Hosting a Wine Tasting: A Guide for the Confused Consumer

Scooting along through the Central Market meat department, you're caught unaware. You've just bought a pound and a half of premium choice, aged, boneless ribeye steaks and your plan is to grill 'em up and slurp some beer. But then you see it, a little beige "shelf talker" label flapping mysteriously in the wind of wine-consumer flurry. "Herbal black currant and mint aromas with lush fruit and smooth tannins; great with steak." Great with steak? This isn't just a label, it's a sign -- a subliminal directive to buy wine. Soon you'll be trapped like a mouse in a maze of wine confusion. What's the difference between this Merlot and that? What's a trockenbeerenauslese? What do they mean it has a "strawberry and smoke nose"? And most importantly, who has stolen the labels off the backs of all the French bottles?

Well, there's hope for you, not as a highly suggestible consumer (there's no hope for you there) but hope that someday you may in fact know how to distinguish between wines and make your own decisions, unfettered by the suggestions of little flapping labels. As with everything, experience is required, and in this case that means tasting and comparing wines. And the best way to do this is to host your own wine tasting.

First, you'll need a space. This being Austin, and given the beautiful weather we've had this spring, your first thought might be, "I've got the greatest patio (or backyard)." While this can be wonderful at the right time of year, you'll get more out of your tasting if you hold it indoors. Not only are the aromas of the wines complicated by pollens, dust, and your half-naked neighbor firing up his lawnmower, but you're also at risk of critters flocking to your glass like Homer to a pool full of Duff's.

Next, you'll have to think about the number of people to invite. Twelve is usually ideal. With 12, each taster gets about two ounces of each wine (a 750ml bottle contains approximately 25.5oz of wine) -- the optimum amount for tasting. Or you can have a smaller group, drink some during the formal tasting, then drink the rest afterward with food.

And of course, you'll need wine. Most groups ask each person (or couple) to bring a bottle and set an upper limit on the cost. However, if your friends are strapped for bucks, you can have each pitch in $5 and buy the wine all at once. With 12 people in your group, you can try six wines at an average price of $10 per bottle.

I suggest setting up a table or two in a cozy room with good lighting for serving the wines to your guests. You'll want to supply water for rinsing glasses and for cleansing the palate. And set out some bread and crackers (or even jicama) for palate cleansing, too. Finally, you may want to put out opaque containers for people to pour out their wine and/or spit into to keep from getting too drunk.

Keep the tasting focused. You can do this by sticking to a theme, such as Australian Shiraz or rosé wines of southern France. It's much more fun and it keeps your guests interested. You can leave the bottles uncovered or make it a blind tasting. If blind strikes your fancy, wrap each wine in a brown bag, number the outside, and take notes. After revealing the identity of each, revisit them and see if your notes reflect your preconceptions about that kind of wine. You can also narrow the scope of the tasting more by choosing a type of tasting, such as varietal, vertical, and horizontal, to name a few.

A great start for beginners is the varietal tasting, in which you compare wines made from different types of grape. In one scenario, each guest brings three glasses. Drink a Sauvignon Blanc, a Chardonnay, and a Riesling together and observe the difference that the varietal can make. Then try a Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Pinot Noir. Swirl the wines to release their complex aromas and snuffle them into your waiting nose. Then roll them, swirl them, and bubble them on your tongue; explore their every flavor aspect and compare the different ways they fill and excite your mouth.

In a vertical tasting, you taste the same wine -- say a certain winery's Cabernet Sauvignon -- from several different sequential years. Because it can be difficult to gather a large vertical of wines, try several mini-verticals -- 1995 and 1996, for instance -- and discover the importance of vintage and age to a wine's taste and quality.

Lastly, there are horizontal tastings, which come in two different flavors. In both, all the wines are produced by the same winery. In one, the wines are made from different varietals; the idea here is to uncover the winemaker's style. In the other, you compare wines of the same varietal produced from grapes grown in different vineyards. This can be very instructive in the ways that wines reflect the characteristics of their vineyards and the winemaker's interpretation and enhancement of those characteristics. The differences can be quite impressive. For instance, I recently attended a rare tasting of 1978 Domaine de la Romanée Conti red Burgundies at the phenomenal new downtown restaurant and piano bar Sardine Rouge. Presented to us by Franny Rabin, wine buyer and general manager of both Sardine Rouge and Louie's 106, these wines were distinct enough that one experienced taster was able to accurately distinguish them from one another with his eyes closed as I handed him glasses across the table.

Of course, if you're just beginning, no one expects you to be able to make such precise distinctions. You just need to concentrate and enjoy as you discover which vinous charms appeal to you. In the end, you'll see the walls of wine confusion crumble around you.
-- Anthony King

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