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How to Organize a Wine Tasting
I frequently get asked by people how to organize a wine tasting. This is not a question that can be really answered in a few words, so hopefully this is a better answer.
Let's spend a moment up front on--drinking. If you are really having a tasting with a fair number of bottles, drinking can be unnecessary and, especially for neophytes unused to running through large numbers of bottles in succession, dangerous. How can drinking be "unnecessary" at a wine tasting? There are no taste buds in the esophagus. People can taste the wine, spit and dump, without actually swallowing. Swirl the wine, take it into your mouth, swish it around, and hold it a few seconds. Your tastebuds and sense of smell are fully engaged--without swallowing. Every tasting should have dump buckets near by, small personal containers where people can dump wine they spit or don't want. This is especially important for those who are relatively new to wine tasting events. People who are not used to evaluating anywhere from 6 to 15 or more wines in a sitting can easily go overboard if they are not advised on how to taste a wine without swallowing. People who normally control themselves well, when confronted with folks saying "ok, now taste these three wines" every ten minutes can lose sight of the consequences.
But what about dinner? Is it forbidden to ever actually drink any wine? No, of course not. But there are still some considerations, particularly if you have an unskilled group. If people are aiming for consumption, the number of bottles and courses of food should be planned out over a period of time where people will be able to consume without getting blasted. Serving 9 wines with 5 oz. pours per person in an hour with the expectation or fear that everyone will do "bottoms up" is a really bad idea. Staggering flights of wine in pours half that size over four hours accompanied by reasonable quantities of food to soak up the alcohol, is another issue. Make sure you have dump buckets available anyway. I have met some people who profess outrage that anyone might dump wine at a dinner tasting. Too bad, is my view. No one should be under pressure to "bottoms up." Not everyone will like everything, of course, so you can assume that not every glass will be finished even if it is a dinner event rather than a pure tasting. Apart from that, inexperienced drinkers, smaller people, and women, who are all more quickly affected by alcohol, surely need your help in providing the opportunity to dump unused wine when appropriate, or in planning a reasonable time for consumption of the wine, or both. Give your guests a fighting chance. You can't make them behave, but you can make good behavior easy rather than difficult.
The Glasses Crisis is usually the first wine issue. Of course, having sufficient types and quantities of glasses available can encourage or discourage consumption, too. I've seen many folks at tastings basically drain a glass they weren't otherwise going to drink because they needed to make room for the next wine. Apart from that, though, you need to think through the Glasses Crisis: How many do you need? The first answer to that involves determining what wines you are going to serve. If you are having 14 Bordeaux from 1990, it is easier to reuse the glasses as the evening progresses. If you are having 3 Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand followed by six Pinot Noirs from Oregon, you're going to need a new set of glasses in all likelihood. The pungent Sauvignons will obliterate the varietal characteristics of the Pinots. Also, depending on how many wines you have to pour over how many hours, you will certainly want to do "flights." That is, if you are showing a number of wines, it is common to organize them by serving three or four at a time, hopefully with some coherent theme, or at least in a fashion that does not clash. So, even if you can reuse the glasses, you'll want to have at least 3 or 4 per person in that event.
Other obvious questions concern your own resources and desires, such as what the average bottle cost will be and whether (apart from dinner events) you want to serve food directly with the wine. Although many decisions like that are purely personal, they still change the nature of the event and need to be thought through. For instance, many people insist on some food with wine. It is often said that wine is made to be consumed with food, so this seems like a reasonable demand. Plus, drinking a lot without food can certainly get you more quickly intoxicated since food can often mitigate the effects of alcohol. Yet, food clouds the palate and changes the wine, making it hard to evaluate at times. If you are talking about a serious tasting with pricey bottles from which you want to extract detailed information about the wine and its future, serving lots of foods, particularly strong ones, may skew the results. People particularly like to serve cheeses. Cheese and wine go well together in a certain sense, but the wines frequently get lost in the shuffle. Worse still, reds often wind up tasting metallic, unable to hold up to the fat content of the cheeses. Whites, with higher acidities, are frequently a better match for many cheeses, especially those with high fat content like Brie and Camembert. Whites, too, however, can be overwhelmed. Other types of food are more useful. Having some crackers or bread handy is always helpful as I find that some bread and water often helps clear the palate of the effects of tannins. So, how serious do you want to be? Is this going to be a very formal, sit-down tasting, with little or no food, or dinner later? If there is food, think about proper matches for the wines so they are not obliterated.
How many bottles of each selection do you need? A bottle can generate about 24-25 pours, but you'd be better off saying 22 or so to leave a margin of error. That assumes pours of roughly 1 oz., which isn't much. At a dinner tasting, with pours that small you might add a few bottles to increase the available wine. You don't want your guests smashed. But you don't want an entire course that lasts 45 minutes having only 2 oz. of wine available either. Remember, too, people won't necessarily like everything. They need some choice at a dinner tasting. For that reason, I'd say that dinner pours need to be larger than pours at pure tastings, unless of course you are pouring numerous bottles at dinner.
Less than an ounce isn't going to be enough for most people, even if they are just evaluating and not drinking. You take a sip, and the wine's gone, not leaving enough left to swirl and get a good read on. While doing 1 oz. pours is fine for many people for evaluation purposes, many will say that's too stingy and 2.0 oz. (12 people roughly to a bottle) is considerably better. Some would go further and say that if you don't have 3 oz. pours (8 people, roughly, to a bottle), it is hard to swirl enough to get a bouquet, or let the wine sit and develop after taking a few sips. Nonetheless, a lot of pricey tastings have very small pours precisely because the wines are so expensive. They just can't afford to do more. So, it's certainly not impossible or improbable to have fun and learn something with small pours. As always, dinner tastings are different. While you might want to move along quickly in a pure tasting where people are spitting--thus rendering moot the issue of watching the wine develop in the glass for an hour--at dinner, or over a long period of time, you need a little extra. I think most wine geeks, for more relaxed dinner tastings, would certainly say that they would greatly prefer to limit attendees to 8-12 people a bottle instead of 18-20, so that they have enough wine to hold, and watch develop for awhile.
Next, you need a theme. I've seen a lot of people do wine tastings which go something like this: let's have a bunch of different varietals, one of each. Well, I can understand why people eager to learn want to do that, but I don't recommend it. For one thing, doing that means you will only have one example of a varietal. There are so many different forms of syrah, for instance. Just tasting one doesn't in fact give you a "good read" on syrah. You'd learn more by being more focused. More importantly, some varietals just do not go well together. They clash. They harm each other. They complicate the Glasses Crisis, discussed above. For instance, no one sensible would recommend a flight of grassy, pungent Sauvignon Blancs, followed by a flight of elegant Pinot Noirs. The sauvignon blancs will make it difficult to taste anything subtle for awhile. You'll need new glasses. The varietals have nothing in common. Similarly, drinking a flight of oaky, fruit forward shiraz followed by a flight of very tannic, mute young Barolos, isn't going to work. The Barolos will seem dull if drunk after the shiraz. If drunk before the shiraz, their tannins will likely make it difficult to move quickly to the shiraz. These just clash!
Age is another issue in determining service order. Generally, assuming that older wines are more gentle and restrained, and younger wines fruitier and more tannic, I'd serve the older wines first in order to allow the more gentle wines to show well. It makes no sense to me to serve a 2000 Lynch Bages, followed by a 1985. The 1985 will just seem dull and overpowered. This all depends, to be sure, on exactly HOW young your young wines are, and HOW good. If you are talking about a 1999 Lynch Bages instead of the more powerful 2000, the equation changes, even though chronologically there is merely a year's difference between them. The 1999 is less likely to overwhelm more mature wines. Similarly, if you are talking about the 1989 Lynch Bages versus the 1999--well, the equation changes again. The 1989 is a very powerful wine, more so than the 1999. I'd serve the 89 second. Age, in other words, does not always correlate with gentility, but the idea is to serve the more restrained wines first so that the more exuberant and powerful ones do not overwhelm them.
Another issue that comes up is whether to do the tasting blind or not. Blind tastings have many virtues. They remove preconceptions about the wine. They let you test your ability to pick out typical aspects in the wine. In some ways, however, blind tastings are also deceptive. Some wines, particularly young, tight and tannic ones, are hard to evaluate in a quick taste. Knowing what they are--if you know the winery well and how their wines typically evolve--can give you some clues. You can say mentally to yourself, "This is just how the 1994 showed at this age, and it came out well. I sense the same tannic structure and layers of fruit underneath." Still, blind tastings are certainly fun and instructive and should be an occasional part of your repertoire.
The biggest negative of blind tastings in my view is at big events where no one person is really in control of the planning. Suddenly, everyone starts talking about bringing this and that, and chaos ensues. This tends to happens with "offlines" from folks on my bulletin board. It is very hard to plan coherent flights under these circumstances, and blind tastings make it more aggravating still, for two reasons. First, not knowing what is going to be coming, you risk having an incompatible mish-mash of wines. A mature Pinot Noir, followed by a young Cabernet, followed by a big shiraz, etc. It makes little sense. Second, even if you manage to impose some theme, it is still hard to organize the flights. You may have wanted to put all the 1990 Burgundies in one flight. But you may find yourself drinking a 2002 next to a 1990, and so on.
So, there are some tips. It is an art form--not a science. Don't hesitate to experiment and take your own preferences into account. Just remember to think through what you do.
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