Food & Drink

How to host a wine tasting at home and not get drunk (hint: spit)

To keep your wine tasting organized slip the bottles into plain brown paper bags and cinch the tops, so no one can peek.
To keep your wine tasting organized slip the bottles into plain brown paper bags and cinch the tops, so no one can peek. Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune/TNS

If you haven’t done a great deal of wine-tasting in your life, either in wine shops, at food festival seminars, at wineries or in the homes of your wine-obsessed friends, you might breeze right past the second word in “wine tasting” and subconsciously replace it with “drinking.”

“Tasting” is not a euphemism. A wine tasting is all about “tasting.” It can be followed by wine “drinking” and often is. In fact, I am going to go ahead and recommend that every wine tasting you host from this point forward is followed by a nice, full session of spirited wine drinking.

But if you make the mistake of going to a wine tasting and instead drinking several pours, even small ones, back-to-back in a short amount of time, don’t be surprised when all of your would-be thoughtful insight is supplanted by giggles. In a tasting, the spit bucket is your friend. Tasting wine is an active endeavor. It requires focus and thoughtfulness. That doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. It should be. But it’s about learning too. Spit first, drink later. Here are some more tips on hosting a wine tasting of your own.

▪ The numbers. Limit your attendees to six or eight people, so everyone feels part of the same group. Larger groups tend to splinter. Taste roughly the same number of wines – six or eight. Maybe as many as 10. Keep it manageable and realistic.

▪ Choose your wine category. Agree on some common elements, and set your parameters accordingly. You could choose a grape variety and a price range to start: cabernet sauvignon under $25. In a subsequent tasting, you could focus on cabernet sauvignon from a particular part of the world, large or small. You could taste styles from the same place. Just make sure the focus of your theme is sharp. Determine what you are interested in knowing more about, and let that be your guide. Ask everyone to bring a bottle. That way, you’re all invested and in it together.

▪ Bag it. Everyone will know the theme, but it is fun to be in the dark about which bottle you are tasting. Place the bottles in paper bags, cinch the tops and write a letter or number on each bag so you’ll have reference points for conversation and notes. Supply everyone with paper and pen, or designate a secretary to take group notes. Just make sure to record your thoughts for future reference. What do you see, smell, taste? Do you like it? Why? At the end of the tasting, do the big reveal by lifting each bottle from its bag.

▪ Wine glasses. Make sure everyone has at least one good glass. If you can give them two glasses, all the better. This will allow everyone to go back and forth, two wines at a time. Three glasses each? Even better. Keep the pours small – about 2 ounces. Give guests just enough that they can swirl and get two or three sips from. You can always pour a little more. Don’t be afraid of looking stingy with the small pours. Assure everyone they can drink whatever they like when the tasting is done.

▪ Spittoon. This is what makes a tasting a tasting. Keep reminding your people that there are a lot of wines ahead, and you’re all there to try and learn something. It could be something as simple as an ice bucket, or you can give each person a plastic cup (but not clear). The reward is the wine drinking later. And the new knowledge.

▪ Water. The importance of water cannot be overstated. Give everyone a generously sized water glass, and place a pitcher of water on the table. Done.

▪ Crackers, breadsticks or bread. They’re not essential, but people are usually glad to have them. Make sure they’re as neutral as possible. You want water crackers – not Ritz. Plain breadsticks – not sesame. French bread – not challah. As close to neutral as possible.

▪ Drinking. If you can, revisit the wines after the tasting with an actual meal because tasting wine on its own can teach you things, but drinking wine with food is the reason for the season. It’s not a dinner party, so don’t feel you need to provide a mind-blowing, multicourse feast. Just serve food that matches well with your wines, retire the spittoon and let everyone relax. (That includes you.)

▪ In defense of teeth. This is a really nice touch for red-wine tastings: Set out a little basket of travel toothbrushes and toothpaste for anyone who wants to wipe the purple off of their pearly whites before venturing out into the world. It’s sort of like a team hitting the showers after winning the big game. Think of the toothbrush as a party favor. Or a trophy for a job well done.