Wine tastings are wonderful ways to learn more about wine and to socialize with friends or friends-to-be. I’ve done many and have always come away with new knowledge, new ideas, and new excitement. Of course, having a plan about how to best organize a wine tasting lends greatly to its fun and success.
Begin with a theme. A theme instantly creates a fun, learning atmosphere. Common themes include verticals and horizontals. A vertical tasting compares the same wine, produced by the same winery, but from different years. This illustrates the differences each vintage offers, and the value of ageing certain wines. A horizontal tasting compares the same grape varietal from the same vintage, but from different wineries, yielding which brand you might prefer.
Other themes include comparing different varietals, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel. These are all big hearty reds, though they’re all very different. Or you can choose the impact of geography by comparing for example, Syrah from California, Australia, and southern France (Syrah’s homeland). Or compare two wine regions like Napa with Sonoma, or Napa with Bordeaux.
Be creative! How about, 'what wine goes best with pizza', or 'relaxing after a run'? I once wrote about what wine goes best with a pedicure. Really.
Provide each guest with at least two glasses so direct comparisons can be made. Three or four glasses per person are welcome (except when it’s time to clean up!) Those glasses should be plain, clear glass, so looking at the wine isn’t obstructed.
Pour just one or two ounces of wine per sample. This is enough to experience what a wine has to offer while allowing for many wines to be tasted.
Food is critical. Remember, getting drunk is not the goal here, so don't neglect the food pairings! Offer anything from plain bread and a few cheeses to a complete dinner. Water is also important. It cleanses your palate and is handy for the occasional glass swishing between wines. Don’t serve anything that will freeze or scorch any tongues; an undesirable burden for keen tasting.
Find a diplomatic way beforehand to tell your guests not to wear perfume or cologne, as smelling is a key to tasting and strongly smelling things impairs your tasting ability. Likewise, don’t decorate with flowers, candles or any other strongly scented items.
Use a white tablecloth to create the best background to observe the wine. Much can be learned just from looking.
Research! Go online to find out as much as you can about the wines you’re serving. Better yet, call the winery for their tasting notes or any other information they may offer. Most wineries are glad to help when they know their own wine is being tasted. If your guests are bringing wines, ask them to research their wine and provide the results in advance so you can share it with the group. Have them ask for the basics; the winery, region, vintage and grape/s, and anything else they feel is interesting.
If you give your guests this collected information on paper, that piece of paper can replace the white tablecloth to observe the wine. It should also include room for guests to write a few notes about each wine. Days or weeks later when they’re wine shopping, your friends can rely on their notes while also recalling what a great time they had at your tasting!
Put a spittoon (of sorts) on the table so people can dump wines they don’t like. It’s inevitable not everyone will like every wine served. Be sure the spittoon is opaque for obvious reasons!
When people ask what a particular wine costs, don’t tell them until after taking a vote at the end of your tasting to learn everyone’s favorite. It’s been my experience that the most expensive wine rarely wins.
Like any skill, appreciating wine takes practice and you’ll get better with experience. Creatively changing your hosting approach almost always makes for more learning fun. Your wine tasting could turn into a regular event, rotating hosts and themes ongoing. And consider inviting people who may not be close friends but are interested in expanding their wine horizons. Friendship will result.
Ernest Valtri of Buckingham is a sculptor, graphic designer, and a former member of the PLCB’s Wine Advisory Council. Contact Erno at ObjectDesign@verizon.net.