Wednesday, August 4, 2004
It starts with the spark of an idea (usually over drinks) and involves 10 willing friends (who enjoy wine and its relaxing buzz). Invent a theme, grab some cocktail food and establish a price limit. Voila ... the makings of an in-home wine tasting.
Here's the pitch: Jaded by the bar scene? Insulted by hoity-toity food and wine events? Looking to just bond with friends? An in-home wine tasting might be your ticket out of boredom. It's a way to expand your wine experience, introduce amusement and probably generate some embarrassing drinking stories.
Some guidelines to follow: 1) Invite at least six to 10 people so you can try plenty of wines. 2) Serve food—or your guests' drunk-driving busts could really ruin the evening. 3) Make sure everyone follows the theme and price guide, which helps the education angle.
Varietal comparison: Pinot Noir. Make sure no one brings the same brand. Designate people to bring Pinots from Oregon, California, Burgundy (France) and Australia/New Zealand (or Tasmania). The point is to try a wide variety, comparing and contrasting the styles of different regions. You might also sample Cabernet Sauvignons from Australia, Bordeaux, California, Chile and Washington. Good Pinot examples: Elk Cove, King Estate and Ponzi from Oregon; David Bruce, Byron and La Crema from California; Bouchard Pere et Fils and Jadot from Burgundy; Hill of Content, Ninth Island and Yarra Burn from Down Under.
Challenge everyone to find the best under $15. Doesn't matter the varietal, but make sure no one brings the same bottle or on-sale-at-the-grocery-store labels. Force people out of their dark comfort zone and into the light.
Variations on price:
Con a guest into buying a big-name, expensive Napa Cabernet (Dominus, Opus One, Silver Oak, etc.) and pit it against a less expensive yet tasty California brand (Beaulieu Vineyards, BR Cohn, Liberty School). Hide the labels. Wine geeks (aka critics) love this game ... and rarely come away unscathed by embarrassment. This exercise can also be effective using an Australian Cabernet. You might also try this with wineries featuring several levels of wine, ranging from a generic "California" appellation to the most expensive "single vineyard" level. Zinfandel producers, such as Cline Cellars and Rosenblum, both have this stair-step approach.
Visit an unknown country:
Argentina, Chile or South Africa. South Africa is especially interesting these days, with its reds blended with Pinotage, a funky, earthy-tasting indigenous South African grape. Argentina should include Malbecs and other Bordeaux-original varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon. Be sure to throw in a Chilean Carmenere. Suggested wineries: Calina, Fairview, Graffigna, Santa Ema, Zuccardi.
Pretty labels and bottles:
Rumor has it that wineries put fancy, artistic labels on wines to bait you into buying. Same goes for the blue, red and purple bottles. Test whether these desperate measures disguise sucky wine.
Wrap 'em, uncork 'em and let 'em speak. Paper bags or aluminum foil work just dandy for wrapping bottles. Marketing definitely influences our juice impressions, so hiding the labels reduces judging to just the wine. Play "guess the varietal" (another wine geek game), or try 10 different wineries of the same varietal, or introduce a mish-mash of everything (see Theme No. 2). Pay attention to the bottle shapes, as savvy wine nerds know that certain varietals come in certain shaped bottles. Wouldn't want to encourage cheating, would we?
In fact, all of these in-home wine-tasting themes could benefit from a wrap job. It's best to keep people in the dark, since that's when the mind is most open.
Taylor Eason is the wine columnist at Creative Loafing, JFP's sister alt in Atlanta.