Chess

Chess: A thinking man's game with classic European pedigree.  Hard to get more WASP'y than that.
Chess: A thinking man’s game with classic European pedigree. Hard to get more WASP’y than that.

Since this is possibly the final weekend before world politics devolve into a Third World War what better time to highlight a pursuit that, perhaps more than any other, values strategic thought, deep calculation, psychology, and prudence.  Sadly I am most definitely not talking about 21st Century diplomacy… but rather the game of Chess.

Although come to think of it, maybe Chess could be the answer to this current crisis? The howtoWASP believes that war, and especially unnecessary war, is exceedingly detrimental to Western Civilization (and therefore WASP culture) and should be avoided if at all possible.

Rather than fight things out over the cities of Europe and Asia, why not settle this dispute on the chessboard instead?   How entertaining would it be to have President Obama challenge President Putin to a winner take all (or just the Crimea) game of Chess?  The broadcast rights alone would probably be enough to pay down a significant portion of the national debt.

Then again perhaps challenging a Russian to a game of Chess isn’t the wisest thing in the world?  It would be a bit like challenging a Norwegian in skiing, or an Irishman to drinking, or like the French challenging anyone else to an actual war…  Probably not a good idea.  But enough with the politics and back to the matter at hand, Chess!

Screech Powers was in Chess Club.  Enough said.
In the 1990’s Screech Powers was the face of Chess Club. Enough said.

Chess is kind of a strange topic because it straddles the line between the worlds of WASP culture and nerd culture.  In terms of historic pedigree, Chess has a lot going for it.  It was popular among the British, it’s seen as a noble intellectual pursuit, and often evokes images of civilized competition among students at a prep school or members of a social club.

Then again, over the past half century or so, Chess has definitely struggled with a reputation of being the preferred hobby of the kid you probably didn’t want to hang out with in school.

Today, there's a whole new style of Chess whiz.
Today, there’s a whole new style of Chess whiz.

Thankfully, that has been changing of late and Chess is becoming cool again.  Want proof?  Google the name of the current world champion, Magnus Carlsen, and you won’t see the stereotypical Chess nerd, but rather someone who would look perfectly at home selling Abercrombie & Fitch clothing at the mall.

So, with the social stigma disappearing, and the WASP cred as strong as ever, Chess is definitely something worth learning.

The History:

If you’re looking for historical pedigree, Chess is difficult to beat.  It is one of the oldest games on the planet, having been played in some form or another for neartly 2,000 years.  There is still debate over the earliest origins of the game, but credit is generally given to the Indians (the Asian variety) who played a game called Chaturanga as early as 300 A.D. Chaturanga was played on an 8×8 grid and featured different pieces that each had special attributes, more or less analogous to the modern Chess pieces of today.

By the 7th Century, Chaturanga had found its way to the Persian empire where it continued to gain in popularity and spread throughout the world.  Around the 9th Century the pastime began to pop up in Europe as well, most prominently among the Moors who introduced it into the Iberian Peninsula and what is modern day Spain.  It was during this time that the game, which had picked up the name “Shah” (Persian for “king”) began to be known as Chess.

How many games still around today were enjoyed by Members of the Knights Templar?  Not many, which is pretty badass.
How many games still around today were enjoyed by Members of the Knights Templar? Not many, which is pretty badass.

In the hundreds of years that followed, Chess spread quickly throughout Europe where it continued to evolve. During the 15th Century the modern rules for the game were adopted by the Spanish and Italians.  With small tweaks here and there, the game as we know it today was finalized in 1850.

It was during this European evolution that the aura of Chess as a gentleman’s sport was cemented in place.  Since the Middle Ages Chess has enjoyed a reputation as a noble pastime, where it was viewed as the game of choice for kings, knights, and other members of nobility.  It’s popularity and esteem continued to grow with the great thinkers of the Renaissance and continued into the Age of Enlightenment.  Benjamin Franklin himself went so far as to write an article praising Chess as a method of self improvement and for the virtues of strategy and thought it can instill in man.

In the Modern Age, since 1850, Chess experienced further explosions in popularity as rules for formal competition and rankings were set in place.  However, the good times would not last.  With the onset of the World Wars, and the Cold War that followed, much of the Western world lost interest in the game (it didn’t help that the Soviets dominated the wold competition during those years) and Chess settled into a new role as a niche hobby for those with more brains than braun.

But again, with the dawn of the the 21st Century, it appears those days might finally be behind us and Chess is poised to rise again.

The Game:

The standard starting position for a fresh game of Chess.
The standard starting position for a fresh game of Chess.

The best thing about Chess is that it follows the golden rule for great games:  It’s simple to learn, but nearly impossible to master.  It can be picked up quickly and played by just about anyone, yet subsequently provide a lifetime of challenge and enjoyment for those who seek to improve.  Chess is also one of the few games where chance plays no role in the outcome.  You win or lose based on your play alone and the winner is always going to be the player who commits the fewest errors.

If you’ve never played before, or if its been over a decade since your last game, then the only place to begin is with the fundamentals.

I won’t waste time reinventing the wheel here because there are plenty of great resources available where anyone can learn the basic rules of the game.  My personal recommendation would be to check out Chess.com, which offers great lessons for everyone, from the rank beginner to the Grand Master.  If you want to go the more formal route, there are plenty of books on the subject available for pennies on Amazon, or for free at your local library.

Once you know how the pieces move, you could theoretically begin playing immediately, just be prepared to lose, a LOT.  While there’s no substitute for in-game experience, I would highly recommend devoting at least some further study to the three main components of the game and the strategy and tactics behind them.  As a very brief overview, these include:

There are many different openings, but the howtoWASP prefers the English, for obvious reasons.
There are many different openings, but the howtoWASP prefers the English, for obvious reasons.
  • The Opening:  This covers the first 10 moves or so of the game.  Basically both sides are seeking to establish position and control the center of the board as quickly as possible.  Setting up a solid defense and protecting your king are also paramount.  The good news here is that since Chess has been played for centuries, most openings are set to an established script.  While there are only 18 possible opening moves (and really only about 5 that you’d ever want to use) there are hundreds of “book” openings to cover all the possible responses, re-responses, and so fourth that can follow.  Again, Chess.com provides a wonderful library of book openings.  Like anything else, all it takes is study and experience to recognize and play them.
  • The Middle Game:  This is where most of the action occurs.  The fight for position continues, but more pressing is the need to set up an effective attack, or defense to counter an opponent’s attack.  Most of the time the goal in the middle game is to force exchanges (trading pieces) that leave you with a material (having a greater number of and/or more powerful pieces left on the board) or positional advantage.  This phase requires much more thought and analysis than the opening as tactics begin to outweigh the strategic focus of the opening.   Players must calculate several moves ahead, taking into account many different pieces and possible combinations, to be successful.
  • A typical End Game scenario: short on material, long on options. A tacticians paradise.
    A typical End Game scenario: short on material, long on options. A tacticians paradise.

    The End Game:  Assuming that you didn’t blunder the game away in the middle (which is definitely possible, especially as a beginner) then things proceed to the final phase, the end game.  Here calculations become theoretically easier because there are often only a few pieces remaining (usually mostly pawns and kings), but it rarely seems that way in practice because of the sheer number of possible moves available on the open board.  Here tactics are paramount as even a slight mistake can lead to a disadvantage and eventual loss.  If you’re ahead or even at this point, you’re playing for the win.  If you’re down, then playing for a draw(tie) is probably your best bet.

Of course that’s a gross over-simplification of the game, but those are the basics.  As I said, the only way to truly learn and get better is to sit down and play as much as possible (which thankfully is much easier in the internet age). Fair warning, it will probably take about 6 months of regular play before you start to really understand and win games on a consistent basis, but once you reach that point, you will have developed a new skill for life.

So what are you waiting for?  In this crazy world, where attention spans increasingly need to be measured on a nano scale, and shows like Teen Mom and Jersey Shore makes up a disturbing proportion of the entertainment content available, wouldn’t it be nice to slow down and give your brain a bit of proper intellectual (and supremely WASP’ish) stimulation?

As we know, Benjamin Franklin believed that Chess was an excellent resource for self improvement, and with that in mind, I will close with what I believe is the number one life lesson taught by Chess:  No matter how well you prepare, or how far you’re ahead, we are all but one blunder away from complete and unmitigated disaster.   Perhaps both Obama and Putin would do well to remember that…

Next Steps:

  • Assuming you’ve learned the basics, the best thing you can do is get out and play some Chess.  While in-person games are classic and always fun, the internet has opened up a whole new range of options.  My favorite offering from Chess.com is the ability to play online, turn based games (typically up to 3 days per move) that allow you to play at your own leisure, against thousands of players of every skill level across the globe.
  • When you play, try to play against opponents who are better than you.  While it’s always enjoyable to win, if it’s against a lessor player, you’re probably not learning much in the process.  The flip side is that while losing sucks, you can actually learn a lot if you pay attention.  Remember, it takes about 6 months to really pick things up and become competitive.  Don’t get discouraged!
  • Nothing classes up the joint like a dedicated Chess table.  Although all you really need is a good board and set.
    Nothing classes up the joint like a dedicated Chess table. Although all you really need is a good board and set.

    While online Chess is great, you’ll also want a good, old fashioned Chess set in your home. Why?  First of all because it will make you look smart and sophisticated when guests come over.  Second, it will allow you to play more games in person.  And lastly it can be a valuable analysis tool to visualize and play out scenarios in your online games.

  • Keep learning.  While there’s no substitute for actual play, reading books and watching video lessons on advanced strategy and tactics can really help improve your game. This is obviously more beneficial for experienced players, but if you’re like me, once you catch the bug, it’s hard to stop.
Advertisements

Wimbledon

Green grass, white clothes, and prodigious amounts of tradition.  It must be Wimbledon time.
Green grass, white clothes, and prodigious amounts of tradition. It must be Wimbledon time.

Enter into a discussion of WASP’y sporting pursuits and it won’t be long before you’re talking tennis.  The reason?  Simple.  As far as WASP’y sports go, tennis really has it all: an English heritage, plenty of history, loads of tradition, a distinct association with country club culture, and of course a complicated set of rules that make absolutely no sense to the casual observer.

And when it comes to tennis at its WASP’iest, nothing even comes close to Wimbledon (That’s actually The Championships, Wimbledon if you want to be really proper about it).  Wimbledon is to tennis as St. Andrews is to golf; the spiritual home of the sport.  It’s not only the oldest of the four Grand Slam tournaments, but having been played since 1877, it’s the world’s oldest (and most prestigious) tennis tournament, period.

And so, with the start of Wimbledon only weeks away,  the howtoWASP decided to put together a brief viewing guide to help you, the aspiring student of WASP culture, to fully understand and appreciate one of the world’s truly great a sporting spectacles.  Also so that the when, at your next cocktail party, someone asks if you saw Djokovic’s blown break after attempting that volley drop shot after deuce #4 in the third set of the Federer match you can respond with “Yeah, that was great!” instead of “Yeah… that was great?”

The Tradition:

Between its long history and English setting (taking place at the All England Club in suburban London) you might expect tradition to play a central role at Wimbledon, and naturally, you would be right!    In fact tradition is really what sets Wimbledon apart.  While the other majors have embraced the usual aspects of modern professional sports (technology, advanced playing surfaces, styling, advertising, etc…) Wimbledon has insisted, to the maximum extent possible, on keeping things as they have always been.

Wimbledon is famous for it's playing surface and strict dress code.
Wimbledon is famous for its playing surface and strict dress code.

The most unique aspect of Wimbledon is the playing surface: grass.  A century ago this wasn’t anything special as most tennis was played on grass (the game was originally called “lawn tennis” after all).  However, most tennis today is played on a hard court, or occasionally on clay.  In fact these days it’s pretty rare to come across a grass tennis court at all since they require so much work to maintain.

While the grass court is undeniably cool looking, it also has a major impact on the game itself.  Grass is the fastest surface on which tennis is played, which is mainly due to the low friction between the grass and the ball on impact.  This means that balls move faster and bounce lower than the players are used to.  Also the relatively irregular surface creates more variation and odd bounces, which are also difficult to address.  Those conditions tend to favor “all court” style players who can move quickly and hit a wide variety of shots from anywhere on the court, which in turn generally makes for exciting tennis.

Another uniquely Wimbledon feature is the dress code: all white.  Tennis players can wear whatever crazy colors they like during the rest of the year, but when they play at the All England Club, the choice is made for them.  While this may seem boring, the on-court effect is actually very cool, especially when set against the grass court backdrop.

It isn't unusual for the Royals to make an appearance.
It isn’t unusual for the Royals to make an appearance.

Beyond the court and the dress code, Wimbledon is packed with all sort of other minor nods to tradition.  You’ll see very little advertising on the court for example.  You’ll also usually see members of the Royal Family in attendance, especially in the later rounds of play.  The overall effect is a retro look back at the way tennis used to be enjoyed, but with modern competition among some of the best athletes ever to play the game (more on that to come).

The Score:

Tennis is a fairly complicated game, but thankfully the basics required to enjoy a match on TV (or if you’re lucky enough to go in person) are easy to get down.  First we’ll look at scoring.

A tennis match is decided by “best of” series of “sets”.  Sets are decided by “games” and games are decided by “points”.

In a major, women’s matches are decided on a best of three sets series and men’s matches are a best of five affair.   The sets themselves are generally decided by the first player to win 6 games.  However, there is a catch: you must win by 2 games.  This means that a set can’t end on a score of 6 to 5.  If that happens, another game is played.  If the player who had 6 wins, then he wins the set 7-5 (having won by two).  If the player who had 5 wins, then the score is tied 6-6 and one of two things can happen.

Final score of the Isner vs. Mahut match in 2010, which took 11 hours 5 minutes to complete.
Final score of the Isner vs. Mahut match in 2010, which took 11 hours 5 minutes to complete.

If it’s the final set of most Majors (Wimbledon included), then play will continue until one player has won by two games.  Sometimes this can go on for a very long time.  In fact the longest match ever played was at the 2010 Wimbledon Championship where John Isner won the final set 70-68!

However, most often the set will go to a tie breaker, where the first player to reach 7 points wins.  But like sets, a player has to win by at least two points.  This means that tie breakers can go on for a very long time as well, but since a winner is decided by 2 points (as opposed to 2 games) they’re generally much quicker.  The final score of a set decided by tiebreaker is recorded as 7-6.

Individual games are won by points.  Essentially the first player to win 4 points wins the game, but the scoring terminology is a bit odd.  Instead of 1,2,3… scoring is recorded as follows:

  • 0 Points = Love
  • 1st Point = 15
  • 2nd Point = 30
  • 3rd Point = 40
  • 4th Point = Game

So, for example, a game where a player has won 3 points, while his opponent hasn’t won any, would have a score of 40-Love.  If his opponent wins the next point, it’s 40-15.  And if he wins the next, that’s game.

Pretty easy, but keep in mind there’s that pesky “win by 2” rule to deal with.  In the case of a game, if the score reaches 40-40, it’s referred to as “deuce”.  The player who wins the next point then has the “advantage”.  If he wins the point after that, he wins the game (having won by 2).  If his opponent wins the next point, the score goes back to deuce (sometimes you’ll see the number of times deuce is reached appended, so in this case it’s deuce #2).  Play continues in that manner until one player wins the deuce and his advantage point.

The Play:

Once you understand the scoring, the play is actually pretty simple.  The players line up at opposite ends of the court.  One is the server and the other the receiver.  Once the server is ready, he’ll stand just behind the baseline (see diagram), toss the ball up, and hit it into play.  That first hit must travel over the net and land somewhere in the opposite court’s service box.  From that point on anything goes so long as the ball travels over the net, lands in bounds, and doesn’t bounce more than once before being hit.  The first player to violate those rules loses the point, at which point the ball goes back to the server and the process repeats.  A player serves for the entire duration of the game, but will switch sides (left and right) after each point.

Basic anatomy of a tennis court.

Once a game has concluded, the receiver becomes the server and vice-versa.  It’s generally considered an advantage to serve, which is why service alternates after each game.  After every odd numbered game (so at the end of games 1, 3, 5, 7, etc…) the players will switch ends of the court and get a little break.  Play continues in that manner until one player has won 6 (or 7) games to win the set, and ultimately 2 out of 3 (or 3 out of 5) sets to win the match.

The Lingo:

Tennis has some unique vocabulary, some of which you’ve already experienced just by reading this post.  Below is a quick sampling of some other common (and confusing) terms you’ll hear while watching a match:

  • Deuce Side: The right side of the tennis court. The first service in a game will always begin from this side.
  • Ad Side: The left side of the court.
  • Break: This is when the receiver (as opposed to the server) wins a game.  The final point is called a “break point”.  Breaking an opponent is usually considered a major advantage and will often decide a set.
  • Hold: The opposite of a break, this is when the server wins the game.  Since the server theoretically has the advantage, he is expected to win, or hold, the game.
  • Fault: Technically any ball that goes out of bounds, but generally used to describe an illegal serve, i.e. one that either stopped by the net or lands outside the opposite service box.  If this occurs on the first serve, the player gets another try.
  • Double Fault: Same thing as above, but the illegal serve occurs on the second attempt.  In this case the point is awarded to the opponent.
  • Let: A let occurs when a serve hits the net, but still continues over it.  If the ball lands legally in the service area, then it’s still the first serve.  If the ball hits the net and lands outside the service area, it’s a fault.  However a second serve that hits the net results in a do-over regardless of where it lands in the opponents court.
  • Out: Usually used to describe a ball in play that lands outside the playing area.  The player who hits a ball out loses the point.
  • Ground Stroke: Any shot that a player hits after it has bounced once.  Forehands and Backhands are the most typical ground strokes.
  • Volley: A shot that is hit out of mid air, before bouncing on the court.  These generally occur at or near the net.
  • Lob:  A high, arching shot that goes over the opponents head and usually lands deep in the court.  These are usually defensive shots that give the hitter time to get set up for the next shot, or back an opponent away from the net.
  • Drop Shot: A short shot that is placed as close to the net as possible.  This requires the opponent to quickly move forward and often results in a weak return, allowing for a…
  • Overhead:  Also known as a smash, results from an easily ball hit or bounced high into the air, typically near the net, that is returned with a powerful over-the-head swing.  Usually these shots are unreturnable and result in…
  • Winner: Any shot that decisively ends a point for the player hitting it, but generally a powerful or well placed shot that the opponent either can’t reach or has no chance of returning.
  • Error:  The opposite of a winner, it’s a shot that a player mis-hits into the net or out of play.  Unforced errors are points that the hitter gives away to his opponent via his own mistakes.
  • Spin: Refers to the spin or action put on a ball by a player.  Topspin results in balls that arch down rapidly toward the opponent’s court and kick up high after.  Backspin results from slice shots that bounce low and away from an opponent.  Side spin can be used to “kick” a ball left of right after impact.
  • Pace: Tennis speak for the speed of the ball.  A player that generates a lot of pace on his shots is hitting fast balls that are more difficult to return.

The Players:

While there are 128 men and 128 women all competing for the Singles Championship (plus many others in doubles, mixed doubles, juniors, etc…) there are really only a handful of players you’ll want to pay attention to.  That’s not to say you can’t enjoy every match, but at the end of the tournament, odds are that it will be one of the following four names will be talking about.

Federer defeated Andy Murray in last year's Championship to win his record setting 17th Grand Slam title.
Federer defeated Andy Murray in last year’s Championship to win his record setting 17th Grand Slam title.

Roger Federer: Federer is arguably the greatest tennis player in history.  He’s got more Grand Slam titles than any other play (17) and the grass courts of Wimbledon are his specialty.  He won the Championship from 2003-2007 straight and again in 2009.  Oh, and he’s also the defending champion having won the 2012 event as well.  All in all that’s a record tying 7 titles at Wimbledon, an achievement he shares with Pete Sampras.  A win this year to defend his title would give him the undisputed record and join Rafael Nadal as the only other player in history to win the same major 8 times.  Federer is an excellent all court player with a ton of shots and seemingly unlimited finesse.  The only problem is his age.  At 31 he’s far from his prime and professional tennis is a young man’s game.  Going five sets against a younger, fitter opponent might prove too much.  Still Federer is probably the odds on favorite to win.

Fred Perry was the last British player to win Wimbledon back in 1936
Fred Perry was the last British player to win Wimbledon back in 1936

Andy Murray:  Murray is a relative newcomer to the elite ranks of tennis and is still looking to prove himself and improve upon his lone Grand Slam title (the US Open last year).  However the real story with Murray is that he represents the best shot for a British player to win the Championship since 1936.  He came close last year, losing to Federer in four sets.  Despite the devastating defeat, he came back to beat Federer just a few months later in the gold medal final at the London Olympic games (hosted at Wimbledon), proving that he had what it takes to beat the best on the grass.  He followed up his gold medal with a US Open title last fall and a trip to the finals of the Australian Open this year.  He skipped the French Open and should be well rested and poised to give Britain perhaps it’s best chance in nearly 80 years to win one for the home team.

Nadal is the undisputed king of clay, but is he healthy enough to win a 3rd Championship?
Nadal is the undisputed king of clay, but is he healthy enough to win a 3rd Championship?

Rafael Nadal:  Federer may be the greatest player of all time, but Rafa has made a strong case for himself as the best player of the past 5 years.  His specialty is playing on clay, which is evidenced by his record setting 8 French Open titles, including his most recent earlier this month.  However Nadal’s skills go beyond the clay and he’s proven that he has what it takes to win just about anywhere.  He has achieved a career Grand Slam and has 12 major titles under his belt, including two wins at Wimbledon in 2008 and 2010 (beating Federer both times). If Nadal has a weakness, it has to be his health.  He spent most of the past year recovering from a knee injury and is still feeling his way back to the top.  That being said, he still managed to win the French Open convincingly, proving that even a recovering Nadal is better than most players at 100%.  Rafa has made it clear that he wants to limit his play on hard surfaces to preserve his knees, which means he’ll likely be trying extra hard to secure Grand Slam #13 on the last “soft” court major of the year.

Djokovic is the best player, but does he have what it takes for a repeat of 2011?
Djokovic is the best player, but does he have what it takes for a repeat of 2011?

Novak Djokovic:  Djokovic is probably the best all around tennis player today.  At 26 he’s still relatively young, yet he’s also already managed to rack up 6 Grand Slam wins, including the Wimbledon championship in 2011 (along with the Australian Open and the US Open that same year) and the Australian Open title earlier this year.  He narrowly missed the career grand slam this June in the French Open, losing a grueling 5 set semi-final match to Nadal, the eventual champion.  Like Federer he’s an all court player, which should work to his advantage on grass.  He’ll be a formidable opponent to whomever he faces and will probably be the favorite in every match he plays.  He is beatable, but only through exceptional play on the part of his opponent.  Anything less and he could very well find himself with another Championship this year.

Other Players to Watch:  Other players to watch include David Ferrer, who made (and lost) his first Grand Slam final against Nadal in the French Open this year.  Jo Wilfried Tsonga could also make trouble for the elite four, as could Juan Martin Del Porto.  John Isner represents the best (if not remote) chance for the Americans.  While most of the excitement will take place on the men’s side, Serena Williams is the one to watch for the women.  Defending her title from last year and fresh off a dominating performance in the French Open, the question is not so much whether anyone has what it takes to beat her, but if they can even make it a competitive match.

Next Steps:

There you have it, all you need to understand, watch, and enjoy the 2013 Championships at Wimbledon in style.  Not much else is required on your part but to dress smartly in white, get some strawberries and cream, and tune in June 24 to watch the action for yourself.

Oh, and one final note.  Nothing makes a better excuse to treat yourself to Brunch (and perhaps some Bloody Mary’s) than the Sunday final of a Grand Slam tournament, especially Wimbledon.  Enjoy!

The Bow Tie

Nothing celebrates the return of warm weather like a bow tie.
Nothing celebrates the return of warm weather like a bow tie.

With the height of spring rapidly approaching, what better time to highlight one of the all-time great WASP fashion accessories: the bow tie.

While the general theme of WASP fashion revolves around the subtle and understated, the bow tie is unique for its boldness.  Perhaps its the bow tie’s association with classic formal wear, or the stereotype of people who traditionally wear them, or maybe it’s simply the fact that they’re so difficult to tie.  Whatever the reason; when you put on a bow tie, people will notice.

The key of course is getting it right.  As a student of WASP culture, your goal is to project the kind of formal preppiness that sets you apart at a cocktail party, or an air of intellectual superiority that gives you the upper hand at a business meeting.   Get it wrong, however, and you may quickly regret all that new found attention…

But not to fear, the howtoWASP is here to help and by following a few simple rules you’ll be a bow tie pro in no time.

From the Battle Field to the Opera

In a departure from most things WASP’y, the bow tie does not trace its origins back to Great Britain, or even Western Europe for that matter.  Instead we have the Croatians to thank.

A 17th Century Croatian mercenary with "cravat"
A 17th Century Croatian mercenary with “cravat”

Back during the Prussian Wars of the 17th Century, Croatian mercenaries were hired to fight for King Louis XIII and became known for the knotted silk scarves they used to hold the top of their shirts closed.  The scarves aroused the curiosity of Parisians who began wearing the “cravats” (simply French slang for Croat at the time) themselves and a fashion legend was born.  The style caught on in France, particularly among the upper class, and became wildly popular over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries.  During that period, the cravat evolved into the modern bow tie and eventually the neck tie of today.

Of course it wasn’t long before the British, who often looked to the French as the vanguards of fashion, began to emulate the style on their own, furthering the bow tie’s popularity and world wide exposure.

However, all good things must come to an end and by the 20th century the modern neck tie began to replace the bow tie as an every day fashion accessory.  The bow tie stuck around, but became regulated to formal wear duty and as a trademark fashion accessory among a few niche segments of society (doctors, attorneys, professors, etc…)

Fortunately the bow tie is making a comeback.  Gone are the stuffy/nerdy stereotypes of the past.  Today the bow tie can be the perfect option for the fashion forward WASP who’s not afraid to stand out amongst the crowd.

The Technical Stuff:

As mentioned earlier, part of the mystique surrounding the bow tie probably comes from the fact that they’re so difficult to tie properly.  Truth be told, the knot itself isn’t all that complicated, but unlike a typical necktie (with a Full Windsor for example), a bow tie is not adjustable.  In other words, there is no margin for error.  Once it’s tied, it’s not going anywhere, so it better be done right.

That being said, let’s try and walk through the process.  Note that all directions are given relative to your own body (i.e. they will be reversed when looking in a mirror).

1) If you have an adjustable tie, be sure to set the correct neck size.  Sometimes it’s helpful to go 1/2 size larger to give you a bit more material to work with.  Drape the tie around your neck, with the left side just sightly longer than the right.  Then cross the left side over the right.

Left over right.
Left over right.

2) Take what is now the right side and pass it around the back of the knot so it hangs over the front.  Grab both ends and pull lightly to comfortably tighten the tie around your neck.

Right side back and around.  Tighten comfortably.
Right side back and around. Tighten comfortably.

3) Take the left side and fold the flap over on itself so that it forms the bow shape.  You’ll want the folded side on the right and the single end on the left.  The right side of the tie should be draped over the middle of the new bow.

The folded end is being held.
The un-folded end is being held.

4) Here’s where it starts to get tricky…  Fold the ends of the bow together in front and hold then with your hand.  You should have the right (unfolded portion) side of the tie trapped in the middle of the fold.  Then pull down slightly on untied portion to cinch the knot a bit.

Fold and hold.  This is where things get tricky.
Fold and hold. This is where things get tricky.

5) Now things get really difficult.  If you pull the pinched ends out slightly, you’ll notice a hole in the back of knot.  Take the unfolded portion of the tie and push the wide portion of the fabric back through the hole,right to left, folding it on itself on the other side.  The idea is that you want to create another bow shape, matching the bow in front (the one you created in step 3).  The only difference is this time the folded portion will be on the left and the single end on the right.  Don’t worry about getting the knot tight, proper basic form is all you need here.

IMG_1455
Notice the hole, this is where the undone portion must be pushed through.
IMG_1456
Half the the back bow has been pushed through. Adjust as necessary.

6) You should be left with a loose version of the final knot with one bow in front and an identical bow in back.  It takes a lot of practice to get to this point, but if you make it, you’re 95% of the way there.

If you made it this far, you're gold.
If you made it this far, you’re gold.

7) Now all that’s left is to cinch down the knot to make it look great.  Grab the back folded half of the knot in your left hand and the front folded half in your right.  Then pull the ends very slightly to begin to cinch down the knot.  If the ends are in danger of being pulled through the knot, stop and recenter the front and back, one at a time.  The knot should stay tight while you recenter the front and back bows.  Repeat the cinching procedure until the knot is tight.

Pull the double folds apart.  About 75% of the way there.
Pull the double folds apart. About 75% of the way there.

8) To finish things off, before the final cinch, take the edge of the front bow in the middle and give it a little fold forward along the top and bottom of the knot.  The ideal is to create a uniform pinch in the middle of the tie.  Think like a piece of bow tie pasta.  Once you have it, give the knot one more final pull to cinch things down for good and you’re ready to impress!

Done!  Notice the folds in the middle near the knot.
Done! Notice the folds in the middle near the knot.

The key thing to remember is that practice makes perfect and tying a bow tie will require a  lot of practice before you can get it right with any sort of regularity.  You’ll know you’ve mastered it when people ask (and they will) you if you’re wearing a pre-tied bow tie, at which point you can proudly show off your WASP’y skills by informing them otherwise.  Note: You should never wear a pre-tied bowtie…

Bond likes the "undone" bow tie look.  So should you.
Bond likes the “undone” bow tie look. So should you.

Oh, and to remove the tie, simply pull single ends of the tie (as opposed to the folded ends, which you used to tighten the knot) and you’re free.  As a bonus you can then rock the “undone bow tie look”, which is unequivocally one of the coolest looks in all of fashion, WASP or otherwise.

What to Wear:

Now that you know how to tie your bow tie, the only issue that remains is what to wear it with?  The options here are endless, but in order to avoid falling into the stereotype zone (i.e. looking like a nerd) I would suggest keeping things conservative by not wearing the bow tie without some type of formal jacket (suit, blazer, sport coat).  Remember that typically bow ties are considered one step up on the formal scale, so plan accordingly.

In terms of colors you’ll want to follow the same rules you (hopefully) use for choosing a neck tie.  In other words, contrast is good, but you’ll want to match at least one color in the tie to the color of your shirt.  Unless your shirt is white, then the sky’s the limit.     But in general, don’t be afraid to go bold.  After all, the whole point of wearing the bow tie is to stand out and be noticed.

He may be a doofus at times, but he does know how to wear a bow tie.
He may be a doofus at times, but he does know how to wear a bow tie.

Lastly a word on formal wear.  Bow ties should always be a no-brainer when it comes to putting on a tux.  The modern neck tie may be acceptable these days, but the fact of the matter is that you won’t look nearly as cool as you will with the bow tie, especially one that you’ve tied yourself!  Just be sure to keep it classic.  No colors besides black (for black tie) and a basic conservative shape is all you need.

Next Steps:

  • Go out, get a bow tie, and start practicing!  For your first tie, I would recommend something conservative that will match a wide variety of shirts.  Also you might want to avoid smaller ties, as the lesser amount of material makes them more difficult to knot properly.  Finally, you’ll definitely want to get an adjustable strap.  Need a place to start?  Like most WASP’y fashion, you can’t go wrong with Brooks Brothers.
  • If you’re having trouble mastering the typing technique, check out YouTube, which has plenty of how to videos of varying usefulness.
  • The first time you wear the bow tie, be sure to give yourself plenty of extra time to tie it.  It’s also helpful to have a backup necktie on hand just in case…

The Top-Sider

A Golden Retriever and a well worn Top-Sider. A little piece of WASP heaven.

More often than not when discussing how to dress like a WASP, the conversation inevitably turns to business or other semi-formal attire. And while it’s true that knowing how to dress up properly is a key component of WASP culture, we must keep in mind that knowing how to properly dress down can be just as important.

And when it comes to casual attire, there is one item in particular that no self respecting WASP should ever be without: a pair of Top-Siders.

Now, I’ll be the first admit that some WASP’y attire isn’t exactly practical or cost effective.  There are, for example, only so many opportunities to show off that new Madras suit and not be mistaken for a hobo…  However, that’s definitely not the case with Top-Siders.  In fact they’re actually one of the most practical purchases you can ever make.

Why?  First consider that the Top-Sider (also known as the boat shoe or deck shoe) is perhaps the most versatile footwear option available on the market today.  Think about it, whether it’s in the office or on the beach, the Top-Sider is equally at home.  They’re perfectly appropriate just about anywhere and for anything.

Also handy is that they never go out of style.  Minor variations come and go, but the basic deck shoe has remained essentially unchanged (and a best seller) for nearly 80 years.  These days they seem to cycle between preppy niche item and mainstream fashionable.  Either way you can’t go wrong.

Dawn of the Deck Shoe:

Paul Sperry in 1935

Rather the typical Anglo-Saxon background associated with much of WASP culture, the Top-Sider is uniquely a product of American ingenuity.   The idea for the shoe was first conceived by a man named Paul Sperry.  During a cold Connecticut winter, Paul noticed that his dog Prince seemed to have no trouble running across slick snow and iced covered surfaces and became curious as to what made that possible.

Upon further investigation he noticed the pattern of groves and cracks in his dog’s paws and suspected they were the secret to Prince’s superior traction.  Sperry set about replicating the pattern by using a razor to score groves into a rubber shoe sole and the rest is history.  By 1935 the design was refined into the scalloped pattern of cuts (like you’ll find on any pair of deck shoes today) and the Top-Sider was officially introduced.

As the name implies, the Top-Sider (referring to the outer or “top side” deck of a boat) was originally introduced as a boating shoe that would allow sailors like Paul Sperry to maintain traction in even the slipperiest of conditions.  The shoes proved to be highly effective and over the following decades became a WASP favorite both on and off the water; as their association with boating culture sowed appeal among the general preppy set as well.

The natural element of the Top-Sider. Thanks to their uniquely designed sole, they'll maintain traction on even the slickest of surfaces.

What to Buy:

OK, so you’re on board (get it?) with the idea that you need a pair of deck shoes.  Now comes the task of actually going out and buying them.

The good news is that just about every major shoe company out there makes at least one variation of the basic Top-Sider.  The bad news is that every shoe maker makers at least one variation… You get the idea, how are you supposed to choose?  There really are a huge range of options out there between different manufactures, levels of quality, material, color, etc…

My recommendation: stick with the classic.  That means going with the original Sperry Top-Sider.  They’re the real deal, last for years, and available everywhere.  They’re also fairly inexpensive compared to many of the deck shoes offered by other brands.

In terms of material I’d suggest going with the basic leather in some shade of brown or tan.   For the soles stick with the basic flat rubber bottom.  They don’t offer a lot in terms of support, but then again you won’t be wearing them to run a marathon…  If you want to go really traditional, get the soles in white (originally designed to not mark-up decks).  Although I’ll confess that I actually prefer the colored variety.

The classic version of the Sperry Top-Sider. Note the simple brown leather construction, rawhide laces, and white "non-marking" soles. If you want to go authentic, this is it.

Again, stick with the classic and you really can’t go wrong.  However, once you’ve got your classic pair of Sperry’s, feel free to experiment.  Higher end dress models, canvas, suede, different colors, there are a myriad of options from which to choose.  Just try not to stray too far from the original if you want to maintain that WASP’y image.

How to Wear:

This may seem like a no-brainer and in some ways it is.  For the most part you can simply throw on your favorite pair of deck shoes no matter what you’re wearing and you’ll look fine.  After all, that’s a major part of the appeal of the shoes to begin with.

However, in order to really do it right, I believe there are some general guidelines you should follow when wearing Top-Siders.  In my opinion deciding when and where Top-Siders are most appropriate depends largely on the age and condition of the shoes.  The breakdown goes as follows:

Like New (100-75%) – Generally when the shoes are new an pristine.  They’re unscuffed, unstained, and maintain their original form.  They’ve never really been exposed to water so the leather is still soft and supple.

In this condition Top-Siders are best worn in nicer settings, such as the office, out on the town, or when dining at a decent restaurant.  Think of them as being on par with a pair of loafers.  They can be worn with socks (only with pants, please) or without.

A well worn pair of Top-Siders that have seen lots of time on the water. This how deck shoes should look.

Worn (75-25%) –These are shoes that have begun to show their age and/or good use.  They’ll be worn, scuffed, and probably lightly stained.  They’ve seen lots of sun and water and taken on a flater shape.  The leather is stiffer and the seams might also be separating a bit at the tops.

While it may not sound like it, this is the ideal Top-Sider condition.  It shows that the shoes have been used as intended (out in the elements) and gives you that classic preppy/casual look.  What you loose in ability to wear in more formal settings, you more than make up for in terms of all around utility.  Out on the weekend, around the house, to the beach, at the pool, etc…  The list is endless.  At this stage of life, sockless is the only way to go.  (For instructions on how to weather your deck shoes, see “Next Steps” below.)

Near Death (25-0%) – The shoes have become heavily worn with lots of scuffs and stains, maybe even some tears as well.  The laces have probably broken at some point (simply retie them together) and some of the seams have begun to open up.  The shoes are severely weathered and the interior is frayed or coming apart.  The soles have hardened, cracked, and no longer provide grip.

The sad fact about heavily used shoes is that they all eventually wear out.  Top-Siders are no different, however that doesn’t mean they’re ready for the garbage.  While you can no longer wear these shoes out on the town, they are still great to have around the house for garden chores, or perhaps for use at the beach or pool.  When you need a simple pair of shoes that you don’t really care about damaging or losing, these are the way to go.

Once your Top-Siders have worn away to nothing, it’s time to go out and get another pair and then repeat the process.  My guess is that once you get used to wearing them, you’ll be hooked for life.

Next Steps:

Even high end manufacturers now make deck shoes. This version by Salvatore Ferragamo will set you back $300.

1) If you don’t already have a pair, head out to the store and buy some.  Almost every major shoe store or department store will carry Top Siders and/or other styles of deck shoes.  Pricing is just about the same everywhere, but sometimes you can find a deal for $10-20 off.  In general expect to pay around $70 for a pair of Sperry Top-Siders.  Some brands cost less, some cost much more.

2) Check out the Sperry website to get an idea of the ranges and style available.  As I said, stick with the classic for your first pair.  After that, sky’s the limit.

3) Weather your Shoes:  If you want your Top-Siders in the desirable “worn” phase of life, there are ways to speed up the weathering process.  My dad often asks me to take his new pairs with me when I go sailing, which is hands down the best way to weather your deck shoes.  If you don’t have access to a boat, you’re not out of luck.  It’s an easy process to replicated on shore.

Simply take the shoes and dunk in completely under water (salt water if you really want an authentic look, but make sure to rinse with fresh water before drying).  Don’t worry, as long as you have a basic leather and rubber model, the shoes are designed for this kind of abuse.  Once the shoes are soaked, take them out and let them dry completely in the sun.  You’ll notice they’ll be very stiff at first, but will quickly soften out with wear.

Sometimes one soaking is enough, or you might have to repeat the process 2-3 more times.  But eventually you’ll have a nice pair of perfectly weathered Top-Siders ready for casual WASP duty anytime, anywhere.

4) Once you have your shoes purchased and weathered the last step is simple, just thrown them on and enjoy!

The Sunday Brunch

When it comes to upscale socialization and drinks before 5:00, brunch reigns supreme.

With Easter Sunday nearly upon us, what better time to highlight that WASP’iest of all meals: Brunch.  Aside from being one of America’s best loved portmanteaux, the mere mention of bunch is sure to conger up images of the classic WASP lifestyle.  Upscale social interaction, fancy restaurants, preppy attire, and of course, the hands-down best excuse to drink during the middle of the day.

That being said, brunch basics are a must-know for any serious student of WASP culture.  The good news is that learning to brunch (yes, it’s a noun and a verb) properly is one of the easiest lessons you’ll find on the how to WASP.  Really all that’s required is knowing when and where to show up, what to consume once you’re there, and then going out and experiencing it for yourself.  But first, a little history…

Brunch Beginnings:

Like most WASP’y, it should come as no surprise that the institution of bunch traces its origins back to Great Britain.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term was first used by a man named Guy Baringer in an 1895 article he wrote for Hunter’s Weekly titled Brunch: A Plea.

The traditional English Sunday dinner doesn't exactly qualify as "light" fare.

Prior to Mr. Beringer’s plea, the typical English Sunday consisted of an early breakfast and morning church service followed by a formal Sunday dinner.  Now, it’s important to note that in those days, dinner didn’t mean the same thing that it does today today.  Rather than being the third and largest meal of the day served in the evening, dinner was more akin to a substantial late lunch, served around mid-afternoon.  It was largest meal of the day and typically followed by a smaller evening meal called supper.  The English Sunday dinner in particular was often an especially heavy meal consisting of substantial meat dishes and other savory offerings.

If that sounds a bit daunting, you’re not alone.  Guy Beringer thought exactly the same thing and in Brunch: A Plea he proposed an alternative:

Instead of England’s early Sunday dinner, a postchurch ordeal of heavy meats and savory pies, why not a new meal, served around noon, that starts with tea or coffee, marmalade and other breakfast fixtures before moving along to the heavier fare? By eliminating the need to get up early on Sunday, brunch would make life brighter for Saturday-night carousers. It would promote human happiness in other ways as well. Brunch is cheerful, sociable and inciting. It is talk-compelling. It puts you in a good temper, it makes you satisfied with yourself and your fellow beings, it sweeps away the worries and cobwebs of the week.

Remarkably, this more than a century old proposal almost exactly describes brunch as it exists today.  Essentially a lighter mid-day meal that serves both as an informal social occasion and a reprieve from having to get up too early after a little weekend excess.

Over the course of the 20th Century brunch steadily caught on United States.  It also developed its close association with WASP culture as the meal became a favorite post-church social activity among the upper class establishment.  The golden age of brunch probably occurred around mid-century when each Sunday millions of Episcopalians across the country would head out from church on a weekly trek to the nearest restaurant to eat, drink, and socialize with friends.

While church attendance gradually declined in the decades following World War II, the institution of Sunday brunch stuck around.  Partly out of respect for social tradition, partly out of the appeal of not having to get up too early, and partly out of the aforementioned excuse to drink before five o’clock, brunch thankfully still remains relevant today.

A Quick Guide to Brunching Like a WASP:

As mentioned earlier, there’s really not too much involved when it comes to brunch, but there are couple pointers for first timers looking to do it right.  Remember that brunch is by nature informal and fun, so please consider the following general guidelines rather than absolute rules.

What Day? – Brunch was traditionally served on Sunday and that remains the case today.  Technically you could have brunch any day of the week, but you’ll find most restaurants offering a specialized brunch menu will only offer it on Sunday.

Today most Americans only go to brunch as couple times a year, usually for special occasions like Mothers Day, Valentines Day, or Easter.  However, there’s really no need to limit yourself.  I would encourage you to have brunch as often as you like, every week if possible!

What Time? – Every restaurant is different, but usually you’ll find brunch being offered from 10:30 AM to 2:00 PM.  Sometimes it may begin a little sooner, or end a little later.  In general if you plan on showing up sometime during the late morning you should be OK.

Where to Go? – To do brunch right, you’ll want to find a nicer, fairly upscale, restaurant.  Preferably one that offers a dedicated brunch menu, or at the very least offers both breakfast and lunch options.  This doesn’t necessarily mean the most expensive place in town, just someplace nice.  Could you simply catch a late breakfast at Denny’s?  Sure, just keep in mind you’ll be straying a bit from the WASP ideal.

The good news is that since brunch is not a formal meal, most restaurants that might normally be out of your price range for dinner typically offer much more reasonable prices for daytime fare.  Some places will even have special deals just for brunch.  A little research can really pay off.

The general sort of upscale/casual atmosphere you're looking for when scouting a brunch locale.

What to Wear? – Back in the old days it was easy, you simply dressed in whatever you wore to  church.  Today however, the key is balance.  On the one hand brunch is supposed to be a somewhat casual occasion.  On the other it’s still a traditional social event taking place in a nice setting.    If you do decide to dress up, you won’t look out of place, but in general you can get away with a sort of preppy/casual style.  If you’re having trouble deciding between outfits, always err on the side of a little too formal.

You'll never go wrong with Eggs Benedict!

What to Eat? – One of the great things about brunch is the shear selection of choices available.  Because you’re in between breakfast and lunch, it’s appropriate to order either.  Eggs, Bacon, Waffles, Pancakes, Salads, Sandwiches… sky’s the limit.  Brunch is the one meal where everyone at the table can get just about anything they like, all served at the same time.

Personally I favor the breakfast side of the menu.  In fact my go-to selection is Eggs Benedict, which I consider to be brunch royalty.  You get a little bit of everything on a single plate.  The eggs, sausage, and English muffin suggest a casual breakfast while the hollandaise sauce brings a touch of rich decadence to the party.  If you can’t decide on what to get, you’ll never go wrong with Eggs Benedict.

What to Drink? – Brunch offers one of the few socially acceptable excuses to drink in the middle of the day, so you should definitely take advantage!  The only catch is that you’ll want to stick to a few pre-approved choices to avoid standing out.  Translation:  Save the beer and martinis for happy hour.

Basically there are two options: The Bloody Mary and the Mimosa.  Fortunately what you lose in quantity, you more than make up for in quality as both are excellent options and perfectly suited to brunch dining.  For those who many not be familiar with one or the other:

    • Bloody Mary: A savory tomato juice and vodka based cocktail with spicy kick.  It’s a heavy duty drink that can go with just about anything and is a true WASP classic.  Find out more here!
    • Mimosa: A sweeter cocktail of orange juice and Champagne, mixed in a ratio of 1/3 juice to 2/3 wine.  Technically if it’s not Champagne (with a capital C), it’s not a Mimosa, but these days any sparkling wine has become an acceptable, and far more common, alternative.  Mimosas are best enjoyed with egg and mushroom based dishes.
Your brunch cocktail options: Mimosas (left) or a Bloody Mary (right). You really can't go wrong with either.

That’s really all there is to it.  Stick to the guidelines above and you’ll be out brunching like a pro in no time!

Next Steps:

  • Again, this one’s easy, just grab a few friends this (or any) Sunday and have brunch!  Even better, set up a standing weekly brunch and turn it into a new tradition.
  • While Easter brunch is a great tradition, and one I encourage you to try, there’s something to be said for the “off” weekends as well.  By off weekend I mean any Sunday that’s not Mothers Day, Valentines Day, or Easter.  The crowds will be much thinner and the atmosphere more casual and conducive to socialization.
  • Put together a brunch appropriate wardrobe.  While looking sharp for brunch is an obvious benefit, having a go-to preppy-casual outfit can serve you well in a host of other situations.  In fact I’d call the preppy/casual look one of the most versatile dress options today.  Not sure where to start?  You can’t go wrong at Brooks Brothers.
  • Bon Appetite and Happy Easter!

Wine Tasting

Wine.  So simple, yet so complicated, but it’s an undeniable truth that if you want to learn to eat and drink like a WASP, you need to know wine.  Few drinks speak to WASP culture as well as a First Growth Bordeaux, a Grand Cru Burgundy, or a bottle of vintage Champagne.  Unfortunately, while most people are fully capable of drinking wine, surprisingly few know how to properly taste and appreciate it.

Wine. Learn it. Love it.

“Why should I bother with all that fancy tasting stuff when I can simply drink what’s in front of me and enjoy it”, you may be asking?  Well, there are a couple reasons.

First, it’s only a matter of time before you’re at a dinner somewhere and someone offers you the tasting on a fresh bottle of wine.  At that point you will have two options 1) Embarrass yourself by admitting that you don’t know what to do, or 2) Really embarrass yourself by accepting the offer and then screwing it up.  Secondly, nothing will offend your average WASP oenophile more than watching someone throw down a glass of their 1982 Chateau Lafite Rothschild like a shot of cheap tequila.  And finally you might actually find you enjoy your wine more by taking the time to evaluate it.

Excellent, so we both agree that tasting wine is something you need to learn how to do.  Fortunately it really isn’t that difficult.  Lets start with the dinner example from above.

Say that your WASP’y friends have invited you out to eat at their favorite Michelin 3 star restaurant and have selected a nice bottle of wine to go with dinner.  The bottle arrives and the offer is extended “I say, would you care to do the tasting, old chap?”  With confidence you say “I’d love to!”  And then proceed with this easy 10 step process:

When inspecting a bottle, verify the producer (Caymus), the vintage (2004), and the variety (Cabernet Sauvignon).

1) The waiter (or Sommelier) will bring the bottle and present it for inspection.  Basically your job is to verify that it’s the same thing that was ordered.  Give it a brief once over paying particular attention to the producer and the vintage (year).  If something is wrong, make sure to say something (Unless of course you know enough to spot when the mistake has been make in your favor…)   If everything checks out, you may proceed.

2) At this point you may also want to feel the bottle of wine for temperature.  Generally you’ll want your red wines served between 60-65 degrees, whites between 55-60, and sparkling wines between 45-50.  As an easy frame of reference, keep in mind that your fridge keeps liquid at around 50 degrees.  If a bottle is too warm, it’s acceptable to ask for a bucket of ice to chill the wine before it’s served to the table.

3) The bottle is opened table side and you’ll be given the cork for inspection.  Pick it up and make sure it feels like normal cork, not dried out or excessively moist.   Visually inspect it for things that don’t look right.  Mildew (a little on the top is OK) or other odd discoloration are bad signs.  You may smell it as well if you like, but that’s not really necessary.

4) Once the bottle and cork have passed muster, it’s time to get down to business.  The waiter will pour a small amount of wine into your glass and then it’s showtime.

5) Pick up the glass and inspect the color of the wine, preferably against a light background, like a tablecloth.  At this point you may think that wine simply comes in red or white, but try to get beyond that and look more closely.  If it’s red is a really deep, almost purpley, red or is it a lighter ruby, or even brownish?  If it’s a white is it pale or a deep golden color, is it slightly greenish?  Don’t spend a long time here, maybe just a few seconds, but make sure you do it!

6) Next up is the swirl.  Take you glass and rotate it in small circles to get the wine up and swirling around the side of the glass.  Make sure to keep it under control because if the wine leaves the mouth of the glass, it’s game over. 5-10 good rotations are ideal for most wines.  Sparkling wines only need 1 or 2.

Get your nose right in there and concentrate. Don't cut corners here, it's the most important step!

7) Stop swirling and quickly stick your nose into the glass.  Again, use common sense here and keep your nose out of the wine…  Inhale slowly through your nose and think about what you’re smelling.  Is it light and barely perceptible or is the aroma (“nose” in wine-speak) strong and intense?  Pull your nose back, take in a fresh breath, and repeat at least one or two more times.  Make sure to take your time as this is the most important step in tasting wine!  

8) In a restaurant it’s acceptable to to simply give the wine a pass/fail rating.  However in a more formal tasting situation, you make be required to describe what you smell.  No fear, just check the tasking cheat sheet below for some helpful hints.  If the wine is a “fail”, you’ll know it immediately.  It will smell like mildew, sulfur, or something else you don’t want to put in your mouth.  If that’s the case, stop here and send it back immediately.

9) Assuming the wine passes the smell test, it’s finally time to taste.  Ideally tasting is done in three steps:  First take a small sip and immediately swallow to acclimate your mouth to the wine.  Next take a full sip and hold the wine in your mouth.  If you can, draw in a little air through your lips to help release aromas.  Move the wine around in your mouth letting it coat your tongue, cheeks, teeth, etc… and swallow.  Take one more sip and repeat.  What you’re looking for is sweetness (or lack thereof) in the wine, acidity (how tart the wine is), tannins (that dry, cotton-mouth feel, similar to when you drink tea), and the level of alcohol.  Ideally these tastes (the wine’s “pallet” ) will all be in balance without any one dominating over the others.

10) The end of the process is the final pass/fail test.  If the wine tastes OK (no vinegar or other nasty tastes) then signal your approval and the waiter will begin to pour the wine into each guests glass, or a decanter if appropriate.  At that point you’re done!  Unless…

10.1) If any aspect of the wine seems “iffy” there’s no shame in asking someone else at the table for their opinion.  People will always interpret the aroma and taste of wine differently and sometimes a second opinion is warranted.  If the wine is bad, then make sure you send it back.  While it can be awkward to refuse a bottle of wine, it’s not nearly awkward as giving your approval and then being responsible for everyone at the table getting stuck with bad wine. 

That’s all these is to it!  That procedure will serve you well no matter what WASP’y wine situation you may find yourself in, be it a fancy restaurant, a dinner party, or attending a wine tasting.  

Ah yes, wine tasting.  What is that about?  Why it’s a perennial WASP favorite where people gather and do nothing but drink and discuss wine.  Sounds like fun, yes, but remember that this is a situation where you’ll required to go beyond the simple pass/fail test and actually describe what you’re tasting.  How to go about doing that?  Well that’s where things can get more difficult. Fortunately we’re here to help!

Wine Tasting Cheat Sheet:

When it comes to wine, most of the “flavors” you detect are actually scents and identifying those scents are the bread and butter (both actual wine descriptors) of any wine tasting. 

If you’ve ever attended a wine tasting, or even read the description on the back of a bottle, you might be a little put off by the depth of aroma/flavor analysis.  After all, how the heck can a grape product smell like pencil shavings, root beer, or tar?  Well, we’ll get to that, but first we need to recognize that the vast majority of the scents in a glass of wine come from two sources: The fruit from which the wine was made and the wooden barrel it was fermented and/or aged in.

The Fruit: The aromas generated here typically smell like… wait for it… fruit!  What kind of fruit depends largely on the grape variety used.  Instead of trying to pick out individual flavors, try to classify the smell in broader group.  Below are some of the most common.  The first two apply mainly to reds, the latter three to whites.

Black Currant (AKA Cassis) is a little known berry in the US but is a common descriptor for dark red wines, such as Cabernet Sauvignon.
    • Black Fruit (blackberry, blueberry, plum, currant/cassis)
    • Red Fruit (cherry, strawberry, raspberry)
    • Tree Fruit (apple, pear, peach)
    • Citrus Fruit (orange, grapefruit, lemon)
    • Tropical Fruit (pineapple, coconut, lychee)

Once you’ve identified the group, then you can start to name individual flavors.  The good news here is that no one can challenge your assessment of specific flavors since everyone experiences wine differently, so be bold!  As long as you can identify the broad group, you’ve got the freedom to say whatever you want.

Note that it’s possible for the grapes to produce other scents as well.  Examples include a grassy aroma, vegetables, flowers, or earthy flavors such as mushrooms or truffles.

The Wood: Most red wines and a few white wines (primarily Chardonnay) are fermented and/or aged in oak barrels.  There are all sorts of variables when it comes to barrels.  American Oak, French Oak, Hungarian Oak…  Different levels of “toast” describing how much the inside of the barrel was charred during its production.  Age of the barrels used.  All these factors affect the flavors of the wine.   For now just know that oak can add the following aromas:

    • Oakiness – The flavor/aroma of the wood itself
    • Smokiness
    • Spicy – Cloves, Cinnamon, Pepper
    • Vanilla
    • Chocolate
    • Coffee
    • Tobacco – Think the dried leaves, not a pack of Camel Lights
    • Earth – That damp woodsy/soil smell
Wine aging in French Oak barrels. The wood contributes tannin and a range of new flavors and aromas to the wine.

Note that if a wine wasn’t aged in wood, as in the case with most whites, non of these flavors will likely be present and you can simply focus on the fruit as described earlier.  How do you know whether a wine was aged in wood or not?  Simple, just ask!  Quite the opposite of sounding ignorant, any good wine-geek will appreciate your interest in the vinification (winemaking) techniques behind the glass you’re about to sample.  

If you can identify the fruit and wood flavors in a glass of wine, you’ve got all the tools you need to conquer any tasting situation.  But wait, now it’s time for the fun part!  Remember all those crazy descriptors on the back of the label?  Well once you’ve proved that you can identify the basic aromas in a glass of wine, you then have license to go crazy and add in your own unique ideas to the mix.  Does it smell like playground mulch?  Maybe Domino’s pizza crust?  Sky’s the limit and again, who’s to say any different?

The Taste: AKA the “Palate” of the wine.  Most of this was covered in Step 9 above, but here are the basics one more time for those with reading comprehension issues.  In terms of actual taste, there are usually only 4 things you’re looking for in a wine:

    • Sweetness:  Perceived up front by the tip of your tongue, sweetness levels in wine speak range from “dry” (not sweet) to “off dry” (kinda sweet) to just regular old “sweet”.
    • Acidity: Basically a fancy word for the tart or sour flavor in a wine.  It’s sometimes described as giving wine a “crisp” flavor.  Remember Sour Patch Kids candy?  Those are highly acidic.  You perceive acidity on the sides of your tongue.
    • Tannins: More of a texture than an actual flavor, tannins are responsible for the cotton-mouth dry feeling the wine creates in your mouth.  Highly tannic wines are described as “astringent” while wines with light tannins are described as “soft”.  Since tannins are largely a product of grape skins and wood aging, they’re typically only a factor in red wines, but not always…
    • Alcohol: The reason most people even bother with wine to begin with.  By this point I’ll assume that you know what alcohol tastes like.  When it comes to wine the key is judging how much is present, which itself is usually a factor of the climate where the grapes were grown (warm and sunny = higher alcohol).
Sweet and fruity is good, but try to appreciate the other aspects of wine as well. You'll be glad you did.

Again, the key idea when it comes to taste is for all these sensations to be in balance with each other and for no one component to stand out too much.  Beyond that it’s really a matter of personal taste.  One word of caution is not to dwell only on the sweetness of a wine.  It’s a sure mark of a novice wine drinker.  Yes, we all like sweet stuff, but when it comes to impressing your WASP friends, you’ll need to look beyond the sweet.

The Body:  I’ve always found this term a little confusing because it’s said to the describe the “weight” of the wine in your mouth.  Well, doesn’t all wine weigh about the same?  Technically yes, but when it comes to wine speak the answer is a resounding no.  What wine snobs are actually describing here (I think) is the concentration of the wine.  The analogy I’ve heard used most often is the difference between types of milk.  Skim is light bodied, whole is medium bodied, and cream is full bodied.  Again its all very subjective, but in general if you describe concentrated/high alcohol wines full bodied and thin/low alcohol wines light bodied, you can’t go wrong.  If you’re in a pinch, you can always hedge your bets and go with medium bodied.

The Finish:  The final aspect of any wine tasting and no, I’m not talking about the part where you say goodbye and hope that you’re cool to drive… The finish of a wine describes how long the flavors and aromas of a wine last after you’ve swallowed it.  In general the longer the finish the better, that is unless the wine has left you with a bad taste in your mouth…  Fortunately the answer there is easy, just try more wine till you find one you like!   

Next Steps:
  • This one is easy, just go out, get a bottle of wine, and start drinking!  Try to find bottles that have in depth descriptions listed on the label.  At first read the descriptions and then try to find those flavors yourself.  Once you’ve gotten a few bottles under your belt, try drinking first and then reading to see how close you can get to the experts analysis.
  • Make sure to sample a variety of wines.  It’s easy to get caught up with a single type or style of wine, but be sure to explore so you know what else is out there.
  • Once you’ve got a little confidence, attend an actual wine tastings, even if it’s just at the local wine shop.  That gives you the opportunity to sample a bunch of different wines side by side without having to pay for four or five complete bottles.
  • If the wine bug gets you, then start reading up.  There are literally thousands of books out there on the subject.  I’ve found the “Wine for Dummies” series to be a good all around guide.