Note: On Saturday night we went to a wine tasting party held by our friends Chuck and Sandy. They're enthusiastic and curious about wine, but they are by no means snobs. This is why their wine tastings are fun. They gather about ten friends; set out a few disguised bottles and some delicious, absorbent snacks; pass out ratings sheets and pens; and let everybody decide what they like best. Part of the fun, for us, is watching people who are initially shy about their wine-tasting abilities develop confidence in their own palates—before long, everybody's tossing out opinions and asking for second tastes. There's no right or wrong about wines; there's only what you like. A wine tasting party lets you and your friends decide what tastes best to you.
Here are Sandy's tips for hosting a party:
All you need to host a successful wine tasting party is a couple bottles of wine and friends game to sip and learn. The impetus for our most recent wine tasting was the acquisition of an intriguing red from an unlikely source: a little winery in South Dakota making wines from hybrids of grapes native to northern climes.
Since Frontenac, St Croix and Valiant grapes are not widely crushed, we decided the likeliest matchup for our Dakota Red was Merlot, typically a soft medium-bodied red. The four contestants were:
1. Dakota Red NV, Schade Vineyard & Winery, Volga, SD, $10.
2. J. Lohr Paso Robles 2007, chosen because Jerry Lohr grew up in South Dakota before making his wine fortune in CA, $17.
3. Red Diamond Merlot 2008, Washington State, $10.
4. Stonehedge Napa Valley 2007, $12.
We invited friends to a blind horizontal tasting, which means the bottles were disguised in brown paper bags and we judged each Merlot on its merits. (A vertical tasting is similar to what you get at a winery, starting with whites and working your way up to reds and dessert wines.) The number of wines is up to you and your friends' patience. Three is probably the minimum; we've had seven, which was too much alcohol and took forever. We usually aim for geographic diversity. If you're tasting Chardonnays, for instance, try them from several countries, or several states, or several different California regions.
We used a wine tasting form from Epicurious and asked guests to judge the wines on a scale of 1 to 5 in these categories: color and intensity; aroma; flavor/acidity/sweetness; tannins/body/alcohol; and finish/complexity.
None of us are wine experts, but we had a wonderful time guessing at aromas (cinnamon, earthy, pepper, currant, and to our merriment, coconut). Alas, the Schade wine stood out for its sweetness and ranked dead last when the scorecards were tallied.* First place went to the Red Diamond, judged smooth, complex, long finish, and simply "my fave."**
We served an assortment of non-spicy hors d'oeurves, hot and cold, and simply warned wine tasters that a radish or really stinky cheese might affect their palate. But as our friend Ruth pointed out, one of the best pairings she ever had was a Sauternes with an extremely ripe American blue cheese.
We learned something about wine, without the snobbery or intimidation of a real wine connoisseur on hand. Then again, who's to say we're not connoisseurs? The definition of connoisseur is "an individual with a discriminating taste."
For professional tips on a wine tasting party, go to: http://www.epicurious.com/articlesguides/entertaining/partiesevents/winetasting
* While it's true that the Schade is a bit sweet for most food combinations, in our opinion [we hasten to add!], it has a nice sherry-like flavor and would make a good aperitif or even dessert wine.
** Check out the price on the Red Diamond! Best of all, you can find it many places, including Trader Joe's.