So many times, people have approached me and said, "I want to host a wine tasting party, where do I begin?"
Hosting a group of people who really enjoy wine or want to learn more about wine can be an incredible time. Whether small group/high-brow/übergeek education focused, or super laid-back/mill about/large gatherings, there are a number of things to consider when planning a wine tasting event.
To add another viewpoint, I spoke with another Milwaukee wine geek named Nate, Nate Norfolk.
Nate is a Certified Sommelier, sells wine for Purple Feet Wine Co., and is co-founder of Professional Wine Consultants with the only Certified Advanced Sommelier in the state, Toni Johnson.
The First Big Decision
The choice between a formal event and a casual one dictates everything. It sets the mood and the anticipation for your guests. Fancy clothes and fancy food? Or do you kick back in khakis with your feet up and serve-yourself platters?
The most important thing the choice between the two determines is the quality of the wines. The more formal the event, the higher the quality of wine. Typically, a formal affair will set the tone for fine food, serious thought regarding the wine, and the understood paradigm that everyone is there to dissect, analyze and learn. The casual affair, on the other hand, may or may not focus directly on the wine or food. Chances are, the wine may only be a second thought or an excuse to get people together. Step one when thinking about your wine event? Black tie or blue jeans?
The Full-On Sit Down
When planning this type of event, I would highly recommend starting off by securing the capable services of Nate Norfolk and Toni Johnson. The intricacies of this type event are such that, if you haven't done it before, there are many details that are easily missed.
First, determine whether you are going to prepare the meal yourself, have it catered or collaborate with your guests. If you plan on cooking yourself, keep the guest count low and plan a sensible meal. Throwing down a 10-course selection from the French Laundry Cookbook will get you two things: a stress headache and exactly no time with your guests.
Catering is a sound option if you trust the chef and have the money to pay for his/her services. Collaborating with your guests or keeping the menu smart and relatively easy are the two best options, in my opinion. Next, if you need pairing assistance from the pros like Nate and Toni, plan the food first. The possibilities of wine pairings are limitless. After this, handle the education portion appropriately based on your guests. If they are well-versed semi-snobs, then you can have Nate talk about the intricacies of soil substrata and the fresh quarried alabaster scent subtly emanating from your $200 bottle of Corton-Charlamagne.
Otherwise, make sure that the education never detracts from the enjoyment of the evening. The goal is for everyone to have a fun evening, not to impress them with your knowledge.
The Bridal Shower or Pizza Party
Milling about parties are on the opposite end of the spectrum form the formal sit down. They can still be educational, but instead of focusing on regions, varietals or vintages, they need to be centered around style and theme. The theme can be focused on the wine or the occasion, but the food and wine function more as sustenance and lubrication for conversation than anything.
Wine and cheese can be a great format for bridal showers or other casual get-togethers. Choosing tapas or small plates (appetizers) from a particular region can be fun to pair with, or gourmet pizza can present a fun challenge as well. Whichever format you choose, it can, again, be most fun to collaborate with your guests. Have each guest research a particular cheese and then find the appropriate wine pairing. That way each person can share what they learned with the group. It's also a great way for personalities to shine - you will notice just how different the selections will be.
If you are going to host yourself, employ the expertise of Nate and Toni if you need help with cheese/food and wine selections. If you have your guests each bring something, make sure to set a price range. The last thing you want is for one couple to bring a super-expensive bottle to show off making everyone else feel cheap. Plastic plates and paper napkins are the serving wear of choice for these casual events.
Sometimes, this can be the trickiest tasting to coordinate. The biggest reason is that it tends to be a tasting that attracts the wannabe geeks or industry kids and has a tendency to be very, very dry. Nate feels very strongly that the key to blind tastings is to keep your notes to yourself and "Shut up and Taste."
I mirror his candor, in that when blind tasting, people tend to over analyze, hypothesize and hyperbolize everything to death. This, coupled with the already austere nature of studiously dissecting each component of each wine in order to bolster ones self esteem regarding their ability to blindly assess a wine, tends to lead to anything but enjoyment.
The best way to go about setting up a blind tasting is to decide on a theme with your guests, if you aren't hosting yourself, collect money (or at least commitment to pay) and as the host, purchase wines to fit the theme. One word of caution -- don't buy wines to try and trick your guests. Work with someone like Nate or your trusted retailer to find wines that are most indicative of varietal, vintage and appellation.
It's hard enough to pick a wine blind without you choosing some boutique, obscure blend from Uruguay or Tanzania. After that, it's fairly easy, place each wine in a paper bag so no one can see it. Number them to keep them straight and pour away. The only other thing that Nate likes to do, is insert a ringer or two to throw people off. For example at a dry German Riesling tasting, throw in one or two dry Rieslings from other parts of the world to mix it up.
The Sparkling Party
After my sparkling wine column, you know how I feel about this one. But seriously, this can be the easiest, and most fun kind of tasting to host. Quality sparkling wine can be very easy to orchestrate around during an evening. It offers the most versatile pairing options. Starting with a glass of bubbles? The perfect way for any party to get rolling. Pairing with food? Start with light Blanc de Blancs with your salad and fish/seafood dishes. Work your way into more robust Blanc de Noir and Rosés with your entrees. And what better way to finish dinner than with more Champagne?
You can have a Sparkling Party any time of the year; you don't have to worry about not serving big reds in the middle of summer or delicate whites in the dead of winter. After that, again, choose the food first. Don't worry about serving everything in champagne flutes (Bubbles actually show better with food when in white wine glasses) and have fun. Even though Champagne automatically elicits images of tuxedos and New Year's Eve toasts, you can go formal or casual. Champagne in jeans and sneakers can be even more fun.
The More the Merrier/Monster Tasting
This tasting is usually arranged for company events or outings. If you ever find yourself having to set up a tasting for the entire company at your boss's behest, I would definitely talk to a wine pro to help. The biggest challenges when hosting a wine tasting for 100 or more people is choosing the ideal wines, successfully conducting service and catering to the guest's varied knowledge and experience with wine.
Nate likes to keep things simple when so many people are involved. In such a visceral environment, he tries to focus on the stylistic presentation of the wine by telling the guests to move around the room starting with dry and moving to sweet wines - or light bodied to full. Nate and Toni can always mingle about to talk to those who are really interested in the geeky details. Arranging for the purchase of wine can be another big challenge. Nate and Toni have a number of great relationships with local retailers and are, on certain occasions, able to pair the event with a retailer who will then offer a slight discount on the purchase of the wines in exchange for a presence at the tasting.
Typically, arranging to hand out flyers or coupons to drive traffic to said retailer is sufficient, but definitely talk to Nate and Toni to see what they can do. One last note on large format tastings is to use pour spouts on the bottles. These are TASTINGS, and it becomes a factor to ensure that people aren't over-imbibing. Pouring less than an once at a time can allow guests to sample more wine and still keep their overall consumption to a legal level.
As always, there is never quite enough room in the column to thoroughly cover every detail. Let me know if you have any additional questions, I would be happy to share my experiences with hosting tasting events.