Since we met several years ago, my friend Kate has been urging me to host a wine-tasting party. “You could come to my house and talk to my friends about wine,” she’s often suggested.
Wine is a topic that causes even the most confident people to become intimidated. And, to be fair, there’s lots to get confused about— vintages, grapes,
regions, prices. Even the metaphors used to describe the taste of wine can seem like another language altogether.
But while I love the idea of introducing people to wine (I worked in wine retail for several years), I balk at lecturing folks in a social setting. That’s not a party— that’s school. So when I finally did decide to take Kate up on her suggestion and throw a wine party, I didn’t know quite how to do it. I just knew I wanted it to be relaxed and casual— the farthest thing from a snooty wine soiree.
To get some guidance, I called on a couple of local wine party experts. “The most important thing is to know your crowd,” says Andrea Farnum, a partner in Full Bloom, a marketing and events company, and the kitschy Kitchen Goddess on the PBS show “Coastal Cooking with John Shields.” “You want to be able to design the party to fit who’s going to be there: people who know wine and people who don’t know wine.”
For the former group, Farnum suggests serving less familiar wines, perhaps from less popular regions or made from little-known grapes, and coming up with unusual food and wine pairings. For the latter, Farnum might set up pairings of food and wine at different stations, with a card at each station bearing the name and the description of the wine. Guests can read how “experts” characterize the wine and discuss the information if they want.
Additionally, if the host is providing the wine, Farnum advises choosing bottles that are affordable, so that guests can later purchase them on their own without making a huge financial investment. She also tries to pick wines with a range of flavors, so even novice wine drinkers can taste real differences. Her parting advice to me was: “Too much information turns people off and overwhelms them.”
I also spoke with another wine party expert, Al Spoler, co-host of WYPR’s “Cellar Notes” and “Radio Kitchen.” Spoler began throwing Beaujolais Nouveau-tasting parties in the early 1980s and now he routinely hosts both his and others’ private parties where he leads formal tastings. For a home wine party, Spoler suggests offering an equal number of red and white wines based on a theme— say, a hot country like Spain or a comparison between different regions— the pinot noirs of Burgundy versus those of Oregon. He also suggests compiling a list of the wines tasted and their cost and giving it to guests as they leave so they can track down favorite bottles later. Luckily, Spoler reminded me about glassware. I would need enough to serve my guests plus a few left over.
Most, but not all, of my friends drink wine, but none are self-proclaimed experts, and all were eager to learn more. So I decided to pick one popular wine country, Italy, and assign each of the six couples and two single guests I invited a region and a color of wine to bring (i.e., Tuscany, red or Fruili, white), keeping the price between $10 and $20 (though a few folks went over).
Some people asked if they could bring a favorite wine instead of being assigned one, and that was fine by me. I also asked everyone to bring an index card with the name of the wine, the grape from which it was made, the region and any other information they could find or wanted to share. I liked this approach because it made everyone responsible for some knowledge, but didn’t require too much homework. I also provided Italian beer, soda and an array of Italian-themed food— grilled pork roast with roasted potatoes and bitter greens, pasta with pesto, homemade pizza, cheeses, salamis. I decided to rent glasses from the Wine Source (at 50 cents per stem), so I wouldn’t have to buy more stemware or wash them all the next day.
As my guests arrived bearing wine and index cards (and in one case, an 8-by-10 typed report), I directed them to two tables in my dining room, one for red wines, the other for whites, and asked them to open their wines and prop up their index cards.
“Am I going to have to give a presentation?” someone asked warily.
“No,” I answered, “and neither will I.”
Once all the guests had arrived, I made a small announcement inviting everyone to sample what they wished, reminding them to hold onto their glass because our supply was limited. Rinsing a glass between wines wasn’t really necessary, I explained, and because we had 16 bottles of wine (some guests brought more than one bottle and I added a couple as well), people could pour themselves generous glasses once everyone had a chance to sample. With that, a few of us made a beeline to a bottle of fizzy prosecco, while others went immediately to sample reds. Soon the dining room echoed with clinking glasses and the hum of conversation.
Over the course of the evening, I saw guests reading about the grape nebbiolo and the Alto Adige region. I heard conversations about which wine was their favorite (see “Off the Rack,” page 40, for a short list) and how some didn’t realize that Chianti was a region and not a grape (the grape in Chianti is Sangiovese). I even chimed in with a story about visiting the estate in Sicily where the grapes in one of the evening’s wines were grown.
Just like a potluck with several chocolate desserts, we ended up having more than a few wines from the same region (the Piedmont), including one of the favorites of the evening, a little-known wine called Gattinara. (Another wonderful surprise was the sparkling dessert wine from Alto Adige that Kate brought.) I had forgotten paper and pencils in case anyone had wanted to take notes, but I did promise to send an e-mail with a list of the wines tasted. And, as folks got ready to go home, someone asked when we were going to do this again. I took that as a good sign.
Planning a wine-tasting party
> Know your audience. Choose wines appropriate for the experience of your guests. For instance, don’t overwhelm novices with a vintage Bordeaux tasting.
> Choose a theme to focus your tasting. It could be a grape (like Chardonnay), a particular country or wine region, even a hemisphere. If your friends have extensive wine cellars, you might ask them to bring a forgotten bottle (something that may have been sitting around a little too long in the cellar) or wine from a particular year.
> Decide on your goals. Do you want to hire a wine expert to talk to your guests or do you prefer people to mingle and learn in a less direct way?
> Keep guests involved in the process. Have them bring wine or a wine and food pairing that they like.
> Set a budget and ask guests to stay within it when buying wines.
> Offer other beverages besides wine for non-wine drinkers. At the Italian party, I had Italian beer and soda.
> Food, food, food. Preferably along the same lines as your theme or interesting food wine pairings.
> Provide a list of wines and their prices to guests after the party.
> Provide materials for folks to take notes.
> Make sure you have enough glassware (about two stems per person). If you don’t own it, rent it.
> If you’re feeling overwhelmed, ask a reputable wine merchant for help.