Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Throwing a Wine Tasting Party

Phew! We're in the week break between the end of Hanukkah and Christmas and the New Year's festivities. If you are stumped for ideas on how to while away the hours with family and friends on the Eve (waiting for the ball to fall) or the Day (football anyone?) why not consider a little wine tasting?

You can always buy a wine party kit, like this one on offer from the Napa General Store. Or, armed with a color printer and some ingenuity, you can put together your own wine tasting kit using the internet. I was stunned to discover how many online resources there are for people interested in hosting such an event. Everything from placemats to tasting note sheets and flavor maps are there for free downloading thanks to the generosity of wine bloggers and wine writers with more traditional websites.

Wine Parties demand a little bit of forethought and planning, but nothing too stressful. Here's an outline of what you will need to sort out in advance.

1. Pre-Planning
First you have to decide on a few details. The most important is whether you are going to do a blind tasting with brown paper bags, or a regular tasting.

I would recommend the blind tasting only if you set a single varietal or type of wine as a theme (like merlots, Oregon Pinots, or sparklers) or if you are all impressively geeky and knowledgeable and want to guess the varietals. If you have relative wine newbies, this can be extremely intimidating and Not Fun At All, so don't go with "guess the wine" unless you know this will be enjoyable to all concerned.

In a regular tasting, the bottles are lined up on the table without bags, and you know what you're tasting when you taste it. This is your best bet if everyone is bringing different varietals and types of wine, and/0r you've got some relatively inexperienced tasters and want to make this fun.

Irrespective of what kind of wine tasting you want to have, you should set a price limit or price range to help guide your guests in the wine store. I would go for under $15, but with some wine types or themes you may have to go higher.

As for number of guests, 8-12 is usually an ideal number for a wine tasting, but you can certainly still have a good time with fewer or more people. If you are going to have more than 20, you should have 2 tables set up and divide the bottles between the tables.

2. Invitations
To send invitations, I always use Evite, the online invitation service that sends out invitations, reminders, and lets you track rsvps. The basic service is free, and for a winter wine tasting I particularly liked this invitation. Less seasonal options include this wine and cheese invite, a surrealistic wine invite, a luridly purple invite with wine glasses, and one with a photographed glass of white wine. (You can always design your own using one of your favorite photos if none of these suit.) Make sure you tell people what to bring in the message section, i.e. "any wine under $20," "Italian reds under $15," or "California Cabs."

3. Glasses
Yes, it is certainly impressive to have six glasses set out on the tables for each and every guest, but how many of us have 60 glasses? More important, who wants to wash them afterwards?

Instead, I'd go with 3 glasses per person (one white, one red, one sparkling) and instruct people to rinse between pours. Remember to put buckets and pitchers of water on the table for this purpose.

Alternatively, just put 1 glass at each setting, and rinse more often. If you really want to go nuts on glasses, head over to a wine chain store near you and see if they have any boxed wine glass sets laying around. I picked up 2 boxes last year, each neatly holding 24 glasses.

4. Tasting Paraphernalia
Here's where the internet is REALLY your friend.

First, you need a flavor and aroma guide for each person. You can spring for the original wine aroma wheel, or download Alder Yarrow's Vinography Aroma Card and print it out on a color printer. Trust me: do not skip this step. It takes so much of the mystery out of wine tasting, and even wine drinkers who start saying "I smell wine," end up saying "Hey, I smell cherries!" with a little help from these cards.

Second, you need tasting sheets. OpenBottles combines flavor/aroma hints with a tasting sheet in one handy page for up to 3 wines. De Long Wine Moment's 3-wine tasting sheet uses icons and checkboxes, but leaves the description of flavors and aromas to you. This sheet is my personal favorite, since it is good for newbies and more advanced tasters. If you are doing a blind tasting of one varietal, Wine Country Getaways has a specially designed tasting sheet just for that purpose.

A third optional step is to print out flight sheets: placemats with circles for the wine glasses. This is the thing to do if you are going to put out multiple glasses of wine. The Frugal Oenophile has downloadable flight sheets for either 6-glass flights or 8-glass flights.

5. Getting Ready for the Party
Just before the party, set out your wine glasses, aroma wheels/cards, tasting sheets, pens/pencils, jugs of water, water glasses, rinsing/spitting buckets, and baskets of bread or crackers. You need to arrange these on the table as if you are having a dinner--not buffet style--with everything within arm's reach for each guest. This might require multiple water jugs and buckets, so check your cupboards for tupperware and pitchers in advance.

6. Party
Take the wine off people's hands when they arrive.

If it is a blind tasting, whisk them into the kitchen and remove the foil which also has identifying logos on it before putting the bottle into a plain wine bag that you've saved from a trip to the supermarket.

If it isn't a blind tasting, start figuring out the order or wines. Classic wisdom is to go from lightest to heaviest whites, then the lightest to heaviest reds. How do you do that? Check the alcohol levels in the tiny type. It's up to you if there is a sparkler whether to start or end with it. If there is a dessert wine or port, always end with that.



blueVicar said...

Great tips! I'll have to think about a party...'tis the season!!

Meilleurs voeux!

Sonadora said...

Thanks for all the great info! I think we will have to do this over the next few weeks...perhaps we can convince some of our friends to become wine lovers as well. Though I bet it would be a bit too scary for them if I busted out my new wine trivia game!

Dr. Debs said...

Hi again BlueVicar and welcome WannabeWino! I think you're right not to break out the wine trivia game (lucky you to have scored that!), but the tasting is fun. I did this with family at Thanksgiving and I think by the end of the night even the newbies were feeling confident of their tasting abilities given the props. Oh, and the tasting sheets turn out to be good for even the more experienced tasters--a reminder of how to write structured notes.

Joe said...

My wine group has been meeting for a few years now. We first started out with the paper bags, but two problems:
1) It was not always possible to blind when bottle dimensions differ...
2) The wine with the most 'sludge' tended to score more poorly, perversely making better wines seem less attractive.
Solution? I bought four identical (cheap) decanters. My wife does the decant and marks the decanters with an eraseable marker. This has worked very well for our formal tastings.
Love the blog, Cheers!

Dr. Debs said...

Welcome, Joe. What a great suggestion--I had different bottle shapes tip me off once, too. And with a handy grease pencil, you're all set. Glad you are enjoying the blog. Hope to see you again, soon.

Mr. Vince said...

When my wife told me she wanted to spend the weekends on a Barossa Valley wine tasting tour, I was not very happy. Thought it was so boring. But when we arrived in Adelaide, I got excited since the view was amazing! The place was romantic, the food was great and the wine tingled my palate. We toured the wine region riding on a luxury mini-coach and visited 5 wineries. A perfect weekend for me and my lovely wife.