Wine entertainment

Let guests sample and rate a variety of wines.

Wine tastings are no longer just gatherings for cork-sniffing snobs who know their cuvees from their terroirs. Even if you can’t spell (or pronounce) Gewurztraminer, you can throw a wine tasting that’s fun and informative. And you don’t have to have the entire script of “Sideways” memorized to do it.

A friend of mine was looking for a new party theme when she threw a wine tasting over the Christmas Season last year, with her husband. “We’re not really into wine,” she confessed. “We like throwing parties, and I was trying to think of a different way to throw a party and just make it a social gathering, and I thought a wine tasting would be fun. I went online and looked up information on wine-tasting parties.”

They chose red Pinot Noirs and white Chardonnays between $8 and $40, bagged them to conceal their identities and poured them at three stations. Guests were divided into three groups and moved from one station to another, making notes on pads provided by the hosts. At the end of the evening, they guessed which wine was which, based on descriptions read aloud.

“I didn’t want something formal,” she told me. “One of my friends said, ‘I thought this was going to be so lame, but this was the best party you’ve ever had!”

A tasting doesn’t need to be elaborate to entertain and educate, but it does take some planning. First, you need to decide which wines to serve. Experts suggest keeping your first tasting simple, with the following tips:

Offer variety. Choose two wines to compare and contrast, such as New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and Australian Chardonnay, or an Oregon Pinot Noir and Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. Consult your local retailer for advice.

Even if it’s nothing other than telling your retailer, ‘I’m having a wine tasting with a couple of friends. Which two wines do you recommend that would be good to compare and contrast?” The retailer is really the front-line educator, and they know what’s on their shelves. Many vintners and some retailers offer tasting notes on their Web sites. 

Not too cheap, not too pricey. For a party with new or casual wine drinkers, consider wines in the $12-$24 range (any cheaper, and they might not offer enough variety). And don’t be surprised if you and your guests prefer a midrange wine to a more expensive bottle. Even beginners can discern quality when presented with a glass of cheap-and-cheerful next to a glass of top-quality wine. That said, the best wine for you is the one you like the best. Personal preference is not necessarily correlated with quality.

Do your homework. Another friend of mine, who is a sommelier at a well known and respected Athens restaurant, suggests researching the wines you’d like to serve, and offering your guests unique information about them. Find out something about the winemaker, the region that the wine comes from, the story of the label, the history of the wine, interesting facts that will help you to remember something about the wine other than the taste. These are factual things that I think help to take some of the pretense out of wine.

Food, or not? Let me suggest waiting until after the tasting to ring the dinner bell. Offer only bread or crackers between wines. Anything else might influence the palates of those tasting the wine, making it difficult for them to give an accurate evaluation. After guests have jotted down their tasting notes, bring out the food, which can be as simple as a cheese platter. Afterwards, it’s really fun to see how a piece of cheese will change your perception of the wine. It will coat your tongue so it will change how you perceive the wine.

If you want to serve food with wine at a casual tasting, my friend the sommelier,  recommends traditional wine-food pairings. For something luxurious, opt for foie gras, caviar, paté and salmon. Or go the classic route with a selection of exotic cheeses, an assortment of breads and crackers, dry meats or sausages, skewers of fresh fruit and vegetable crudités.

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