Posts Tagged ‘parties’

Wine Tasting Party: The Experiment Continues

Thursday, November 20th, 2014

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Earlier this year I hosted my first wine tasting party, and it was a learning experience, for sure. I don’t look at wine the same way, and after one get-together, I had a new sense of confidence when it came to talking about wine. But one wine tasting does not as sommelier make. As the saying goes “practice makes perfect,” so I took one for the team (aka you) and attended another wine tasting party with our newly formed group.

This time, our host was “Renaissance Woman” Laura Marlowe. Laura is a print production manager by day, and remodels house rentals, makes jewelry and cooks amazing food (including homemade bread) in her spare time. She is a superwoman and amazing friend.

In our second tasting party, Laura decided to focus on white wines, taking us through everything from Chardonnay to Marsanne. As with our previous tasting, none of us could agree on what we liked or didn’t like, and I am finding that is the point. It’s almost like looking at art – everyone will come away from the wine with a different view.

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I don’t like Chardonnay’s, and view them as buttery and blech, but they are a popular wine, and there were those at the tasting who disagreed with me. These tastings are teaching me that “taste is in the taste buds of the beholder” and it’s ok to not like what everyone else does, or dislike what everyone else spits out. It’s all about trying a variety of wines and finding what you like.

Here is what we learned from our second experiment:

Keep the tasting notes simple
We found a real winner in our second set of tasting notes, put together by Laura (you can download a PDF of our notes here), and designed by fellow taster, Pamela. We went from a very complex form to a four step process. We debated adding “suggested” words to it, but decided that it was best to let people come up with their own descriptor words, rather than be guided by someone else’s words. We have already reused the same note sheet again at a subsequent testing with one change – we have the host add the wine information in the “Wine Facts” section before the tasting. Writing all the information down was a struggle and made the pace a little sluggish, so we decided in the future that we wanted that information pre-printed (I am working on creating an interactive version of this PDF for a future post, so stay tuned!).

Eat up!
In our first tasting, we ate before we started tasting, because that’s what all the sites I read said to do. The idea was that you would eat to have something on your stomach, and then drink water to cleanse your palate so that you could truly taste the wine. I call poppycock on this one. For our white wine tasting, we drank while we ate, and we discovered something amazing – food pairings! It became a fun game to figure out what foods made each wine taste better or worse (sometimes a cookie paired best, and sometimes a spicy salami). Christina has become a true master of this game. Make sure that you have a good variety – salty, sweet, spicy, savory – so that you have lots of options in what you are pairing with each selection.

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There’s an App for That
Before the tasting, a couple of our participants had discovered a fantastic wine app called Vivino. This free app allows you to catalog and rate wines you have tasted, scan or search wines to see how others have rated them, and discover what wines your friends are drinking by connecting you with your Facebook network of friends who also have the app. All of this can be done by simply taking a picture of the label, which the app then uses to find the wine within its database. You simply rate, make any notes, and save. I have used it several times when I am buying wine as a way to ensure I am buying something that is rated well. As a side note, we aren’t being sponsored to promote this app, we just really love it.

Wine Guide
This was truly Laura’s contribution, and something that has proven to be a great addition to our wine tastings – a wine guide. You can customize the guide to include a variety of wines, or if you are focusing on one wine, you can expand on fun facts for that particular variety. It gives your guests a take-away guide to keep on hand so that they can continue their learning at home, and have something to reference the next time they want to try something new. You can see an example of the guide she created for her party here.

After just two tasting sessions, we have really started to hone in on what works for us as a group, from the format to the food to the tasting notes. The key has been assembling a group of people who are like-minded in our desire to learn more about wine, and agreement to allow an environment where people can be open and honest with their opinions.

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Before the end of the year, I will bring you a summary (including a list of what we tasted) for our most recent tasting on champagne/sparkling wines.

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Cheers!

Wine Tasting Party: An Experiment

Friday, April 4th, 2014

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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!

Start a New Tradition: New Year’s Eve at Home

Monday, December 30th, 2013

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New Year’s Eve is one of those high-expectations holidays. We all have visions of wearing some beautiful ensemble in a large glamorous setting, with the air full of glitter and a perfect midnight kiss over a champagne toast. Most years, I end up overthinking how to make a perfect evening at home, and then end up disappointed because I can’t recreate that ballroom in my living room. I have been totally missing the point.

The greatest things about any holiday are food, drink, and being with the people we care about. This year, if you don’t already have plans to head out, I challenge you to start a new tradition – New Year’s Eve at Home. It’s cheaper than going out and you don’t have to worry about driving home amongst those that had a little too much bubbly at the party.

With an at-home party, you can go one of two directions — “fancy pants” or “cool and casual.”

“Fancy Pants”
For those of you who still want to put on your party dress, the “fancy pants” night is for you. Pick a recipe that you want to try out, set the table with white linens and candles, and turn your living room into a makeshift dance floor. If you want to invite friends, make it a potluck and give each friend a course to bring. Don’t want to cook? Have everyone chip in and order a spread from your favorite local restaurant, or your nearby gourmet grocer. Stock up your bar cart and serve a signature champagne cocktail.

“Cool and Casual”
Want to wear your yoga pants and chill on a couch while enjoying food and merriment? The “cool and casual” party is for you. You can have your guests bring their favorite appetizers, or order a few pizzas. The key here is comfort. Buy (or print) hats, noisemakers, and some basic décor from your local party store, and make sure there are plenty of seats in your family room, so that everyone is comfy. Pop out the Apples to Apples game, challenge everyone to a game of charades, or watch your favorite movie.

No matter which party you host, please make sure that if your guests are drinking, that you secure a cab for them, or invite them to crash in your guest room.

This year Bryan and I will be going the “fancy pants” route, for two. We are planning on making beef wellington, truffle mac & cheese and chocolate mousse. I will be setting the table, making a mix of our favorite jazz songs on my iPod, and making a gin and champagne cocktail called the French 75.

What are your New Year’s Eve traditions? Are you more of a “Fancy Pants” or “Cool and Casual” type? Leave your comments below.

Happy New Year!

Stock Your Holiday Bar Cart

Tuesday, December 17th, 2013

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A few months ago as Rob and I were preparing for our pumpkin carving party, we headed out to BevMo with plans to stock our cute vintage bar cart. Before heading out, I searched the web for a recommended list of spirits and mixers that one should have on hand when hosting a party. Alcohol is spendy and I wanted to provide a variety of options to our guests without breaking the bank. Unfortunately I came up empty handed, unable to find a list that would help me shop smart. So, the shopping list included all of the ingredients we needed to make our signature cocktail (an apple cider margarita), along with a few spirits and mixers that I’d consider staples.

The pumpkin carving party was a success, with most guests sticking to our signature cocktail. When a couple folks decided to mix their own favorite drink, I was relieved to see that our little bar cart was stocked with everything they needed. In typical blogger fashion, I thought I’d share my shopping list which includes a selection of staple spirits, mixers and garnishes that will make a wide variety of drinks; along with a few tips to keep in mind when shopping for booze.

Stock Your Bar Cart Shopping List

Spirits
Gin
Vodka
Spiced Rum
Whiskey/Bourbon

Mixers
Tonic Water
Soda Water
Ginger Ale
Orange Juice
Cranberry Juice
Aromatic Bitters
Grenadine
Triple Sec

Garnishes
Lemons
Limes
Oranges
Maraschino Cherries
Green Olives

Tip #1: Select a signature cocktail or two for your party. Choose a drink that will pair well with the food you serve and it will be an easy choice for your guests. This will also make shopping much easier as you’ll spend most of your adult beverage budget on the ingredients needed to make one drink.

Tip #2: Don’t buy everything! You could quickly spend hundreds of dollars stocking your bar cart unless you keep it simple. Provide your guests with a variety of staples and they’ll be able to mix up a delicious drink. Your guests don’t want you to go broke providing unlimited options. And, if they have a soft spot for an obscure spirit encourage them to bring a bottle to share with the group. What a great conversation starter!

Tip #3: Keep a few cocktail recipe books on hand. Unless your friends are bartenders, you’ll probably have a few guests that don’t know the recipe for their favorite drink. This will also help them mix their own drink later in the evening.

Tip #4: Post the recipe for your signature cocktail(s) near your bar cart. You don’t want to be stuck in the kitchen all night making drinks. Greet your guests with a pre-made signature cocktail, then let them have fun mixing one of their own.

Next week, I’ll be back to share the Wilderness Girls favorite champagne cocktails. A bubbly champagne cocktail is the perfect signature drink for your New Years Eve celebration!

Did I miss anything? Be sure to share your bar cart must haves (or the recipe for your favorite drink) in the comments below!

Your Green Football Season

Thursday, September 5th, 2013
Photo credit:  NFL.com

Photo credit: NFL.com

Tonight the Baltimore Ravens take on the Denver Broncos to begin the 2013 NFL season. Last week the NCAA football season opened. We’re coming up on four straight months of tailgates, parties, sports rivalries and big games. For many people this is the start of “party season” because in addition to college and professional football regular season we have Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day and Super Bowl Sunday to celebrate.

It is our time to party but it is the NFL’s time to get down to business. I never gave it much thought before I stumbled upon an article highlighting the sustainability efforts of the NFL. They’re focusing on NFL events, facilities and football clubs in an effort to minimize waste, reduce their environmental impact, build energy efficient office buildings and encourage teams follow sustainable practices. This got me thinking that if the NFL can green their football season maybe we can green ours, too. Following the 4R’s of Sustainability – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rethink – you can minimize the eco-impact of your football parties.

Reduce

* Fewer car trips equal fewer trips to the gas pump so carpool to games or friends’ homes to watch the game.

* When it is your turn to host you can reduce paper consumption by skipping paper invitations. Instead, spread the word via text, Facebook event or evite.com.

* Reduce your landfill contribution by choosing less packaging whenever you can. When you make your own veggie tray instead of buying the pre-packaged one you save money and stay in control of the ingredients. Less celery, more snap peas!

Reuse

* Don’t follow the siren song of the pre-printed paper goods. I know they make cute paper cups with footballs printed on them but you already have dishes and serveware at home. With a little planning you can create a much nicer tablescape, so leave the gridiron themed plates at the party store.

* A real pint glass will maximize your beer enjoyment, especially if you chill it in the freezer before serving. Pass over the plastic cups in favor of the real thing.

Recycle

* When you have several guests over for a party it’s a great idea to set up several separate clearly marked recycle & trash stations around your home and patio.

* Keep it clean! Use care not to contaminate recycling loads with food waste like greasy pizza boxes and leftovers.

Rethink

* Buy beer in kegs instead of cans. It’s fresher, tastier and it comes with far less packaging. You can find some great tips for a more sustainable brew here.

* Try a local specialty. Locally produced products are the freshest and there’s a sense of hometown pride to enjoy when the best products are made right here in your own neighborhood. Also, local products help fight carbon emissions because they don’t take long truck rides to get from the producer to your home.

* Go organic where you can. Organic foods are grown without the use of chemical pesticides. Visit the Environmental Working Group’s website for their Dirty Dozen list of fruits and vegetables with the highest levels of chemical residue. This will give you a place to start when adding organic to your diet.

Now that we have some tips to get us started, let’s talk about what else we can do to minimize the impact of every party we host from now until the big game in February. Do you have any great ideas for tailgate or outdoor parties? How about some thrifty ideas for reused or recycled party décor? Please leave a comment to let us know about your favorite sustainable party tips.