Hosting a Wine-Tasting Party

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Last year, Aron and I joined with some friends to follow along with Eric Asimov’s Wine School articles in The New York Times. We would get together and pour a specific varietal over dinner and then compare notes. The idea was not so much to decide which was “the best” but rather to get one’s palate familiar with the characteristics of that wine. To be able to confidently order it at a restaurant and describe one’s preferences.

But this time we were going to be toasting with California Chardonnay—a category where people have really strong, divergent preferences about butter and oak and minerality. It’s also a category of wine that typically does well at the Thanksgiving table, so we decided to hold a more classic tasting party and decide which we’d be happy to serve.

The results were all over the place, which we took to prove: There’s no best. There’s only what you like.

And what I liked best was getting together with friends and having fun tasting.

Here are some tips if you’re interested in doing the same… 

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Chose a specific, limited range of wine at a wide range of price. 

We all agreed that six wines was a good number for tasting. I think a group could go up to eight, but your nose and mouth do get fatigued. Personally, I liked limiting the varietal (the fewer variables the better), but I’d suggest at the least sticking to either red or white.

As for price, having a range of price points made the reveal all the more fun when a wine that costs four or five times less than the rest ends up at the top of someone’s list. I chose mostly bottles around the $15-20 range, threw in a couple that retail $30-40, one under-$5 bottle, and then decanted a 3L Bota Box 2013 Chardonnay (which is the equivalent of four 750ml bottles and retails for around $20).

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Hide the evidence. 

I realized later that the shape of the bottle I used for decanting the Bota Box would have given it away, but was glad no one noticed at the time. In general, different bottle shapes are specific to varietal.

The other clues you’ll want to hide are the corks and the labels—even the foil ones up top. Brown bags are one answer, but I prefer chalkboard contact paper. It looks elegant, is easy to cut and apply. And it’s removable—key to the reveal.

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Pour small. 

2-ounce pours are suggested. And it adds up quickly! If you’re not sure how this looks in your glass, test it ahead of time with some water and a measuring cup.

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Set the scene. 

A white table cloth can be good for seeing the color of the wine. Real glasses are preferable to plastic, something that allows you to swirl the wine gently.

In an ideal scenario, we’d each have a separate glass for each wine—to make it easier to go back-and-forth between them. But practically speaking, that’s hard to do on a large scale. Consider how you’ll keep each guest’s glass distinct.

Offer tips for tasting and a way to keep notes. 

Set out pens or pencils and score cards. I also set out a list of tasting tips (and, just for fun, we pulled out the UC Davis wine aroma wheel). Tips tend to involve five S’s: See, Swirl, Sniff, Sip, and Savor.

See the color and clarity; swirl the wine to release its aroma; sniff several times; sip (and slurp, if you can); and savor, noticing how the flavor changes after you’ve swallowed.

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Pair with food and water. 

Bread and crackers are a given. But it’s nice to taste wine with food and see how it changes your appreciation. After all, we often drink wine at meals.

Our friend made the best fried chicken I’ve ever had—along with some apple donuts that deserved the same accolade and disappeared in a flash. Going to have to share that recipe, soon!

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Enjoy! There are bound to be some fun surprises. 

Have you been to a wine-tasting party? What would you add?

This post is sponsored by Bota Box, the nation’s leading eco-friendly wine producer of premium 3-liter varietals. Each package is printed on 90% post-consumer fiber and is 100% recyclable; Bota Boxes create 85% less landfill waste than traditional glass bottles. Bota Box wine stays fresh for 30 days or more after opening, and has received 49 Gold Medals and 21 Best Buy ratings from Wine Enthusiast Magazine. Thank you for your support! 

Have you tried Bota Box? Which varietal do you like best? Bring one along on your next adventure and tag your instagram #GoAdventure and #GoBota.

P.S. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Bota Box throughout the year. Read more about the Bota Minis (we love them for picnics and day-hikes around Northern California) and see the adventure summit I took with the team in Big Sur.

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