Reading books and taking classes are great ways to learn about wine, but to get to the heart of the matter quickly, tasting is always the best way to go. Nothing takes the place of real life experience, not to mention it’s a lot more fun to taste than to study. Just find other friends who like wine and want to learn more about it. Get together with them once a month and have a tasting!
The most important thing is to gear the tasting to the level of interest of the group as a whole. Depending on the members, one group may be quite serious about it and another will have more of a tasting party. It doesn’t matter. The goal is for everyone to learn something and have a good time doing it! The following outlines the way to have a fairly serious tasting, but you can easily modify it to suit your group or use some of the ideas to throw a tasting party.
Try to keep your membership to 8-12 people. You can easily get 12 tastes from a bottle.
- Rotate who hosts it each month so it’s low impact for everyone.
- Each member should bring his own wine glasses so the host isn’t swamped with dirty dishes when it’s all over. You’ll need a separate glass for each wine so you can compare the wines side by side. Wine glasses travel well in an empty wine case box, held safely in place by the dividers.
- You should all agree in advance about the maximum cost per person, per tasting and then the group can reimburse the host for the wines he purchased. Some groups have each member bring a bottle of wine, but the tasting will be more cohesive if one person does the purchasing.
You’ll get much more out of the tasting if you set it up by variety and vintage rather than taste a mishmash of wines. The number of wines depends upon the experience of your group. If you’re all beginners, more than 6 wines may be overwhelming. You could taste six 2004 Chardonnays, or taste two, three or four-wine flights, for instance three Chardonnays and three Pinot Noirs. You’ll need to decide if it will be a global tasting of the variety or if the variety should come from a specific region. Again, if the group is inexperienced, start with familiar territory. If most of you drink California wine most of the time, start there, and you can broaden your scope later.
Don’t worry about duplicating the variety, even several times. Popular varieties such as Pinot Noir come from numerous different countries and are made in many styles. It’s impossible for it to become boring. After a couple of California Pinot Noir tastings, you’ll have a good sense of its varietal character and then you can compare it to Pinot Noir from Burgundy, New Zealand, Oregon or anywhere else to learn more about your personal preferences. After you’ve been to several Pinot Noir tastings, you’ll have formed a real opinion about what you like and don’t like in Pinot Noir.
You’ll be more objective if you don’t know the wine’s identity, so these should be blind tastings. As the host, you should remove the foils and corks and brown bag the wines. Once the wine is in them number the bags at random so that even you don’t know which is which. Put a sheet of white paper at each person’s place as a tasting placemat. When your friends arrive, have everyone line up their glasses in front of them and number them on the tasting mat. Then they can each pour the corresponding wine into the glasses so that everyone tastes the same wines in the same order, wine 3 into glass 3, and so on.
If you want to be very scholarly, then the host can do some research on the variety and briefly share it with the group. For instance you could discuss the origins of the variety, preferred growing conditions and varietal characteristics. Each group will decide how intellectual they want to be about it.
It helps the tasters to focus if you use a tasting score sheet. It’s fun to have everyone rank the wines from most favorite to least favorite because it will stir up debate later as the tasters compare notes and opinion.
Click here to download our Wine Tasting Score Sheet.
Most groups have a serious time and a playtime, and it’s obvious why it’s better if the serious time comes first. Once the wines are poured everyone should begin tasting and evaluating them. Allow at least 20 minutes, and probably longer, depending on how many wines are being tasted.
Some ground rules during the serious time:
- You’ll be more perceptive if you keep it relatively quiet-good luck!
- No food except bland crackers or bread (not sourdough). The host should make plenty of water available to clear the palate.
- The host should provide paper spittoon cups for the designated drivers.
When it looks like everyone’s finished (you can tell because the noise level goes up), then ask each person for his ranking. If some don’t want to rank the wines, fine-maybe next time. Tally up the results and announce the group ranking. It’s fun to save the winner for last, so go from lowest to highest ranking. You can reveal the wine with each successive ranking, and start a conversation: “Why did you rank it first?” “What did you like or not like about the nose, the flavors.” See if you can get a debate going! Don’t be surprised if there’s no consensus. There rarely is, even among so-called experts, because this is so subjective. This will go a long way in building your confidence and you’ll realize that you can’t be wrong. Your perception is your perception, but you’ll also learn a lot from listening to the comments from the other tasters. You’ll find yourself saying “You know, I didn’t pick that up at first, but you’re right-there’s a lot of oak!”
Again, depending on the preferred level of seriousness, the host may gather information on each of the wines, which is readily available by going to the winery website. As each wine is revealed, a little information can be offered.
Now it’s playtime! As the host, make sure you buy enough wine so there’s plenty left and you can bring out a big cheese platter, or have a potluck dinner with all those nice wines following the tasting. Being serious is all well and good, and you’ll be amazed at how much you learn and how quickly you learn it, but we don’t want to lose sight of the fact that wine is made to be enjoyed. You’ll be amazed at how different some of those wines seem when you pair them with food. Your least favorite wine may suddenly seem pretty darn good!
If this all sounds a little structured for you, you can take the same principles to have a tasting party. Instead of a formal, sit-down tasting, just put the mystery wines out for people to try at their own pace, whites at one end of the table, and reds at the other. Make the score sheets available, and instead of brown bags, get some fun, colorful bags for a festive look. Offer a couple of examples of a few varieties, let everyone score them, and then reveal the group consensus. Your guests can chat about the wines and share their opinions while enjoying some cheese and hors d’oeuvres. You can turn it into a game by putting together some multiple choice questions and awarding prizes for those who are the closest to guessing the variety, price, vintage or region of origin correctly.
Another fun way to have a tasting party takes a potluck approach. Each person brings his favorite wine and hors d’oeuvres combination to the party. As your friends arrive, give them a number for their food and wine pairing, and they can bag the wine, number it and label their hors d’oeuvres with the same number. Everyone can try the suggested pairings and make comments about them, and then mix and match and perhaps make a real discovery along the way.
Regardless of your approach, the more you taste, the more you’ll learn. And as what you’ve learned builds your confidence the wine will bring you greater and greater pleasure. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?
For all of you true “wine geeks” we have some suggestions for other tasting party topics:
- Guess the variety-several different varieties
- Guess the vintage-same variety, several different vintages
- Guess the producer-same variety, several different producers. It would be fun to get labels from the wineries represented and have your guests match the label with the bagged or de-labeled bottle.
- Have a vertical vintage tasting of one variety (younger to older Cabernet from the same producer)
- “Battle of the appellation” –taste the same variety from several different regions or countries
- Taste several examples of one variety from within a small appellation
- Micro-winery tasting-same variety, several very small producers
- Component tasting-select wines that show the alcohol (many zinfandels), sugar (Chenin Blanc, Riesling), acid (Sauvignon Blanc) and tannin (big reds like our Howell Mountain Cabernet)
The possibilities are endless. Enjoy!