Wine Tasting Party Ideas
A candelabra and bowl of grapes in the middle of the table is a classy move. Just forgo the fragrant flowers (so no stargazer lilies) and scented candles so you don't throw off your taste buds.
Switch off overheads and turn on table lamps to keep the light level moderate but not glaring so guests can judge the color of the wine. For the same reason, cover your table with a white tablecloth. No tablecloth? Use an old white sheet or look for inexpensive white material at the fabric store. Just remember, whatever you use, it will get red wine on it, so best not to use the heirloom tablecloth from your great-grandma's hope chest.
What if some syrah does spontaneously splash out of someone's glass? Don't stress searching for your lost shaker of salt — just relax, get on with the party and simply mentally cross the culprit off the guest list for future fetes. Kidding! Once the last guest's left, stretch the stained portion of the cloth over an empty pan in the sink, pour boiling water over it and watch the stain magically disappear. If that doesn't do the trick, apply a mixture of half hydrogen peroxide and half dish-washing detergent to it, then wash.
Skip the perfume or cologne so the scent doesn't interfere with your (or other guests') sense of taste, and save the baseball caps for the backyard barbecue and beer bash. Wine-tasting is a grown-up, refined activity, so make like a refined grown-up and wear slacks or a skirt, a sweater or dressy shirt and a pair of shoes that are neither sneakers nor flip-flops. Your mom would be so proud.
To prevent any preconceived notions produced by fancy labels, put your bottles in small brown paper bags, then secure with a rubber band at the neck and number them in big black marker on the front. You can also roll bottles in foil and then number them, though the truly astute taster could make an educated guess about a vino's varietal or region from the bottle's shape (for example, Bordeaux and zinfandel are usually found in high-shouldered bottles, while chardonnay and pinot noir are traditionally sold in sloping-shouldered bottles).
To start the tasting, tell guests to fill their glasses about a quarter full (a couple of ounces) with the first wine. Meanwhile, hand out copies of info on what to look for while tasting as well as pen and paper so people can rate the wines and write down comments as they go. You could even ask guests to guess the type and origin of each wine and its price. At the end of the tasting, unveil each wine's secret identity and price and ask everyone for their overall ratings on each one so you can announce the winning wine.
Extra credit: Put wine into terms that are easier for your guests to grasp. Help them learn to identify specific aromas to further enjoy wine. Or set out a jellybean bar featuring the flavors of the wines you're tasting so everyone has a better understanding of what "buttery" or "fruity" or "spicy" really means.
For a real-deal wine tasting, keep the food simple and bland — offer baguette slices, oyster crackers, or table water crackers for guests to munch on and cleanse their palates between wines so you really taste each one. After the tasting portion of the evening, serve more substantial apps or dinner, enjoying wines from the tasting with the meal.
If you're not too serious about the whole tasting thing, you can make it more of a wine-and-cheese affair, setting out a selection of fromages and heartier hors d'oeuvres like bruschetta, prosciutto, olives, and nuts.
Rather than picking wines willy-nilly, go with a theme. Novice tasters might choose a theme as loose as "red wines," since differences in flavors will be more noticeable in different varietals from different regions. More advanced tasters may want to get more specific, like wines made from the same grape but from different countries. If you let them know the theme, you can even ask guests to each bring a bottle and award the guest who brings the tasting's most popular wine a prize (a nice bottle of bubbly, perhaps).
Ideally, guests should have one glass per each wine they'll be tasting, but you can get away with one glass per person if you have guests rinse their glasses between wines. You should also provide a separate glass for each guest for water. Don't have enough glasses? Rent them from a party supply company (usually less than $1 a glass) or ask guests to bring their own and mark them with wine glass name tags, wine glass charms or Post-Its on the bottom of the glasses.
Stick to six to eight wines. Any more and you'll lose your ability to differentiate between them, if for no other reason than that you'll be wasted. Speaking of which, put out an empty ice bucket so if guests don't like a particular wine, they can dump the rest of their glass in it (or even spit out what they're tasting if they want). Put your bucket on a tray to minimize stray splash stains.
Finally, have the number for a local cab company on hand for those who aren't sure they tasted the cabernet right the first five times.