.e., no perceptible sugar), specialized jargon (see BTI's Drinkipedia section), or develop your own tasting terms. "Smells like rubber baby pants," speaks volumes even to non-parents.

For more tasting tips, see a previous column on tastings at

Or, when we can drink in public again, join me and The Chopping Block, Chicago, for "Unlock the Secrets of Wine." We practice professional tasting procedures, along with wine vocabulary and guidance in wine and food pairing. The seminar includes the tasting of six international wines complemented by wine-friendly noshes. For more information and dates to be determined, visit

• Mary Ross is an Advanced Sommelier (Court of Master Sommeliers), a Certified Wine Educator (Society of Wine Educators) and recipient of the Wine Spectator's "Grand Award of Excellence." Write to her at food@daily

Ross' choice

Wine Name: Moscato d'Asti DOP

Producer: Saracco

Region: Piedmont, Italy

Vintage: 2018

Availability: Widely, $16.99

Distributed by: Heritage Wine Cellars, Niles

Tasting Notes: BTI dubs this a Best Buy with aspects of "honeycomb, summer peach, lilac, and lemon bar with a crisp, very sweet fat body ..." and advises "Serve with gusto!" That we will during The Chopping Block's "Unlock the Secrets of Wine," along with unexpected and delectable food complements. Sugar and spice make everything nice!

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