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Why I taste at 5 p.m., not 8 a.m.


If you ask MW types when is the best time to taste wine, they say, “Early in the morning, before your palate is tired.”

What, exactly, does that mean? Let’s break it down. How exactly does the palate become “tired”? Why does it do so? Is it like a muscle where, if you exercise it at the gym, it needs recovery time? If it’s so tired at night, then why do we reserve our finest foods and wines for dinner, instead of breakfast?

I don’t know about you, but I drink most of my wine at night. That’s when I savor and enjoy it, see how it changes in the glass, try it with different foods. And I don’t have to worry about DUI because I’m done with driving until tomorrow.

Why wouldn’t I review wines at the same time when I savor them best? Of course, I’m not talking about drinking 12 or 15 glasses of wine in a flight. When I review, I spit, obviously. What I mean is, if my body and palate and mind most enjoy drinking wine at the end of the day, then that’s when I think I should be reviewing wine. And that’s what I do: on most days, I taste between 5 p.m. and 6:30 or 7 p.m.

I never did understand the 8 a.m. tasting thing. People say your palate is fresher or more acute early in the morning, but I don’t see why it would be. Maybe the rumor got started because winemakers typically work from very early in the morning until afternoon (of course, during crush they work 24/7), and so one of the first things winemakers did to start their day was to taste. Ditto for the negociant-eleveurs of old. They were traveling businessmen who worked for the big wine companies, and they typically made their rounds in Bordeaux or wherever in the daytime, starting very early in the morning. And ditto again for the academics, the enology professors who teach about tasting at wine schools. They, too, typically work in the morning. Between the winemakers, negociants and professors all tasting early, the theory got started that the only time professionals taste is in the morning. But that’s only because that’s when they worked, in the morning. At night, they went back to their homes, or whevever they were staying for the night, to relax.

I Googled “best time to taste wine” and there’s surprisingly little out there. Somebody wrote in, on a wine forum, “The best time to taste wines is when you first get up in the morning before you eat anything and before you brush your teeth; It’s a fact!” Well, it must be, if it’s on the Internet.

Somebody else said, “The best time to taste wine is in the morning, before one’s palate becomes dull,” but I wonder if this person isn’t just parroting something he read or heard. Natalie MacLean, the popular author and blogger, said, “Mornings are the best time to taste. That’s when your palate is freshest.” But again, no proof, no studies, just the repetition of what everybody else says.

On the other hand, the late, great Professor Peynaud said, in The Taste of Wine, that the best time to taste is between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. — in other words, not early in the morning; but he added, “If need be, another possible time is around 6 p.m., even though one’s tasting performance will not be so good.” But he didn’t explain why not. If the palate falls off during the day, then why didn’t Peynaud advise tasting at 8 a.m., instead of noon?

There’s another aspect to this. One reason I like to taste at the end of the day, not its start, is because I want to get down with my wine. I want to drink it like you do, to experience it in its totality, describe how it feels and what it does to my body and my soul, take as much time as I want to really get to know it. When I taste, it doesn’t feel like I’m working (even though I am), it feels like I’m having fun. I’ve never made much of a distinction between tasting and drinking. The only difference is swallowing. Otherwise, they’re pretty much the same. When I drink wine at a meal, I’m not taking notes, of course; but in my mind I’m doing the same kinds of things I do when I’m formally reviewing. I’m thinking about the wine, its structure, its flaws (or lack thereof), its intensity and length, its greatness or averageness. Hell, I even think about what score I’d give it (that’s a habit). It’s not like I’m two different people: Steve who drinks wine at dinner, and Steve who reviews wine. No, I’m just Steve. I review wine for a living, and I like to do it starting at 5 p.m.

  1. Interesting stuff. I’ve tried tasting wines at various times and my “sweet spot” **seems** to be between 10AM and 11AM. That’s from my own experience and trial/error, mind you – not scientific study.


  2. Dude, does the alcohol affect you after you taste? Even when I spit, some alcohol osmoses into the blood through the mucous membranes, and I can feel it. I don’t particularly like the effect of alcohol during the day, which is another reason why I wait until 5.

  3. I also like 10am to 11am. For me, after lunch is no good, especially in summer heat, even if you have air conditioning, I think food and temp and being tired changes my ability to pick out flavors and describe where the wine is at and it’s flavors.

    In the morning, I’m able to focus more on the wines, and I seem to be able to describe more flavors than afternoon or evening tastings.

    btw, I don’t have a problem with alc absorbtion during tasting, but I do follow up tastings with lunch, so maybe that helps!

  4. I have done tasting in the mornings, before lunch, and in the evenings before dinner, for over three decades, and I notice no significance difference in my tasting acuity or in the tasting acuity of our panels.

    There is a reason why virtually every comment is going to suggest tasting in time frames before the next meal. We, collectively, are getting messages from our bodies.

    I have a small bias for morning tastings, but it has nothing to do with with my palate. I simply want my evenings for myself and my family.

  5. Steve,

    Another great posting. I do find it strange that some people truly believe that tasting early is better. With no thought that the shot of espresso or the toothpaste they might have last had in their mouth might effect their taste buds. It seems to me that the most important thing to do when reviewing or tasting for buying is have food to taste the wine with and to taste the wine over time to see how it changes.


  6. Yeah, the booze definitely affects me when I spit. So whenever I taste int he morning I limit the number of wines (if possible).

  7. What is it with you wimpy guys? :-}

    Unless one is tasting massive amounts of wine, instead of the 12 to 20 that the palate can comfortably accomodate before getting a bit shop-worn, you simply cannot absorb enough wine to get tipsy.

    Perhaps you need to take the wine critic Continuing Education course on expectoration technique.

  8. Rather than treat it as a lab exercise, shouldn’t professional wine tasting replicate the way those who are reading the tasting notes taste their wine. So not only in the evening, but with some sort of nibble.

    For this reasons, I’ve always been taken with Warren Mason’s Sydney International Wine Competition (I believe Charlie has flown over to judge)

    Competition’s Aims and Objectives :


    ~One of the main aims of the Competition is to offer consumers independent information to help in their choice of wines more likely to enhance the pleasures of the daily dining experience and, by so doing, to add enjoyment and contentment to their everyday lives. This is the main service the Competition offers.

    ~Food comes in a myriad of flavours and textures, at many temperatures – both in Celsius – and spice. Wines, too, offer many flavours and styles. Wine can enhance the dining experience by adding complementary flavours to the food that cannot be added in the cooking or preparation process.

    ~There is little organised food-related information available to the average consumer to help him/her know which wine to choose to complement a given dish. Chosen without discernment, wine becomes merely another alcoholic beverage.

    ~Most wine competitions stop at judging wine quality. Since it’s inception in 1982, this Competition has gone beyond that, seeking out wines of highest quality that go well with food, with judges’ comments as to why they believe this to be so*, and placing the best wines into thirteen easy to understand wine styles, sufficient to meet most dining requirements. (*There is certainly room for a judge’s dissent.)

    ~The choice of wine that will provide greatest satisfaction in combination with a given dish will always be a matter of purely personal sensory preference and the Competition has neither aim nor intention to tell anyone “you should drink this with that”.

  9. Steve,
    As a wanna-be MW type, I will agree that 8am is too early to taste wine in my opinion. I prefer 9-11am or 2-4pm for working tastings. It’s late enough in the morning so one is actually awake and breakfast is a mere memory but not close enough to lunch that I get hungry and distracted. Same with the afternoon time post lunch. For social tasting anytime after 12pm is good for me! Ultimately I think it comes down to personal preference. I do appreciate the fact you taste the wines during the time that most people would be consuming them though. Very good to know!

  10. Tom–

    If you ask anyone who has attended (Gerry Boyd, Robin Garr, Darrell Corti, among others) they will tell you that this tasting is among the most grueling ever.

    The early day consist of taste and eliminate so the judges go through massive amounts of wine. The medal rounds are with food, and, despite the brilliant cooking by Warren’s wife, Jacqui, the judges are simply overwhelmed with flavors and combinations.

    I am not at all convinced that we actually do a better job than not. What I am convinced of is that Warren flew me down to Australia twice in biz class and put me and the judges up in a world class resort. And with twelve judges from all over the world, who bring along enough wine for our dinners to have marvellous tastings after the tasting, there is no end of fun. But, we do all leave tired and burned out.

    I get the concept. I do not believe any judge who tasted at the Competition has gone home and adopted it as his or her own.

  11. Charlie, this tasting isn’t anything I’d ever want to do, despite business class and a fancy resort. It’s a crazy way to taste wine, more like running the Dipsea.

  12. I did it the first time because our friend, Dan Berger, recommended it. I did it a second time knowing what I was getting myself into because it allowed me to taste lots of down under wines that I do not get to taste, and I liked Australia quite a bit on my earlier trip.’

    I won’t do the Competition again. My recent trip to Oz was on my own nickel. Half vacation and half visits to wineries, especially a week in Western Australia where I had never been. Frankly, I like the place, and going down there the first time to the tasting was the eye-opener that has allowed me to become a real fan.

  13. Well you judges have to get through 2,000 wines. Yes, I was thinking that the concept could be applied in a less grueling situation when the judge returns home to be taster for whatever his or her outlet; more a leisurely jog around the park vs. the Dipsea.

  14. “One reason I like to taste at the end of the day, not its start, is because I want to get down with my wine. I want to drink it like you do, to experience it in its totality, describe how it feels and what it does to my body and my soul, take as much time as I want to really get to know it. When I taste, it doesn’t feel like I’m working (even though I am), it feels like I’m having fun. I’ve never made much of a distinction between tasting and drinking. The only difference is swallowing.”

    Wait WHAT? I think you may have gotten a little too down with the wine when you wrote this!

    The right time to taste is when it’s the right time for the individual. What works for Steve may not work for Bob, Laura or Bill.

    I for one must agree that I prefer to taste earlier in the day because I find my palate to be fresher and my mind sharper.

    Party on Steve!

  15. Actually there is a fair body of research on this – circadian rhythms and the olfactory senses and taste. In humans 8AM is about the worst time to taste for several reasons. A couple obvious ones, your sense of smell is at its low point and your taste buds are in a state unlike anytme of the day that you would normally be consuming wine. I mean how many folks have Cabernet for breakfast.

    Peynaud is just restating those rhythms. Your sense of smell slowly improves and reaches its peak around lunchtime, takes a dive in the early afternoon and works its way back up at 5PM (or dinner time if you go for the early bird specials), though not quite as high then as high as its mid day peak.

    Ever over toast the bread in the morning a little bit, not really notice it until you came home from work in the afternoon and smelled the burnt toast? Circadian rhythm at work.

    As a winemaker for critical analysis I always tasted mid-day and took a late lunch. But when it came to final blending or fining decisions they were always made from brown bags in the evening at the dinner table. And the decision went to the bottle that was emptied first.

  16. Tom, there is a more practical reason than the one you cite. Unless every wine of a particular group is being tasted with the food, prepared the same way, with no variation in the base ingredients (does one slice of cold roast beef taste the same as the one a month earlier). Do I really want to sit through fifteen tastings of Cabernet Sauvignon for my August issue tasting each of those 200 Cabs with cold roast beef? Or great filet mignon? And if hot dishes, like slices or cubes of filet, all cooked to the same degree of doneness, how do they stay at the same temperature?

    One of the issues at the Sydney International, aside from the fact that one flight was served with kidney that half the judges would not eat, was the problem that even the tastiest hot dishes got cold long before we could get through a 45 minute flight in the medal round.

    So, nice idea, but it is very hard to make work in extensive peer-to-peer blind tastings.

  17. I taste wine five days a week between 10am and 4pm. On days when I am tasting early I avoid coffee and other things that mess with my palate, but on the whole I think morning is better for the evaluation of wine for me because I am more focused. By evening I am fried whether it be palate faigue or just mental exaustion I am just not at my best. Tasting is best done at different times for differnet people. Only you know when you are at your best.

  18. A lot of human experience is based on conditioning. Some people are morning people, some are not.

    A night person would probably find 10 AM too early and 7 PM not too late.

  19. I’m only trying to make the point that the methodology of wine critics, unlike say movie critics, should approximate the way their readers drink their wine, ie. at night with food. Sure you can raise all sorts of obstacles, but I believe they can be overcome (the food need not be hot roast beef).

    Anyway, our “crowd” taste off always includes food. We just did picnic wines for summer and had some typical picnic foods (during the afternoon at Little Joes in SF). But then we don’t have to get through 2000 or 200 wines like the pros.

  20. Tristan Toney says:

    The best time to taste is whenever the wine is in front of you.

  21. Tristan, I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy!

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