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Tasting Wine

Ever want to hold a tasting party? Wonder what's involved? Here's a few tips that I've found to be helpful:

Hosting a Tasting for People New to Wine

  1. Offer about 3-4 whites (ie. Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, maybe a Dry Riesling), and/or 3-4 reds (ie. Cabernet, Merlot, Zinfandel, Syrah). A variation on this would be to stick to just one varietal, say Chardonnay or Cabernet - which, of course, might eliminate much of the confusion that can arise with newer tasters. But on the other hand, this also limits their exposure to all the other varietals on the market.

    Label each bottle 1, 2, 3, or A, B, C with stickers or Post-it notes. Plan on a total of 1/3 bottle per person - that's probably a bit on the high side, depending upon the quantity of people and the mix of men/women. Thus, 12 people may only seem to require 4 bottles of wine, but, since 4 bottles won't give you much of a variety to choose from, I'm recommending 6-8. There'll be extra wine left at the end of the evening, but resist the temptation to send partial bottles home with guests - bad idea.

  2. Invite people to pour (or, you might wish to pour) very small 1/2-1 oz tastes of the wines one at a time. Set the wines up in the traditional order (white to red; light body to heavier body). This could look like: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet, Zinfandel. You could add/substitute Pinot Noir for a red, or add White Zin for a "white." (Very controversial, but would probably be a crowd pleaser just to have it there.)

  3. On the table, place preprinted 3x5 cards (or smaller) that already have a space for the name of the wine and tasting comments. In the comments area of the cards, have printed the words: "sight," "smell," "taste," each followed by sufficient space for writing.

    It's important that note-taking NOT be stressed too much, especially at novice tastings. This is often more of a social setting, rather than a die-hard taster meeting. People will be naturally shy and somewhat intimidated if a lot of thought on their part or note-taking is required. Often they will prefer to write nothing or to merely write down "okay," "real good," or "ugh."

  4. Invite discussion as necessary. "...Who liked wine 'A' best?" Or, "...which of the reds did you like best?"

  5. Have cheese, bread, crackers (hot snacks if you like), out and available. Ask the tasters to notice how different each wine tastes with and without food.

  6. Have one of more pitchers of cold water out as well. It's a good idea for tasters to match water for wine in intake, in order to keep the palate from drying out and to stave off inebriation.

  7. Have small quart-sized empty containers out as dump buckets. Label them as such. This is where tasters will dispose of unwanted wine, before moving on to the next selection. It is possible that the "spitting" subject will come up. If they can do so gracefully, these are the containers that could be used. If they can't do so gracefully...well, usher them outside or down the block.

  8. Be prepared for chaos. Despite your best intentions, and/or superb organizational skills, people will often scatter or largely ignore the "purpose" of the gathering. Expect it. You'll be so busy acting as host/hostess, filling water pitchers, adding crackers, etc., that it will be difficult for you to also act as a wine tour guide.

Lastly, spills happen. A red wine spill on your white Berber carpet will give you a near-death experience! Get yourself some "Wine Away" or similar product that is often carried in wine stores. It works great, as I can testify from first-hand experience!


Attending a Tasting - some considerations

Okay, this is what separates the wheat from the chaff, the men from the boys, and the red from the white. Someone once said, "...all wine would be red, if it could." Truer words were never spoken. Most advanced tastings will be populated by die-hard fans, and/or wine geeks. And, in my experience, advanced tastings will spotlight red wines 99.9% of the time. Of course there's always the exception: Champagne, white Burgundy, and today's darling, Viognier, are sometimes the featured wine in many tastings. Nonetheless, "serious" tastings will nearly always consist of red wines: Cabs, Bordeaux, Burgundies, Syrah/Shiraz, etc.

So, what's different about an advanced tasting, that is besides the color of the wine and the folks in attendance? More than a little. The stakes are higher. You may have paid a tasting fee - possibly a large one - to attend this function. You're now "visible" to other tasters as a wine peer.

  1. Preparation: eat something neutral beforehand; bread is excellent, and crackers a good backup. Drink plenty of water beforehand, and bring a quart or so with you, in case none is offered at the tasting. Leave off the cologne/perfume today. Scents such as this will distract both you and your fellow tasters. You'll also send the message to everyone else that you aren't the least bit serious about this "tasting thing."

  2. Your own glass? There has been an increasing number of tasters seen arriving at organized functions with their own Riedel or other crystal glass. Even if you happen to know the host is using jelly jars for glassware, whether or not to bring your own glass is still a tough call. Without question, a larger, high quality glass will give you an increased sense of the wine's sight, smell, and taste. So, if you don't mind the label that will naturally be attached to someone who brings their own glass (you didn't bring your own food, did you?), then by all means go for it.

    There's been a new wrinkle in this area, as well. Riedel has now produced what they refer to as a "tasting glass." This unusual, but quite interesting, glass may start to make appearances at organized tastings. However, since conceptually, the glass is expected to have a small amount of wine poured into it, and then tipped on its side and rolled across a flat surface to coat its inside surface with wine, I think it's safe to say that we might expect an increased spill potential at these tastings.

  3. Note taking: unless you have a photographic memory, you're going to find it helpful to take some sort notes on the wines as you taste them. This isn't mandatory, of course, and some people do not wish to take notes at all. They may be indeed "serious" about the wines, however, they just feel more at ease remembering which wines pleased them most.

    If you do wish to take notes, cover the 3 areas of sight, smell, and taste for each wine on some sort of note pad, paper, or tasting card. (I designed my own note card on a computer, and then print them out as needed on heavy paper stock.) You can get as elaborate as you wish with comments, or you can keep it concise and quick. Just make sure you can read your own writing, and that the words or abbreviations you've used make sense later on. Of course, if you DO have a photographic memory, then you'll be highly respected among your peers and have much more time for tasting and holding court.

  4. Swallowing vs. Spitting: though seldom done at parties or social events for obvious reasons of decorum, the act of spitting out (or otherwise expelling) wine that you have taken into your mouth is quite common at organized tastings, or even while visiting multiple wineries over the course of a day. The reason for spitting out the wine is really quite logical - swallowing numerous tastes of wine (about 1 oz each) will ultimately take a toll on your sobriety. Therefore, spitting rather than swallowing the wine will enable you to taste more wines, and appreciate more of what you are tasting. Yes, you can just take a small sip, and after swallowing it, pour out the rest of the wine in the glass. But, don't delude yourself into thinking that you're somehow eliminating all of your wine intake. Spitting out the wine is really the only assurance of this - and even at that, you'll still be absorbing some wine into your system.

    Spitting out wine is really quite easy, and if done correctly, won't look the least bit uncouth. In fact, it will make you appear much more the experienced taster. Usually, there will be a moderate-to-large container on the wine table for wine-dumping purposes. You may use this, or you may wish to carry with you something on the order of a large Dixie cup. Often, these cups are supplied by the tasting host, and make the process a lot simpler. The method of spitting is quite simple - purse your lips and expel the wine in the same way you might spit out water after rinsing out your mouth. My advice here is to get close to the container - but, not too close - and push the wine out with a slight amount of force. If you get too close, you risk a splash-back from the container - very bad! However, if you stay too far away from the container, you risk missing the container altogether - very, very bad! I guess it's no wonder more people swallow, rather than spit.

  5. Staying alert: unless you're really unusual, consumption of alcoholic beverages will weaken your perception, judgement, and ability to drive home (unless you're already home). So, consume lots of water while tasting wine. If possible, match the wine intake with equal amounts of water. Snack on bread, crackers, and cheese during the tasting, and take a few breaks if possible. This will tone down the effects of the alcohol, and make the event much more enjoyable.


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- Eric Anderson
Last Update 10.15.02