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Friday, April 18, 2008

How To Host a Wine Tasting Party

I am a big fan of tasting parties. At the wine tasting party we hosted recently, I caught myself standing at the island in our kitchen just smiling and taking in the scene of our living room filled with people we love. The sound of that many people having fun is the greatest blessing on any home.

The world is too full of people telling you what you should like, giving you intimidating rating scales, and just generally increasing the stress of making any choice. There is a psychologist who suggests that too much choice makes us unhappy, at least in part because for every choice we make, we worry that there was some better choice out there we didn't make. So make yourself happy: get a bunch of wine all together in one place, drink, be merry, and discover what you like. Because a tasting party is absolutely the best way for you to discover what you like. Hosting a wine tasting party is great fun with friends, and it can absolutely be put together with little fuss and within a reasonable budget. My husband and I first got into hosting wine tasting parties while we were engaged: we wanted try out different wines on our friends to select the wines we would serve at our wedding reception. Now it continues as a fun tradition.

The basic idea is to serve about six different bottles of wine. The wine is usually served in pairs or sets, so guests receive two or three at a time and can taste back and forth among them and make their own judgments. The bottles (or at least the labels) are usually covered in brown paper.

The key to hosting a wine party is not to get so wrapped up in the details that you stop having fun. An up-tight host is a total buzz-kill. If you did nothing more complicated that grab six wines off your local grocery store shelf and phone a few friends, it would still be a successful party. Because you are happy, they are your friends, they are wonderful, and hey, everyone is all a little liquored up.

Here's my guide to throwing low-hassle wine parties whether you are a wine newbie or an aspiring wine-snob.

How Many Wines?

We usually do six different wines at a tasting party. In general I would recommend doing no more than eight wines at a sitting.

How much will it cost?

We threw a wine tasting party this weekend for 16 people and the total bill for wine and food was only $120. As a rough rule of thumb, plan on $7-$10 per person. Of course, the cost will depend a lot on what wines you pick. You can definitely get some reliably good wines for $8-$15 per bottle, so if you plan on tasting six bottles, that would be about $60-$70 plus tax. If you are interested in tasting more expensive wines, that will increase the price quickly.

In general, for light food options (either sweets or savories) plan on about $40-50 worth of food (for 12-14 guests) if you will do some of the assembly yourself. If you are buying more prepared foods, or more expensive foods, plan for closer to $70.

How Many People?

We have had as few as 12 and as many as 24. In general you can get about 10-12 tasting-sized servings out of a bottle. So it helps to get your guest list either between 8-14, or 18-26.

What do I need?

The big challenge will be having wine glasses for everyone. If you are serving wine in pairs (see below), then you ideally want 2 wine glasses for each person, so they can taste back and forth between the two wines in the pairing. If you are serving in sets of three, then you would want to have three glasses per person.

We happen to own an embarrassing number of wine glasses now, but when we started hosting wine parties we had to ask our guests to bring their own pair of wine glasses. I'm sure there's some law of etiquette we violated, but it didn't detract from the fun one bit.

If you intend to serve some light food along with the wine, you'll want small plates for everyone.

It can be nice to give people someplace to write down their "tasting notes." For people just getting started, I recommend nothing more complex than a blank sheet of paper where they can write their ideas down. If you are into building your wine expertise, you may want to provide different guides, such as rating guides, or a sheet that lists common tasting notes. If you have a regular group who will get together to do tastings (a sort of wine club) then you may want to invest in something more permanent to keep your ongoing record of tastings in. This could be a nice bound notebook or one of the books printed specially for wine tasting.

What Wines Should I Serve?

Pick a focus. This is all up to you, and it probably depends on your sense of how experienced you and your guests are with wine. If most people are just getting started, it can be great fun to start with a general focus, like "whites" or "reds." If you are a little more advanced, you may want to pick something more specific, like comparing different vineyards in the same region, different years of the same vineyard, different regions of the same country, or even different countries.

If you are doing a more advanced "focus tasting" whatever you pick as your focus, you want to be sure that you include some intentional variation, and then try to minimize other kinds of variation. For example, if you decide you want to taste based on country or "terroir" then I recommend you select a grape that is grown in several different countries, for example pinot noir. Then select pinot noirs from France, the United States, South Africa, Australia etc. On the other hand, if you want to do a tasting based on price, then you would try for pairs of the same varietal, from the same country/region, only one would be value-priced and one would be higher priced.

If you do a tasting with too much variety it is really difficult to figure out what you are tasting in the comparison. For example, if you select an inexpensive Malbec from Argentina, a pricey Pinot Noir from Oregon (US), and a cheap Merlot from France, it may be difficult to tell what part of the taste can be attributed to the grape varietal, what to the quality of production, and what to the difference in country.

My best recommendation is that no matter how you decide to focus or structure your tasting party, you offer your wines in pairs or sets. Usually this means a 2 x 3 format or a 3 x 2 format. For example, if you are doing a 2 x 3, you could do two different varietals (Pinot Noir and Gamay) from three different countries. Alternately, you could do three varietals (Malbec, Shiraz and Pinotage) from two different countries each.

What follows are just a few examples to get your brain going:

Standard Reds

  • 2 cabernet sauvignon, 2 merlot, 2 pinot noir

Emerging Reds
  • 2 Argentine Malbec, 2 Australian Shiraz, 2 South African Pinotage

Standard Whites
  • 2 Chardonnay, 2 Sauvignon Blanc, 2 Pinot Grigio

  • 3 Gewurztraminer, 3 Riesling

  • 3 Oak Aged Chardonnay, 3 Non-oaked Chardonnay

Uncommon Whites
  • 2 Timorasso, 2 Viognier, 2 Tempranillo

Dessert Wines
  • 2 Ports, 2 Tawny ports, 2 Madeira

  • 3 white muscadel, 3 red muscadel

  • 2 champagne, 2 rainwater Madeira, 2 icewine

Terroir Tasting
  • 3 Cabernet and 3 Shiraz (one each from Australia, US, Argentina)

  • 6 Rieslings (two each from Germany, France, and Australia)

Vintage Tasting
  • 3 Petit Syrah (same vineyard, 3 different years) and 3 Merlot (ditto)

Price Tasting
  • Pick two or three varietals. In each category, select one wine that is in the "everyday" value for you, one that is a bit nicer, and one that qualifies as a treat. Within our income bracket, we usually select one that is about $10, one that is about $20 and one that is $30-40. This can be a great way to try to discover the subtleties of a more sophisticated wine by using direct comparison. It can also be a great way to discover value wines that you really love. And of course, don't tell anyone which wine is which when you are pouring it.

What Food do I serve?

I think the first consideration here is, again: do not drive yourself crazy. The minute that trying to find the perfect pairing is making you insane and detracting from your fun, you should forget about it. This party is, after all, about discovering what you like. So I give you permission to just pick whatever food makes you happy. There are umpteen million suggestions out there and rules for what to do and what not to do. But that is sort of like inviting the US Tax Code to your party. How fun is that?

Reasonable strategies for picking food:
  • Pick relatively neutral things you like (e.g. crostini with goat cheese)

  • Ask an expert at your local cheese counter or wine shop

  • Pick foods you eat often, because it can be fun to discover for yourself whether or not they work with different foods (e.g. mini steak sandwiches, appetizer ravioli)

  • Pick whatever is bite-sized and easy, because hey, you are busy enough already (e.g. freezer-section crab rangoon)

If you want to get your toes wet in more advanced pairing strategies, a good place to start is the very easy to use matching tool offered by Natalie MacLean. You can select either the wine you have or the food you have and her site generates a list of specific recommendations that pair well with that wine or food. The fact that this matcher pairs in both directions (either starting with food and recommending wine or vice versa) makes it one of the most user-friendly and versatile pairing tools out there.


Julie said...

Thank you for all the awesome tasting tips! The Skinny Gourmet sure knows how to throw a rockin' party.

Philip Robert said...

What a great post. Once I get to know just a few more people in my new home town (Ashland, Oregon) this will be a fun way to let them get to know me.

I have a cousin in California with a huge temperature controlled wine cellar in his home. There is storage for around 600 bottles (maybe more) Looking at all the wine one day I asked his son in law about the organization.

He told me that they had sectioned the wall for individual bottles into three sections. One section for reds, one for whites, and I'll get to the other in a moment.

The sections were further divided by type of grape and year. Youngest to the right, oldest to the left. When choosing a wine for dinner the usual routine was that my cousin or his son in law would come in and select three bottles choosing the older bottles first. He explained that sometimes the wine had been stored too long and it would go bad so the three bottles. If the first bottle was ok then the others went back to the cellar unless they were needed at the table. If the first bottle was bad then they would go to the second, then the third.

In this manner a good wine was always offered for the guests at dinner and the collection was consumed in a systematic way to avoid spoilage.

That third section? That section was reserved for indiscriminate guests who would guzzle anything out of a wine bottle. The wines stored there were lower quality vintages that had come to the house usually as gifts.

The best thing I've learned here is to take notes. My cousin has served some amazing wines and I couldn't name a single label if my life depended upon it.

Erin said...

Julie, I had been preparing this post already when I saw that you also had a tasting party at your house. Something in the air this time of year just makes it seem right. So for those who want a little more on wine and cheese pairing, head over to The Food Architect for some of that.

Phillip, what an informative comment! I love your cousin's system. I suppose we have a slightly more humble version of that, but with some similar ideas. The good wine segregated from the swill. Only in our house the really good wines, the ones that not only can be aged but must, those are separated away entirely.

600 bottles. sigh. Although at that pace I would probably need a separate calendar to keep track of when everything would be at its peak. It might be a little exhausting.

Have fun in your new town! wine=instant new friends

katiez said...

I put our bottles in numbered slots and store the info on the computer. It's the easiest to keep track of wine and year. The list is in the kitchen, the wine is in the cave.
Sounds like you host great parties!

simona said...

Excuse me if I interject. I'm Simona, I'm Italian but I like visiting gourmet blog from other countries. As you know Itali is the land of wine and there are a loto of Wine tasting parties, that's why i found the articles interesting!
I would like to report an Italian site which I personally found lovely. You can find many local products , like wines with related recipes and you can also buy these products. I love italian food! Excuse the interruption again!
Here's the site in english language
Bye! simo

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