ENTERTAINING with WINE: Hosting a Wine Tasting Dinner at Home

Home wine tasting dinners are one of the best ways to experience the wonders and diversity of the wine world. They’re a fun, interactive way for you and your friends and family to broaden your knowledge and appreciation of different wine varietals, styles, and winegrowing regions. Renée, my wife and intrepid tasting partner, and I do this several times a year, sometimes with guests who are knowledgeable about wine and sometimes with guests who know nothing about wine. No matter how much we know (or think we know) about wine, we always end up learning something new and making some great wine discoveries.

A wine tasting dinner is actually quite simple to host, but requires a little advance planning and preparation. Based on our experience, here are some simple steps you can follow for hosting a successful tasting dinner:

Preparations…

First, decide what kind of wine you want to feature at the tasting dinner. This will be your wine theme. For instance, you can choose a particular varietal wine, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, or any other; or a wine producing region, such as Australia, California, Bordeaux, or any other. The key is for there to be some commonality among the wines being tasted as well as some differences, so that there’s a basis for comparing and contrasting them.

When you taste, side-by-side, wines made from the same grape variety but produced in several different regions, you’ll experience the differences and similarities of that variety when grown in unique climates and environments. In one of our tastings, we had Pinot Noir from four distinct growing regions in California. We discovered that while all the wines were made from the same grape variety and were from the same state, they all tasted completely different from one another. Where the grapes are grown really does make a difference in how a wine tastes.

Second, give wine “assignments” to your guests at least a week before your tasting dinner. A wine tasting can be an expensive undertaking, so I prefer the egalitarian approach of spreading the task of selecting the wines, along with their cost, among guests. Once you have a wine theme, decide how many guests you’re going to invite. Anywhere from 3 to 5 couples is a comfortable number. Tell your guests what your wine theme is going to be, and assign each guest or couple a different wine to bring to the tasting that relates to the theme. If your theme is Cabernet Sauvignon, for instance, you yourself can select a bottle of Cabernet from California; ask one couple to bring a bottle from Washington State; ask another couple to bring a bottle from Australia; and so on. Depending on how many guests you have, you’ll end up with 4, 5, or even more unique Cabernets from different places to taste, compare, and enjoy.To ensure some consistency and quality, though, ask your guests to select wines from within the past couple of vintages and give them a price range. Personally, I’d rather not go to all of this trouble just to taste everyday-quality wine, so my usual price range for a tasting dinner is $20 – $30 a bottle. This price range will usually yield a pretty good wine and, since each guest or couple is bringing just one bottle, it’s not a budget buster.

Third, plan your menu. Sure, you can host a wine tasting with only wine and cheese, with a couple of crackers thrown in to pad the stomach, but it’s much more enjoyable to serve a broader selection of dishes to pair with your wines. Once you’ve decided on the wine theme, you can think about the types of appetizers and main dishes that would complement the wines you’ll be tasting. Here again, if you’re not up to preparing everything yourself, make it a potluck and ask your guests to bring some dishes. Just give them a few general rules of thumb relating to your wine theme. If you’re tasting reds, for instance, go with sharp cheeses, red meats, stews, grilled vegetables, tomato-based dishes, dark chocolate, and other hearty fare. For whites, go with soft, mellow cheeses, fish, poultry, casseroles, creative salads, and other lighter fare. Pinot Noir, a red wine that tends to be lighter-bodied than other reds, can pretty much go either way.

The Event…

When your guests arrive, collect their wines and set them up to be tasted “blind,” with their identities concealed. This will ensure that your guests can evaluate the wines objectively without being influenced by the brand or place of origin. You can do this very simply by cutting a hole in bottom of a paper lunch bag and slipping the bag over the wine bottle so that only the top of the bottleneck shows. Assign each wine a letter or number, writing it on the bag. (Just make sure you do this when your guests aren’t looking!) Give each guest a piece of paper and pen for recording their impressions of each wine (aroma, body, flavors, etc.), according to its letter/number during the tasting.Then begin pouring the wines, one at a time. Allow enough time between wines to give your guests the opportunity to discuss the wine being tasted and jot down their impressions, likes and dislikes about it. It’s important to pace yourselves, so pour just a little wine into each glass at a time. Have a bowl handy in case some guests don’t finish the wine they’re tasting and want to pour out the rest. Be sure to serve plenty of water, as well, to keep everyone hydrated.

I suggest tasting the wines in two stages: first before the food is served, so that you and your guests can evaluate each wine on its own terms; and later with your dinner, so that you can evaluate each wine as it tastes with different dishes. You’ll often find that a wine’s flavors change when paired with food. Sometimes the food enhances the wine’s flavors; sometimes the wine enhances the food’s flavors. Tasting several different wines with a variety of dishes is a great learning experience, and one that will help you select wines for future holidays and other food-focused events.

Finally, after you’ve tasted your way through all of the wines, remove the bags from the bottles one at a time. As you reveal the identity of each wine, guests can match their written impressions with the wine. After all the wines are revealed, your guests can compare and discuss the wines they liked best and which ones they didn’t care so much for. At that point, offer each guest a full glass of the wine they liked best (if they have the fortitude, that is), and enjoy the rest of your evening.

Home wine tasting dinners are essentially an exercise in discovery. But you don’t have to be an expert to host or attend one, just willing to try new wines and have fun with it. In all likelihood, you’ll come across a wine that you really like but have never even heard of before. Perhaps you’ll even find a new favorite. If you would like some more tips on hosting a wine tasting dinner at home, e-mail me by clicking here.

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