Like Wine Tastings? Have Your Own!
By Sunny Brown
Wine tastings are a great way to get together with a few friends and enjoy a little vino. They can be as formal or as relaxed as you want, as in depth or as basic as you need, and as fun as any other time you are with good people and good wine.
First, the basics. You should choose a theme for the wine. California Zinfandels. All French, all the time. Wines from around the world. Whatever strikes your fancy. The options are as varied as the wines themselves. An underlying similarity should tie all the wines together. This can be a similar region, year, grape variety, style of wine, etc. Comparing wines from the same region and year but different wineries is called a horizontal tasting. This is very popular when a new vintage is released. Trying a few different wines can give you a feel for who did well in that particular year and who crapped out. A vertical tasting is when you have several different vintages of wine from the same winery. This is a great way to taste the effect that weather can have on a bottle of wine. Since the grapes are from the same vineyards and winery it is the weather that is the only variable.
Next, the whys. Why have your own tasting? Conducting your own tasting can be a great way for both you and your friends to learn about wine in a comfortable and familiar setting. Facts and questions can be posed on their level, and there is no intimidating sommelier doting about, critiquing your pronunciations. Tasting blind is also a fun way to evaluate the wine without allowing what you know about the wine to cloud your judgement. Cover the bottles with a brown paper bag or aluminum foil and then number them with a magic marker. While it’s not always necessary or appropriate to taste blind, having one bottle at the end of the evening that they know nothing about can be a fun way to introduce your friends to new wines.
Now the hows. There are a few things that are mandatory at any tasting. Water is probably the most important. If all of your guests are too hung over to see the next day it will probably be your last tasting. Limit the tasting to about five or six wines. Any more than that and most tasters tend to lose focus. Spittoons and dump buckets are a nice asset as well. It may seem gauche to spit a good wine into a plastic pitcher, but all of the professional tasters do it and the focus should be on the wine, not getting crunked.
A word on drinking and driving. In most states in the U.S. three glasses of wine in the span of an hour for men, or two for women, will be at or above the legal limit. Limit your pours to three ounces or less, call a taxi, or at the very least offer up a couch if you feel that a friend has had too much to drink. A little inconvenience now is better than a lot of pain down the road.
Food is optional, but always a nice touch. Having various kinds of munchies that loosely pair with the wines you are serving is great. Cheese and crackers are always welcome. Finding a cheese from the same region as the wines you are serving can be fun and educational. Fruits that pair with the wine are easy and inexpensive. Try a nice fresh goat cheese with a Sauvignon Blanc, or blackberries with Cabernet. Port and chocolate always work well together. The are a million easy pairings out there, but try an oddball or two just to keep it fun.
But what about the glassware? Gigantic crystal glasses are great, but small glasses work fine, are much easier to clean and are cheaper too. Having clean glasses for each wine is tedious and unnecessary. A little water swirled in the glass and then dumped out works well enough, and a new wine can even be poured onto that last drop of the old provided that the new wine is heavier than the first. Always taste lightest to heaviest and driest to sweetest.
Provide paper and pencils for your guests to do their evaluations. Some tasters may be intimidated and not want to voice their opinions on the wines. The paper is a good and anonymous outlet. Asking them to rank the wines is also fun. Assigning a one thru five point system is great as you will often find the most popular wine may also receive it’s fair share of low marks. When you discuss the wine keep in mind that each person has different tastes. There are no right or wrong answers, and what may be beauty to you may be a beast to me.
Doing a little research into the wines can do nothing but help. Having a bevy of facts about soil type, sugar levels at harvest, etc. will bore everyone to tears except the geekiest of tasters, so try to keep it light. Fun stories about the winemakers or pictures of the winery can be easily found online, and a picture of a cute 90-year-old winemaker from Tuscany may be just the trick to keep them hooked. Most wineries have their own website nowadays. Print off copies of the labels of the wines that your friends can take home with them. This way the next time they see that label in a wine shop they will remember your tasting. Use our Producers Section to track down the web addresses of different wineries. Or you can try the words that yours truly lives by: “When in doubt, Google.”
How in the hell am I gonna pay for all this, you ask? Keep costs low by rotating who hosts the events. It is also acceptable to split the cost of the wines amongst all of the tasters. While it’s fun to host a party, the objective is to have a good time and it shouldn’t break the bank. Having wines of different price points is a good idea as it not only keeps the cost low, but can also dispel the old “price equals quality” myth. Watch your wine-snob buddy’s face light up when he goes gaga over a $10 Spanish red instead of the $40 Bordeaux.
There are a myriad of different wine and food styles to choose from and just as many options when deciding on which way to take your tasting. It’s just as acceptable to spend two minutes on each wine as it is to spend twenty pouring over the minutiae of each drop. But your tasting should never seem like a chore. If you feel that you are losing your guests it’s time to shake things up. Throw on some tunes, bring out the food, spend less time geeking out over the wine. The choices are up to you. A little background music and some fun wine pairings can make for a memorable experience. A great bottle can go far, but it will never compare to great company.
Here is your last tip: Have fun! After it’s all said and done remember it’s just wine. That tasty fermented goodness has been making people merry for 5,000 years. So relax, enjoy it. Toast to it, drink it, and enjoy it. Sip it, slurp it, gulp it, burp it, and enjoy it. Taste in any order or fashion that you like as long as you remember to enjoy it. Follow this easy step and your tasting is sure to be a success.
The wines below represent a "Tour of Italy" themed tasting.