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By Courtney Cochran

As a wine writer and some time hip wine party planner, I’m asked time and again about how to throw a great wine tasting at home. Naturally, I’ve no shortage of ideas. And given that the recession has inspired ever more tasters to turn to their own homes and devices to explore the vinous world in all its grape glory, I here submit my top recommendations for easy-to-implement wine tastings in your home. As for wrangling the troops, that’s entirely up to you.  

The Wine Next Door
With wine now made in all 50 of our great states, it’s never been easier to host a tasting highlighting wines raised in your own ‘hood. Whether your area specializes in Rhône reds (AZ), crisp Rieslings (NY), Bordeaux reds (CO) or Seyval Blanc (GA), there’s bound to be something interesting to get to know.  For a cool twist on this theme (or for those whose local wines may be far from new news), try a tasting that features wines from little-known locales around the US. 

Special Bottle Sunday
Inspired by the national phenomenon that grew out of longtime, Wall Street Journal wine columnists Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher’s Open That Special Bottle Night, Special Bottle Sunday is just what it sounds like: an evening to invite over your friends to share special wines you’ve all been saving for…you can’t remember any more.  The theme makes for a wonderfully congenial tasting that focuses on great friends and great wine – and reminds you all that you don’t have to have a reason to enjoy the better things in life.
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Que Syrah, Syrah
Whether it’s Syrah or something else (you might also try Perfect Pinots, Killer Cabs or Strictly Sangiovese), a varietal tasting exposes you and your pals to a selection of wines made from the same grape – and leaves you all with a better understanding of its perks and pairings when it’s done.  For best results, be sure to try wines from different regions, and it’s also a good idea to serve a few finger foods known to partner well with the variety.  Cheers!

The Bold & the Blind
Blind tastings invoke a hint of intrigue and have more than a little in common with – ooh la la – disguise-charged events like masquerade balls. To stoke a little intrigue among your crew, create a tasting that centers around brown-bagged wines and asks each guest to guess the wine’s grape variety (or blend), vintage year, price and region of origin.  Offering prizes adds an exciting competitive edge to the evening and affords an opportunity to further highlight the “blind” theme (e.g. you might give away a Blind Tasting Journal to the evening’s winner).  

ABC Whites
Spend enough time in serious wine wonk circles and sooner or later you’ll hear the long-running ABC gripe – meaning, I’ll drink Anything But Chardonnay.  Far be it from this Chard lover to condone these sorts of gripes, though the missive does provide fantastic fuel for a tasting that prompts your guests to come up with innovative whites to share with your crew.  Whether it be Viognier, Vermentino or Verdicchio, you’re all sure to find out there’s lots to love outside the Chard realm.

DIY Sommelier Smackdown
Picture this: you and your crew take turns trying to outdo one another describing several wines, with points awarded for both accuracy and style.  Wine descriptions equal parts flair and function vie for prizes awarded by consensus for the evening’s best impromptu “sommeliers.”  A tasting for those with bold pals – and recall that so-called liquid courage can help a lot here, the Smackdown, should you choose to implement it, is a theme that won’t soon be forgotten.  

Celebrity Sightings
Sometimes what you really want is a party that pairs two of your favorite things: celebrity stalking and wine tasting.  And now, with the proliferation of wines either made by celebs (Rolling Stones, Greg Norman) or sporting celebrity monikers (try Marilyn Merlot?), you’re finally good to go.  For maximum thematic effect, consider setting out celebrity tabloid mags (Us Weekly, Hello!) alongside the wines, and encourage your guests to dress up like their fav famous folks.  Not the most cerebral party on this list, but quite possibly the most fun.  

Classically Cool
One of the most popular tastings I host for private and corporate clients is easily the Varietal 101 tasting, which highlights characteristics of the so-called Classic Grape Varieties.  Encompassing (among others) Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, classic grape varieties are a great foundation for budding wine tasters, and as such make a smart first tasting selection for more serious tasting groups.  

Vertical Variations
There’s no better way to get to know the characteristics of a particular wine than to taste it in vertical form.  A vertical is just a sampling of the same wine across multiple vintages – say, the 2001, the 2002, the 2003 and so on, up until the current release.  This can be a lot of fun when famous or iconic wines are involved, such as Opus One or Joseph Phelps’ Insignia, and can teach your crew not only about the wine but about vintage variation as well.  An advanced theme.

Location, Location, Location
You don’t have to work in real estate to know that some spots have an undeniable edge over others – and this couldn’t be truer when it comes to wine.  A location-based tasting calls for you to highlight wines from a particular region – say, Sonoma – in an effort to better understand its strong points, whether they tend towards stellar cool-climate reds, soulful Zinfandels or crisp Chards fairly begging for food (in the case of hot spot Sonoma, it’s all of these).  Just be careful: this tasting has been known to cause field trips.