Wine Tasting Party: An Experiment

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Wine is both something I love, and am intimidated by. Whenever I go to a restaurant, and the waiter pours a “taste” of what I ordered, I am able to fake my way through the swirl, sniff and sip test, but I am not really sure what I am looking for. Instead, it feels like a ransom I am paying to get the rest of my glass of wine from the waiter, who I probably wrongly assume is a master of all things wine and judging my every move.

After years of being a drinker of wine, and stressing out every time someone asked me to bring a bottle for dinner (fearing that the jig would be up, and they would see that I know nothing of this beverage I claim to love), I decided enough was enough. It was time to learn more, and what better way than to host a wine tasting.

I invited my fellow Wilderness Girls, Christina and Rachael, as well as my friends from work, Laura and Erica, and we booked a day to start the first of what will be a series of tastings. I wanted this to be a journey that we took together, so that we could help improve the process as we went.

For my first tasting, I decided it would be a good idea to go back to basics and focus on Cabernet Sauvignon. I did some online reading, and headed to Total Wine to pick a bottle from each of the regions that are known for Cabs (France, US, Argentina, Chile and Australia).

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I had appetizers and seltzer available for us to enjoy as everyone got acquainted, and bought some chocolates and cookies for dessert. I didn’t concern myself too much with what I served since we weren’t doing a pairing with the wine, but it doesn’t hurt to look online to make sure you aren’t serving a spice or type of food that might clash with the wine if it lingers on the palette.

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The first tasting was far from perfect, but we learned a lot and had a fantastic time.

Here are my tips from our experience:

Tastings are best done with a group of 6-10 people.
I started by inviting 8 and we ended up with 5, so in the future, we are going to build our group to 12 so that we always have a larger number at each event. The more opinions and knowledge around your table, the better. You may be surprised at some of the facts your friends know, and at our tasting, everyone brought some new tidbit to the table.

Laura taught us that the “legs” are what you look for after you swirl, as they will drip down the glass, and the higher the alcohol content, the stronger the legs will be. Erica chimed in that she learned from her wine tasting trip to Argentina, that the best Malbecs have a 14% or higher alcohol content (and we also found this to be true in our small sample of Cabs). Rachael advised us when tasting that if we wanted to have a better sense of the elements of the wine, to inhale a little air through our mouth as we let the wine cross our palate.

Plan ahead.
Unlike my normal routine, I had a particularly busy week and did the majority of my planning the day before and the day of the event. If you are hosting, you don’t have to be an expert on the wine you serve, but it helps to do some research so that you can select wines properly. What I did was pick a wine from each region that Cabs are known for coming from, but what I would do next time is pick the best regions, and then both research options through an online wine site and survey my attendees for suggestions.

As a group we decided that a wine cheat sheet would be the perfect addition to future events. On the sheet we will list the traits and information on the type(s) of wine we are serving so that each attendee has access to review them during the tasting.

Keep score.
If you are a novice group, start with a simple scoring sheet. We used this scoring sheet from Total Wine, but half of us didn’t even use the scoring method and just took notes. For me, it almost made the experience too intimidating and less enjoyable. You can always add to the sheet you start with after each tasting. We are customizing our own sheet for our next event.

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Have a “control bottle.”
If possible, have a “control. bottle” What I mean by that is if you are focusing on one type of wine, buy a bottle that you know for sure is a good representation of that wine. It will ensure that you have something to compare everything else to, and that you know at least one of the selections will be good. We decided to end with the “control bottle” for future tastings.

Put your big girl pants on.
Try not to get offended if a few of the wines you selected score poorly with the group. I totally failed at this with my first tasting. The first three wines were a mix of “this is ok,” “tastes like a Pinot – a bad Pinot,” and “meh.” Being the perfectionist that I am, I didn’t want anything to go wrong, and ideally, I wanted all the wines to be good. But that’s not realistic or helpful. The point of these events is that you have the opportunity to openly discuss wines with your friends in a safe environment. And the interesting thing was that except for two wines (Michel Gassier (France) and Chateau Los Boldos (Chile)), we all disagreed on whether or not we liked most of them. So, next time, I will remember the big girl pants.

Make it a team effort.
I learned a lot at our first tasting and am already looking at wine bottles differently (for example, I never cared about the alcohol content before, but with some wines it makes a difference). The biggest thing I learned was that a tasting will go best if you make it a team effort. We all were there with the same goal – to learn – and you can’t be too proud to ask for help, or assign tasks.

At the end of the event, over dessert, we had a discussion on what we are going to do differently next time, and things that we wanted to keep from our current tasting. We agreed that we will have this same discussion after each tasting so that we can continue to improve the event.

Here are our items to keep or improve for next session:

* Keep the white tablecloth. I read that having a white tablecloth helps in the swirling stage when you are looking at the color, and we found this one to be true. This tip is a keeper, and if you decide to do this, you can get a very affordable tablecloth from Amazon.

* Go potluck. Having one person prep and pay for all the food is a lot, and most everyone who came wanted to bring something anyway, so we will all contribute food in the future (unless the host prefers to do it all themselves).

* The host selects the wine. Although it might be fun to have each person bring a bottle, we decided that it’s better to have the host do the research and select all the wines.

* Buy-in fee. We each decided that all who attend will chip in a $15 buy-in fee for the tasting. Our hope was that this would enable the host to buy a few inexpensive bottles and potentially spring for a more expensive bottle for our “control bottle,” if needed.

* Increase the attendee count. We are adding a few more people so that regardless of schedules, we always have a group that ranges from 6-10 people. The more people that attend, the more we learn.

* Take more pictures. I realized by the end of the night that I had very few pictures of the event, so make sure to keep your phones handy. It is a good idea to assign that task to one attendee each event so that one person has it top of mind.

We already have our next tasting adventure booked. We will be sampling alternative whites with our wonderful host, Laura.

Check back for a recap of our second event soon!

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