About 20 years ago, most Americans drank their wines out of a jug. Wine was considered a complement to the average dinner meal, but was not yet considered to be the staple of daily living that it has become. Many Americans now buy wines in traditional 750 ml bottles and, while they still seek out competitively priced wines on their grocery store shelves, most people are more apt to reach for a higher-priced wine when they dine out, are entertaining during the weekend, or are celebrating a special occasion. In other words, Americans have grown more sophisticated about wine in the last 20 years, and now more than ever tasting groups are forming all over the country, bringing wine lovers together in formal and informal gatherings.
I myself am in three wine tasting groups; two are very serious while one remains rather casual. No matter how informal or formal your tasting group becomes, certain guidelines result in an organized, efficient, and illuminating experience.
Keep the group small. Tasting groups should range from six to 12 people. The number is best kept manageable because it allows a group of people to address each other easily, make eye contact as they speak, share comments and insights without having to talk too loudly, and minimize the table space needed to accommodate a tasting. Also, given the time constraints of most schedules these days, with a six- to 12-person group, each person is given the opportunity to speak without the tasting lasting too long. With more people, tastings tend to meander and lose focus with too many people providing lengthy opinions.
Use proper stemware. It’s crucial to use proper stemware while tasting wine in a contemplative, thoughtful manner. There are many good wine glasses out there today, but Riedel glassware is my personal favorite. You can find cheaper knock-offs at stores like Macy’s or Crate and Barrel. The key is to have thin glass, a large enough bowl to be able to swirl the wine, and, if you can arrange for it, crystal. Thick, stubby glasses made of ordinary glass often result in poor swirling capabilities and no room in the glass to create a bouquet when swirling, and they project the wine straight to the back of your mouth while you’re tasting, not allowing for all areas of your taste buds to truly consider the wine.
Taste the wines blind. It’s best to taste all your wines blind, if you can allow for it. Too many people are easily swayed by labels, producers, and pricing to remain objective during a non-blind tasting. For example, if you pour a cult cabernet beside a less expensive cabernet, without double-bagging the bottle, most people will naturally gravitate toward the better-known, highly regarded cult cab. But if you double-bag each bottle, every wine will be treated equally and the playing field is level. It’s a great way to learn about wine.
Create a theme. The best, most successful tastings are those that hinge upon a theme. If you have 10 different red wine varieties, from 10 different winegrowing regions, it’s hard to learn anything definitive. But if you choose to host a tasting of “Pinot Noir from Oregon” or “10 Bordeaux Reds,” you’re more apt to learn about that specific region or that specific variety. Recently, I hosted a tasting called “Grenaches from Around the World.” It turned out to be tremendously educational as we were able to taste the way that grenache is manifested in Spain, France, America, and Australia. We were able to sense consistencies in varietal character as well as identify the terroir of specific growing regions.
Provide tasting sheets or numbered glasses. When you are faced with having to judge 10 or 12 different wines, it’s very easy to put a wine glass down in the wrong spot or to lose track of what you’ve tasted. Therefore, I always provide tasting sheets (blank white sheets with numbered circles for glassware, providing each drinker with a map of where to set down their glass) or I number the glasses with a wax pencil. Wax comes off easily in the dishwasher or when washing glasses by hand.
Make certain your wine glasses are fragrance-free. Recently, I attended a tasting wherein the hostess provided us all with glasses that had been stored in a cabinet that had a strange smell to it. The smell was thusly transferred to the glasses, so that all we could smell was that strange odor, instead of the smell of each wine. We ended up not being able to smell any of the wines, and the tasting was therefore somewhat of a failure. Sense of smell has so much to do with sense of taste. It’s hard to taste the purity of a wine when you cannot also smell it properly.
Be non-judgmental of guest’s comments. The tastings that often prove to be the most educational and the most fun are those during which participants are never made to feel intimidated. Try to provide your guests with a safe, non-judgmental atmosphere. If someone loves a wine you can’t stand, chalk it up to different strokes, and be polite to your guests. Wine tastings should be, above all else, joyous occasions.