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.