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Mar 12, 2008 09:12 AM

Starting up a wine tasting group, any advice?

I am starting up a wine tasting group and I am looking for how-to advice to make sure I haven't overlooked anything. We plan to take turns hosting once a month in our homes and each tasting will be a different varietal. I'm thinking of making it blind tastings and whoever brings the favorite bottle wins a prize. This adds a little competition to the night to spark things up a bit. What do you think? Which should be the first varietal? Also, I am interested in growing the group so I'm looking for advice on that as well.

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    1. WHO are you (i.e.: strictly interested amateurs, amateurs with the hopes of -- perhaps -- becoming more, or budding young professionals already in the trade)?
      WHAT are your interests?
      WHERE do you live?
      WHEN you say, "each tasting will be a different varietal," does that mean you are restricting yourself to New World wines?
      WHY do you want to do this (i.e.: what are your goals)?
      HOW many people (total) are involved?


      6 Replies
      1. re: zin1953

        We are slightly above amateur status. Our interests are to educate each other and socialize. There are no restrictions on our wines. Our goal is to expose ourselves to different wines we might not try on our own. So far we have ten people in our group and we are in the NE Phila suburbs.

        1. re: murano

          OK . . .

          1) Cap the group at no more than 12. Ten is better. It gets too unwieldly with too many people.

          2) It's easier to keep it at 6-8 wines. With 10-12 people, that's roughly 2-2.5 oz. of each wine per person -- more than enough for TASTING; not enough for drinking -- and be sure you have several dump buckets.

          3) IF you want to do the tasting truly "blind," so that no one knows what wine is what . . . Have one person: a) completely remove the foil capsule; b) wrap all the bottles in aluminum foil (or brown paper bag) up to the top of the neck; c) remove the corks. Then, have a different person come into the room and have he or she write on the aluminium foil (or brown paper bag) letters from "A" through ____. In this way, only one person will know what wines are being tasted, but he/she will NOT know in what order the wines are being served. Everyone else will know nothing, except (possibly) for the bottle(s) each individual brought themselves.

          4) Set both a minimum and a maximum amount of money each bottle can cost. (You don't really want someone to bring (e.g.) a $5 bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon and have it in the tasting when all the other wines are $75.) This "min/max" can, and will, vary with the evening's "theme," and can certainly be repeated over and over (e.g.: you can do Cabernet Sauvignons in the $20-30 range, and later do Cabernets in the $50-75 range).

          5) It MAY -- depending upon group dynamics -- work better if, say, the host buys all the wines for a particular evening and collects money from the group -- that way, everyone's "costs" are the same (the host only having to cover the additionals of bread and cheese, for example). Or, everyone brings their own bottle . . . but you may find that someone is [consistently] bringing less expensive bottles, and that could potentially stir up some resentment.

          6) In the begining, limit the wines being tasted to a varietal type and/or specific region (e.g.: Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, [French] Bordeaux, [Italian] Chianti, etc.). As time goes on, and IF you desire to become more proficient, you can tighten the "restrictions" -- limit the tasting to Napa Valley Cabernets or Dry Creek Valley Zinfandels, only Bordeaux from areas within the Haut-Medoc, or Chiantis only from the Chianti Classico region. You may want to make sure that the wines are all from the same vintage, or you may decide this isn't important to you. You also may want to BROADEN the regions by, for example, doing half Napa Valley Cabernets and half Columbia Valley Cabernets (Washington State); or you may want to duplicate wineries by, for example, picking one bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon and one bottle of Merlot EACH from 5-6 different wineries, and see not only if you can tell the Merlots from the Cabernets, but also see if there is a sylistic similarity between the wines from the same winery. Also, there are some wineries that make so many differnet bottlings of one varietal (regular, reserve, single vineyard bottling, etc., etc., etc), that you could do a tasting of only ONE winery, but of all their different versions of a single grape!

          And so on and so on and so on . . . .


          1. re: zin1953

            Wow. Thanks so much. You certainly were the one to ask.

            1. re: murano

              I forgot . . .

              7) Get dry-erase fine point markers, and have everyone letter their glasses -- typically from left-to-right -- "A" through _______ (how many ever wines there are). Each individual is free to taste in whatever order they want, of course, but that way Wine A will always be to the person's left, and it makes later discussion of the wines far less confusing. Sharpies will permanently mark the glasses, but dry-erase will come off easily and completely.

              8) Impress upon everyone the benefits of good glassware, AND that everyone should have the SAME glasses. This is NOT to say everyone in the group needs to use the exact same glass, but each individual should use the same type/size of glass for each of his or her wines. Glass size and shape will alter the sensory evaluation of the wine; in order for each taster to be consistent in his or her approach, each one of that individual taster's glasses should be identical.

              9) There is no "Which should be the first varietal?" question. Start with one you like. It will generally be easier if you alternate red and white wines at each tasting -- perhaps doing Champagnes in December and roses in the summertime, but clearly this isn't necessary. It will be easier if EITHER the host of next month's tasting pick the variety/region/type (especially if he or she will be purchasing all the wines [see #5 above]), OR you can agree to a calendar in advance -- say of six or twelve month duration. Voting each time what the next tasting will be will leave some people feeling perpetually overlooked and/or left out (as in, "We never taste what I want to try!").

              1. re: zin1953

                Jason ~

                This is marvelous information.

                Thank you.

                1. re: zin1953

                  Along those lines, I created a template for a tasting-placemat. I print it out 11x17 with numbered circles for the glasses. For smaller tastings, I will do 8.5x14, or if I don't want to crank up the wide-carriage printer. Each participant gets a placemat and the glasses are placed/poured identically. Works a treat. You can even customize it for each event's theme.


        2. Murano,

          From my perspective the main requirement is to find a group of people that genuinely like each other and have at least some common ideas about what they want from the group. Beyond that, it's really a matter of personal taste. Some people like blind tastings, others don't. Some people like turning the tasting into a competition; others don't. My personal perspective is that low key tastings that accommodate differing levels of experience and enthusiasm are the most fun and the most likely to last beyond the first year. Also, pitch-ins are usually good to make it easier on the host.

          I'd also recommend that you not limit each tasting to a single varietal, or even a single color. Tasting 10 of anything is boring compared to trying a sparkler or two, one or two (or more) crisp, clean whites, a lighter red or two, several medium-to-full bodied reds, and something sweet for the end. Inevitably you'll have some people (spouses?) who only like Chard (or Cab, or whatever), and it's nice to give them some options too.

          Good luck and have fun,


          1. I would suggest not just doing varietal tastings. Maybe you could have a different theme each week such as: Wines from Spain (or other countries), Wines under $15, you could maybe have wine and food nights (what wine goes best with spegetti, for example).

            1. Just to offer a perspective that's different from the last two posts...

              My FAVORITE and what I think is the most educational way of doing wine-tasting is by VARIETAL. Syrahs from around the world, for example -- from France, California and Australia. That way the flavor profile of each grape can be identified and you can determine an area/style of Syrah you prefer. An around-the-world tasting of Sauvignon Blanc. Or Tempranillo, which includes Rioja, Ribero de Duero, among other areas. Chenin Blanc from the Loire in contrast to Chenin Blanc from California or South Africa. Pinot Grigio made in Italy vs. that made in the US. Or a comparison between Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris (same grape but grown and made differently -- which style do you prefer?). Nebbiolo in all its variations.

              And then to get more specific: Cabernets from Napa. Chardonnays from Sonoma.
              Shiraz from Australia. And on and on...

              My second favorite type of tasting is GEOGRAPHIC -- Wines of Spain is a good idea. Or wines from Italy, or from a specific region. Like a focus one evening on Chianti and all its subregions. Or Brunelllo and Rosso di Montalcino (both made in Montalcino). Wines of the Loire. White wines of the Loire. Southern Rhone wines. Australian wines. White wines of Piedmont: Arneis, Erbaluce, Cortese -- all wonderful spring and summer wines that are a real kick to your tastebuds if all you've been drinking are chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. You may wish to search those wine names on this board.

              Additionally, you can impose a price limit, both a minimum and/or maximum. Cabs between $35 and $50. Or establish a minimum amount overall per bottle: $15, for example.

              Yes, Jason has offered amazing and specific suggestions. And God bless him, he's patiently typed the same information over and over a zillion times in answer to this question that has come up so often. To edify yourself even further, you may wish to search this topic and glean the other tips that Jason and others have previously offered.

              A little planning really makes the evening so much better. Good luck and all best.

              8 Replies
              1. re: maria lorraine

                Just to clarify . . .

                >>> My FAVORITE and what I think is the most educational way of doing wine-tasting is by VARIETAL. Syrahs from around the world, for example <<<

                I think this is a CRUCIALLY important type of comparative tasting, BUT . . .

                What we (you and I, Maria Lorraine) don't know is the "exact" level of experience of the about-to-be-formed tasting group. I would how that the tasters have a really good idea of what (to use your example) a California Syrah tastes like PRIOR to doing a Syrah-Around-the-World tasting, with one each from California, Washington, Australia, New Zealand, the Rhône, the Languedoc, Spain, Portugal, etc., etc. The problem, I find, with doing this sort of tasting too early is that you tend to presume that the one-and-only (e.g.) California Syrah is the prototypical California Syrah.

                But -- YES, absolutely -- the "around-the-world" tasting is essential.

                So, too, is a component tasting, but that's another story entirely! ;^)


                1. re: zin1953

                  Component tasting? Not familiar with that term. Care to share that story too?

                  1. re: moh

                    Tasting a wine's component parts, one at a time.

                      1. re: zin1953

                        Thanks! This sounds like a great thing to try with our tasting group!

                    1. re: zin1953


                      Thank you for your comment that a certain level of experience is required to do an around-the-world varietal experience.

                      I'm not so sure.

                      A great way for a beginner to *learn* a varietal is an around-the-world tasting. Even with many wines of the same varietal, with regional variations in the wines and variations in growing and winemaking, a core group of flavors emerges that is fairly consistent across all the wines.

                      I don't feel a need to presume one of the wines is the prototype wine or the "correct" version of the varietal, or the one against which all others will be measured. The common flavors among all the wines, though there are still differences, is what defines the varietal. And then, wonder of wonders, you've leaned the varietal! At least on a basic level.

                      Cheers, best,

                      1. re: maria lorraine

                        I never said "required," and I *do* believe our goals here are the same. It's just a matter of going "right-to-left," or of going "left-to-right." Both cover the same ground.

                        I personally prefer to teach my students about (e.g.) California Syrah first, and once they have a solid idea of that, I'll add in more . . . precisely because there is NO such thing as a prototypical California Syrah . . . but, as you well know, that's me, and YMMV.


                    2. re: maria lorraine

                      OK. My tasting is set for next week. We will be tasting Zinfandels. Now what to serve as appetizers. I have thought of dark chocolate, Parmesean Reggiano, and a bleu cheese. Any other suggestions?