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How to Host The Best Wine Tasting At Home

My favorite part of this job has to be when I get to host a wine tasting, natty wine-focused or otherwise. Who doesn’t love that? Even as someone who is so into wine he started a business around it, I always feel like I learn something new when I hear the different perspectives from the people that attend. They always seem to enjoy themselves, too. For them, it’s fun to try new wines and learn from a professional, but when I encourage them to host their own wine tastings with friends they’re often very quick to say no. 

I don’t know enough.

I’d feel like a poser.

I can’t even pronounce “varietal.” 

The reasons are varied but the root of it is always the same: they feel unqualified. And I tell them all the same thing: It doesn’t matter if you don’t know as much as a professional. To host a wine tasting, you just need to ensure none of your guests know more than you. When you’re all at the same knowledge level, tastings become a way for you to all learn together in a casual and fun setting. I tend to tailor the tastings I host to match my audience’s level of understanding. Wherever you are on the oenophile spectrum, you can use these ideas to host a great wine tasting at home.

Beginner wine tasting host: All in Good Fun

If you read the previous sentence and were surprised the word wasn’t vinophile, the idea of hosting a tasting might strike fear into your heart. The wine world has a reputation for being a little snooty, with a host of rules and etiquette—written and unwritten—and being a newbie can be intimidating. Forget everything you’ve heard before. There’s good reason for a lot of what wine connoisseurs do at a tasting, but you don’t need to worry about them for now. The goal here is to just enjoy yourself. Nobody should care how you’re holding the glass. You won’t have to guess what the wine is or be expected to describe it accurately. You don’t have to spit the wine out (but do serve snacks so the wine doesn’t go right to everyone’s head). 

Keep it low stakes and no pressure. Choose a theme for your tasting so there’s a common thread holding the bottles together. Maybe you choose your favorite type—Merlot, let’s say— and select a few bottles at different price points to compare and contrast with each other. Or you could go rogue, focusing only on (gasp!) canned wines. Having a theme can anchor the discussion, which helps you and your friends to learn how to taste in a more structured way.

Intermediate wine tasting host: Oh, So That’s What Tannin Means

Once you’re a few tastings in, you’ll start to have a better idea of what you like. And, because you’ll be more adept at identifying specific flavors in the wine, you’ll have a better idea of what you don’t like. Armed with these talking points, it’s time to take your wine tastings to the next level. It’s still a good idea to stick with a theme, but start to think about its educational angle. You can pick a specific region of wine and pair it with food from the same place, or pick wines all from the same grape but grown in different places around the world. 

One of my favorite themes to do at this level is something called a vertical tasting. Here, you buy several different bottles of the same wine from the same producer, but from multiple vintages. These can be tricky to organize, as you’re generally not going to see too many different years of the same wine in the same store. If you’re doing a red wine, this could be expensive, too, as reds can increase in value as they age. But if you can swing it, it’s a great exercise in understanding how time affects a wine’s flavor. 

Regardless of theme, at this level you should begin to focus on being able to describe the flavors and aromas in each wine. Be specific: go beyond general descriptors like “floral” or “fruity” and get specific. What flower? What fruit? Also, don’t be afraid to say something crazy if that’s what you’re tasting. It’s possible that others in your group taste blue cheese in that Malbec, but it doesn’t matter if they don’t. That’s what you taste, and there are no wrong answers.

Advanced wine tasting host: Hold My Beer, I’m Going In Blind

For some people, the intermediate level is as far as their interest takes them, and that’s OK. But for those of you who want to go further, it’s time to go blind—a blind tasting, that is. If you’ve ever seen the movie Somm you know how intense blind tasting can be. The good news is you’re not taking the Master Sommelier exam; your wine tasting should be low stakes and fun.

If you’re not familiar with blind tastings, it’s important to understand they’re not about trying to guess what kind of wine you’re drinking. Instead, the point is to eliminate from your mind any preconceived notions about what’s in your glass. Without knowing the winery, varietal, region, or what critics have said about it, the only things you can rely on to describe it are your own senses. For a blind tasting, you’ll want to keep the snacks you serve on the bland side—water crackers, baguettes, those sorts of plain carb-y things. Apart from keeping you nourished (and your wits about you), these can serve as a nice reset for your palate, keeping it sharp between sips.

At the advanced level, your description should be deeper than flavors. How does it look in the glass? What are the aromas it gives off? How does the wine feel in your mouth? Check out the Court of Master Sommeliers’ tasting grid for a good primer for how to describe wine. Don’t be afraid to get poetic about it. If you smell wet pavement, say so. Does it trigger a fond memory of a particular place or time? Say that, too. These are your perceptions; own them. Eventually, you’ll be able to ID varietals and regions while tasting blind, but remember that this isn’t your aim. More important than this is to accurately describe wine by sight, smell, and taste.

These ideas are just a starting point for how to host a wine tasting. As you do more and more, you’ll read about other ideas, and likely come up with your own. And let’s be honest: isn’t hosting your friends for a wine tasting a lot more fun than a book club? I’ll read the Grapes of Wrath by myself, and drink the Grapes of Roth with my friends.

Have you hosted a wine tasting? Will you? We’d love to see what you and your friends are up to. At your next tasting, snap some pics, drop them on Instagram and tag us, @redthumbwine.