Fall is a fabulous time to get your friends together and host a wine tasting “Happy Hour” party. As a wine expert and judge, I taste thousands of bottles a year. You too can taste wine like a pro with my easy tips and tricks. From setting the mood with music to playing wine games to keep the tone fun, you'll learn, laugh and discover what you like about wine in order to make smarter buying decisions. Let’s get the party started…
Gather the goods: wine, stemware and food
Set a theme for the night. Have everyone either bring a bottle in a certain price range ($15-20, for example) or have the guests give the you (the host) the money so you can buy all the wine. Tip: Most wine stores will give a discount on a case (12 bottles) so make sure to ask when you purchase.
Put out bottles for display so guests can take pictures of the labels or take notes. If you would like to taste the wines without guests knowing what they are, cover the bottles with tin foil — you can unveil them at the end of the night. Tip: Give the DRYNC app a try. It allows you to take a photo of the label and buy the wine.
If you can’t give multiple sets of glasses to each guest to taste the wines together, have dump buckets on hand to empty glasses. You can use sand pails, pitchers or deep bowls.
Let the wine breathe: Most wine benefits from some interaction with air including bold whites and young reds. That’s why you open the bottle and let it “breathe.” Pulling the cork, though, is less effective than using a decanter, which allows for full expression of the wine’s aromas and flavors. Trick: Pour wine from a box into a decanter to show how even inexpensive wines taste better with decanting. If you don’t own a decanter, use a pitcher, or even clean flower vase!
Don’t forget food. Cheese and crackers are standard fare for wine tasting parties. I recommend a platter with three to four types of cheese. This will allow pairings with a variety of wines from white to red and dry to sweet. Include a fresh cheese such as goat (chevre), a semi-soft brie, a harder cheese such Parmigiano-Reggiano and finally, a blue cheese. Add crackers, sliced bread, almonds, grapes and dried apricots for the perfect platter.
Now for the party: Games and tasting tips
Play the wine game: I recommend organizing the wines in various settings in order to learn the most. You can also enjoy the process more by making it a game. TIP: In professional wine judging situations, we often taste red wines before white wines. Not only does it offer a refreshing end to the tasting, sampling whites last allows for those purple teeth to get a rinse before heading home.
Wine words: Describing wine can be difficult for people, but it’s helpful to be able to discuss what you like when you buy or order wine. Learning to put words to wine can be fun with my wine words game: use your own tasting notes or descriptions on the back label of the bottle to create note cards that can be matched with each wine.
What's in a name: One of the ways to identify wine is by the grape variety from which it’s made, such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. Another important factor in the ultimate taste of the wine is where those grapes are planted. Does the wine come from Spain, California or France? The same grapes grown in different places can yield wines that taste very different depending on climate and soil. This game allows you to guess where the wines come from and why they may taste unique.
Tip: It’s not necessary to cleanse your palate in between every wine, but if you’re moving from reds to whites or vice versa, you may want to nibble on something first.
Trick: Crackers are the natural go-to palate cleanser, but in professional wine judgings, we also use slices of rare roast beef and mild olives.
2012 Whiplash Red Blend, California ($12)
This smooth, rich red blend of Syrah, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and a host of other grapes is an easy drinker. Sip alone at the beginning of the evening or pair with a variety of hearty fare. You might even get whiplash by quickly turning to fill your glass, as you’ll definitely want more.
2012 Bolla Valpolicella Ripasso, Italy ($16)
Hailing from the Valpolicella Classico zone in northern Italy, this unique red is a combination of native grapes Corvina and Rondinella. Often dubbed “baby Amarone,” its singular taste and character comes from the additional step of fermenting with the Amarone skins. Spicy, earthy aromas match up with a vibrant finish to make this wine ideal for dishes from pasta to cheese. It’s a deliciously Italian treat.
2013 Black Box Pinot Noir, California ($20 for 3 liters/four bottles)
One of the top boxed wines, this Pinot Noir blends in a dash of Syrah for mouth-feel and structure. It’s smooth and juicy with red berry fruit flavors. The wine stays fresh for up to four weeks, too. Black Box is a crowd-pleasing, affordable pick to stock up on for the upcoming holiday season.
2012 Hess Select Chardonnay, Monterey, California ($12)
Hess Collection is one of Napa Valley’s top destination wineries -- a beautiful place that’s home to world-class wines. Their Select tier of wines offers tremendous value with high quality. The cooling breeze of the ocean in Monterrey County gives this Chardonnay its freshness while a kiss of oak-barrel ageing offers complexity.
2011 Laroche Chardonnay, Bourgogne, France ($18)
As a Chardonnay fan, I love versions from the homeland of Burgundy (Bourgogne) in France. They are a pure expression of the grape showcasing minerality and a ping of vibrant fruit notes. The fruit flavors remind me of crisp citrus rather than ripe pear, for example. This wine was not aged in oak so the racy character is a direct result of where the grapes were grown. Domaine Laroche is a noted producer in Chablis and this bottling is both affordable and classy.