Wine tasting group. These three words together elicit an inner eye roll from deep within me. I imagine Orange County housewives with top-shelf supermarket finds and bejeweled goblets, Master Somm candidates in a circle-jerk tornado of blind tasting vocabulary or gaggles of industry professionals showing off with grand tales of their most recent trip abroad and whatever 1946 something-or-other they got to taste.
My aversion to this particular terminology and structure might seem odd, since I work in wine for a living and have been involved in many wine tastings and meetings of people in which we drink and talk about wine. Sure, because of my job there are tastings that I’m required to attend wherein my attention and focus are necessary. But, I’m not talking about those tastings. I am talking about tasting wine in a casual setting (like, gasp, a party), when, all of the sudden, general conversation takes a left turn into aroma and tannin territory. Notebooks and pens come out. Then everyone except one guy (there’s always that guy) gets intimidated and, feeling the need to say the right thing, starts flexing their wine vocab. This is exactly what happens when there’s going to be a tasting. With wine.
You might want to think about what you’ll be drinking out of and potentially spitting into. Or not spitting into at all. Let’s get real. It would be nice to have some stems with bowls capable of a good swirl, but if you have a veritable glass menagerie of random shit—who cares? I have consumed fine beverages out of water glasses, plastic cups, Moroccan tumblers and a jar.
I get it. Wine can be a complicated, nuanced, art form of a beverage. That’s the beauty of it, but also what scares the hell out of most everyone. And even now, in a world where sommeliers are cool and more people are incorporating wine into their everyday, wine still carries some baggage. Do you see people taking notes about the lasagna your friend made at a dinner party? Probably not. Then why are we all politely sitting around a coffee table in the living room trying to write detailed notes on a Chardonnay? You will never read those notes. Trust.
Determined to help the wine tasting shed its stiff reputation and get its groove back, I decided to assemble a regular group to get together and taste some wine around a table, with actual food on it. Based on my newfound expertise, I offer you five tips to encourage good vibes and good times. Follow this advice and you’ll be golden, or at least rosy-cheeked.
1. The Wine. It’s good to set some parameters. Let a grape, a region, the season, or whatever be your guide. I like to have a theme as to encourage and provide direction: New California, Red Burgundy, Wacky Varieties, Wines Under $20 That Taste Awesome. You get the idea. Everyone contributes one bottle. No brown-bagging, no blind tasting. Just put it on the table and open it. Revisit it. Talk about it. Offer up whatever you do or don’t know about it. Avoid the urge to talk about tannins. Keep it to yourself.
2. The Glasses. You might want to think about what you’ll be drinking out of and potentially spitting into. Or not spitting into at all. Let’s get real. It would be nice to have some stems with bowls capable of a good swirl, but if you have a veritable glass menagerie of random shit—who cares? I have consumed fine beverages out of water glasses, plastic cups, Moroccan tumblers and a jar. Although not ideal, they will do when necessary.
3. The Tone. Say you decide to devote an evening to the wines of Portugal. Maybe have some information—maps and otherwise—available to those who want it. Some people could care less about the Douro Valley and its whereabouts, but some might want to investigate further. Everyone can get what they want out of the tasting. More knowledge? A buzz? Meeting a future hot date? This is not a credited course that counts toward anybody’s enology degree. Relax and take the pressure off. It’s almost certain that when your guests leave they will know something more about whatever you were drinking than they did when they arrived. For a recent Burgundy tasting, I printed detailed maps on nice heavy card stock for each place setting. Maybe three people, out of 10, looked at it or took it home with them. So, there’s that.
4. The Guest List. The key word: diversify. Create a healthy mix of winos and non-winos. Receive new insight and fresh perspective from your real estate buddy or your former college roommate that is now a painter. Welcome friends of friends and people you’ve never met. The sometimes-wine lover or beer drinker is the one that will add color to the evening. And by color, I mean that they will keep it real. Also, it’s best to keep the group intimate—12 people max. We’re not trying to throw a rager. Or are we?
5. The Location. Speaking of the food being the guide, hit up some cool new restaurant or Korean BBQ hole in the wall—preferably a place that will let you get away with paying a skimpy corkage or none at all. Enlist the home of one of your fancy friends and potluck it. Bribe. Ask for favors. We do what we have to do to get it done. We do it for the wine. Or just take it to the outdoors with some buckets of fried chicken and get your picnic on. Be inspired by the circumstances.
Now, go forth. Drink freely and without tasting notes. Bring a little bit of the party back to the wine tasting game.