Hosting a wine tasting at home is one of the best ways to connect with people and share your passion for wine. Use these steps to plan the kind of event that will keep people talking for weeks afterward.
1. Think About Your Guests: Their Interests and Preferences
A wine tasting at home needs to match the interests of your guests. So before buying wines for the tasting or anything else, take a few minutes to consider these questions.
- Do my guests have a favorite kind of wine? (If yes, think of ways to appeal to that preference and still bring some surprises).
- Do my guests have any allergies or health issues of note? (For example, if you have a guest with a gluten allergy, keep their needs in mind)
- Do my friends collect wine or have a wine refrigerator? (If several of your guests collect or store wines for aging, they may enjoy a more complex wine tasting)
- How much time do your guests have for the wine tasting? (Working parents may have less time available to attend a wine tasting)
- Do you have common travel interests? (If your guests have all been to the Napa Valley or Bordeaux, then you might include wines from those regions)
Taking five minutes to think about these questions at the start means you will be able to craft an exceptional experience. Then, feel free to some of these questions to your guests in a text or email. It’s a way to show you care and get to know your friends even better in the process. Who knows, you might find a potential friend to join you on your next wine travel adventure.
2. Choose A Wine Tasting Theme
A wine tasting theme is one of the best ways to make your evening special. Fortunately, there are plenty of wine themes you can choose from.
- Country Theme. Geography is tried and true way to structure any wine tasting. You can explore one country’s wines or dive deeper into a specific region. For example, in the USA, you could organize a “West Coast” wine tasting by choosing wines from Washington, Oregon, and California. On the other hand, if you’re more interested in exploring French wine regions, starting with a well-known region like Burgundy or Bordeaux is a good choice.
- Grape Variety. We usually think about wine in grape varieties (e.g., Cabernet Sauvignon vs. Merlot). With this wine theme, you will choose one or two grape varieties to explore. For instance, choose a Chardonnay wine from California, a Chardonnay from Australia, and one from Australia. You can then explore how each region makes chardonnay.
- Vertical Tasting. A vertical tasting means choosing multiple wines from a single producer made over time (e.g., a 2015 wine, a 2010 wine, and a 2018 wine from the same producer). For example, if you have just returned home from wine travel, you might have a lot of wine from one producer and have everything you need to host a vertical tasting.
- Horizontal Tasting. In contrast to a vertical tasting, a horizontal tasting involves choosing a single vintage year and choosing wines from multiple producers. For instance, Wine Cellar Insider points out that 2016 and 2018 are great vintage years from the Left Bank of Bordeaux. Keep in mind that older wines tend to be more expensive and difficult to find. Start by looking for wines that are five years old or less.
- Culture and Pop Culture. You can theme your wine tasting based on a movie or book. For example, if you enjoy Provence rose wines, you could organize your wine tasting around the novels and books of Peter Mayle. Alternatively, you might have watched some of the best wine movies on Netflix and decide to organize a tasting based on one of those films.
3. Choose Your Format: In-Person or Virtual
As I write this post, the COVID-19 pandemic is still a significant challenge. Therefore, you may wish to organize a virtual wine tasting at home. In that case, you can use video conferencing software like Google Meet, Zoom, or Skype to connect with your friends. Let’s break down the pros and cons of each type of wine tasting at home.
In-Person Wine Tasting: Pros and Cons
The pros of an in-person wine tasting include freedom from screens, saving money from sharing each bottle, and simplicity. If you spend a lot of your work time in virtual meetings, transitioning to an in-person wine tasting is a welcome change of pace. The cons of an in-person wine tasting include transportation (i.e., attendees may want to take a taxi to and from the party) and public health. Hopefully, the COVID pandemic will disappear soon, and in-person wasting events will become available to all of us.
Virtual Wine Tasting: Pros and Cons
The pros of a virtual wine tasting include the ability to include friends and family from far away. In addition, a virtual wine tasting requires no travel time or expenses. Unfortunately, there are downsides to a virtual wine tasting, including expenses. When you host a wine tasting at home, you can buy three or four bottles of wine and share them with everybody. With a virtual tasting, each person will have to buy their wine. Assuming you are buying quality wines, each guest might end up spending $100 or more to attend. Since your guests are spending their own money to attend your party, take some extra effort to make the event memorable by researching the wines and exploring food and wine pairings.
4. Choose Your Wine Tasting “Difficulty” Level
In many video games, you can choose a difficulty level like easy, medium, or hard. Playing a game on easy mode is a way to get into the game as a novice, while experienced people might choose hard mode instead. The same principle applies to your wine tasting party. No law states you must run a wine tasting event like a professional sommelier if you and your friends are not interested in that approach.
- Easy Difficulty. The perfect starting point for a wine tasting. You will choose two to three wines with clear differences in grape variety, country, or vintage year in this approach. For example, you might choose a California chardonnay and a Petit Chablis (i.e., a French chardonnay wine). This is a good choice if your guests have a casual interest in wine.
- Medium Difficulty. Planning a wine tasting at the medium difficulty level means giving some thought to food and wine pairing. For example, you might plan a wine chocolate pairing for dessert and different wines for your main course. To add some challenge, do one blind tasting and ask your guests to describe the wine for a few minutes before you reveal the wine label. The blind tasting process usually only takes a few minutes.
- Hard Difficulty. Choose this mode if you’ve watched “SOMM” and aspire to join the ranks of the world’s wine professionals. With a challenging difficulty, you will focus exclusively on blind tasting. Food may well be an afterthought, and expectorating wine (i.e., spitting out wine) will be expected. I will only attempt this kind of wine tasting if you are inviting enthusiastic, knowledgeable wine lovers. Some efforts to run a wine tasting at home run into disappointment because people jump straight into the hard difficulty level, which frustrates guests. Before you consider hosting a highly challenging wine tasting at home, think back to your guests. Ask yourself if they would enjoy this type of experience (the answer will usually be no!)
For more guidance on spitting out wine, check out Natalie Maclean’s excellent post: How to Spit Wine Without Losing Your Dignity.
5. Consider Food Wine Pairing Options
Years ago, I went to a wine tasting at a winery in the Bordeaux region of France. Unfortunately, there was no food of any kind available, not even bread! I understand that winery owners usually want to focus on wine, but the lack of food didn’t’ sit well with me.
You can take two broad approaches to offer food to your guests: light appetizers or a full meal. In either case, do your guests a favor and explain what you plan to offer so they can plan. Here are some of the specific options you can use to plan your meal.
Many wine bars tend to offer the same kinds of foods and snacks to guests. Some popular light fare for a wine tasting include the following:
- Cheese Platter. Offering a selection of cheeses is one of the most popular choices for a food and wine pairing—for example, pair Brie with Champagne or Sauvignon Blanc with Goat Cheese. Red wine lovers, take note – an aged cheddar pairs well with Cabernet Sauvignon. I also recommend offer crackers and bread along with the cheese platter.
- Charcuterie Board. A combination of cheese, meat, nuts, and fruits make up a charcuterie board. Specifically, I like to include various deli meats (e.g., slices of salted or cured meat) because these can pair well with wine. You can buy a charcuterie board from a store or make your own.
- Bruschetta. A simple classic of bread, tomatoes, and olive oil. I recommend serving bruschetta with a fair amount of oil and toppings to reduce the chance of a spill. The tomato in bruschetta is a good pairing with a Chianti Classico, one of my favorite Italian red wines.
- Sushi Rolls. If you choose sushi for a wine pairing, go easy on the wasabi and spices. Strong spices will completely overshadow many wines.
Tip: Hosting a wine tasting at home for the first time? Start with one or two of the appetizers above. Then, once you build confidence, you can transition to organizing a wine tasting at home with a multi-course meal.
The key to making an entire meal work with a wine tasting party is a variety of courses. I recommend choosing small serving sizes for each course to avoid overwhelming guests. Some ideas for a complete meal including:
- Appetizer. Choose one of the items from the previous list, like a cheese platter or charcuterie board. Regarding a wine pairing, I recommend choosing a glass of champagne (or champagne alternatives also work well).
- Salad Course. When you serve a traditional salad course, I recommend pairing that course with a light white wine like Sauvignon Blanc.
- Main Course. To keep things simple, let’s assume you serve steak for the main course. In that case, you will want to choose a full-bodied red wine like Cabernet Sauvignon.
- Dessert. Offering a small glass of port wine or icewine is a great way to bring your dinner party to a conclusion.
Tip: To maximize the wine tasting experience, encourage your guests to keep some of their wine from each course. By doing this, they can easily sip from one glass and then compare it to another. Of course, if your wine party guests are particularly thirsty, you can always pour another serving to aid in the comparison.
6. Lead The Wine Tasting Conversation But Don’t Dominate It
Most people are not used to discussing wine in detail. Your guests might not know where to start in comparing wines. As the host, you have already put some thought into choosing wines for the evening. It is only natural that you lead the discussion by making a few comments on each wine. There’s no need to write and memorize a long speech. Instead, I recommend preparing 3-5 bullet points about each wine to start the conversation.
For example, let’s say that you choose a Bordeaux red wine because you love how Bordeaux brings together different grapes. Your opening comments about the wine might include the following:
- Geography. Tell your guests where the wine came from. Generally speaking, higher quality wines from Europe come from a particular location (e.g., a place on the Left Bank in Bordeaux).
- Grapes. Tell your guests the grape varieties that went into the bottle. This is especially important once you go beyond the world’s best-known grapes like Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and others.
- Why You Picked The Wine. Feel free to get a bit personal here! For example, you could mention that you
Once you have made a few comments, invite your guests to comment on the wine’s appearance. This step is critical. You want each person to have an opportunity to share their thoughts and observations about the wine.
7. Take A Few Notes and Photos During The Wine Tasting
When you host a wine tasting at home, one or two wines will probably stand out from the rest. Your guests will probably have the same feeling. The joy of discovering a new wine you love is one of the significant benefits of hosting a wine tasting. Don’t rely on your memory, especially if you are drinking multiple glasses of wine throughout the evening.
You don’t need to create detailed notes. Instead, take a photo of the wine bottle label and email the photo to yourself with a few notes. For example, you might note you enjoyed the spicy finish of the French red wine you tasted. Encourage your guests to do the same.
8. Encourage Responsible Transportation Choices
As your wine tasting party comes to a close, you may see your guests reach for their car keys. Before they leave, ask them how much wine they have had over the evening. This question should prompt your guest to realize that they have had multiple glasses of wine and that they should not drive home.
Tip: Before your guests arrive, identify parking locations in advance that have security. Better yet, encourage your guests to take a taxi, rideshare, or public transportation. Of course, you can’t control what your guests do, but you can plan to make drinking and driving less likely.
9. Reflect On The Wine Tasting Experience
Congratulations! You’ve hosted a wine tasting party. Hopefully, your guests had a great time, and you’re already thinking about hosting your next event. That’s fantastic. Take a few minutes to reflect on your experience and come up with a few ideas to make your next wine tasting event even better.
Reflect on your experience with these questions:
- Did people like blind tasting? Blind tasting wine can be fun if you have a certain level of knowledge. Ask yourself if your guests found this part of the experience memorable.
- What wines won? Think back to which wines were winners with your guests. In that case, order a few bottles to use as gifts later.
- Which food and wine pairings worked well? If you try a more unconventional pairing like combining salmon with cabernet sauvignon, note whether people liked this option.
- Who was most enthusiastic about the experience? First, take note of the friends who enjoyed the wine tasting experience. That might be interested in attending future parties or taking a trip to wine country with you.
There you have it! In nine steps, you can plan out an enjoyable wine tasting at home. If you put these steps into action, share your experience in the comments below.