Tuesday, March 06, 2007

how to throw a wine tasting party...


...for people who don't drink wine.

As much as I've settled into a world in which grape gluts and critter labels have become factors for long-term survival, for many of my closest friends, a restaurant wine list still receives as much consideration as another placemat on the table.

My mission was to create an enjoyable wine experience for everyone from the taro bubble tea aficionado to the Italian traminer aromatico devotee, to all drinkers of Grey Goose, Diet Coke, Hi-C, and vanilla lattes in between. Our goal? To find the best red wine under $20...and to challenge our own palates to a bit of friendly competition at the same time.

2003 Parker Station Syrah, Santa Barbara County


2004 the Little Penguin Cabernet Sauvignon, Australia
2004 Castello Banfi Chianti Classico, Italy

Here are my tips for how to host a wine tasting party that is fun, educational, and not at all pretentious:

Mix and match! A themed party is your best opportunity to get people to chatter and connect, even if they don't all work for Google (a Bay Area phenomenon I've encountered on an unnatural number of occasions). If you like 'em and they've got something to share, invite 'em. Just don't overcrowd. And be reasonable - each person brings a bottle...how many bottles can you realistically get through in a night? We maxed out at 18 (10-15 is probably ideal).

Your best theme depends on who you choose to invite. If your guests regularly pepper conversation with phrases like "noble rot", then you might want to do a more focused/ advanced tasting - say, 2004 pinots from Carneros. I kept things open with "common red varietals from around the world for under $20" (with a list of specific countries and varietals to keep things manageable).


1. Each guest brings a bottle of wine based on the theme. Each bottle is wrapped in aluminum foil and labeled with an arbitrary name, e.g., Barack Obama or George Clooney. The bottles can all be opened and left in a single tasting area, or scattered throughout your home.

2. Each guest is given a wine glass and score card and sent off to mingle with your fascinating friends, nibble on your fabulous food, and taste through the wines one by one (with spitting opportunities made available to those who desire). For my party, my guests guessed what country the wine came from and what varietal grape it was. I also had them take note of how much they liked each wine.

3. When everyone is finished tasting, each guest is given three stickers to stick on their three favorites bottles.

4. The host tallies up the stickers and has each guest unmask his/her wine for everyone else at the party, going roughly in order from least favorite to most favorite.

5. There are two winners at the end of the night - the guest who brought the most-liked wine (go Seth!), and the guest who guessed the most countries and varietals correctly (go Eric!). Give them prizes.


- Go easy on yourself - don't make it from scratch unless you think your guests will truly be able to tell the difference (or you've got Thomas Keller's kitchen staff for the afternoon). Thus, make the cookie dough but skip the puff pastry...and a note to you overachievers out there - your homemade potato chips are pretty much guaranteed to be underappreciated.
- Aim for finger-foods in bite-sized pieces - guests wielding paper plates means red wine on your carpet.
- Keep wine and food pairing in the back of your mind, but don't focus so much on it that it paralyzes you. So if your theme is bold red wines , then you might want to save the sushi for another time - but don't stress over BBQ ribs vs. kabobs. People are generally easier to please - and wine more forgiving - than you think - give them both food, and they are happy.

- Cheap wine glasses (e.g., IKEA)
- Score cards and pens (it's easy to make your own)
- Corkscrews
- Stickers (dots, stars, etc.)
- Aluminum foil
- Sharpie markers
- Spit/dump bucket
- Plenty of water and cups
- Prizes for your 2 winners

How do I get out a red wine stain?
Baking soda and white wine (cooking rice wine will work if you've drunk all your chardonnay). And good friends to help.

How do I keep it unpretentious?

Limit the relative number of wine geeks on your eVite. Mix the jazz with Ginuwine for kicks

Is it possible to keep the food lactose-free?
Serve veggie-based spreads - using eggplant, chickpeas, pesto. (This isn't easy - I cheated and used goat cheese on my fig and prosciutto flatbread and mozzarella on the tomato, basil and pesto one...)