Wine appreciation was long the province of an elite few, those who could spend thousands of dollars to build a cellar and enjoy it with their country club friends or professional partners.
Now, however, wine is available to the masses, and with new health benefits (particularly for the red varieties) announced almost daily, the masses are indeed responding.
One enjoyable by-product of this explosion in appreciation of this marvelous beverage is the wine party. Friends or associates gather to taste, to enjoy, and sometimes, just to slip into a night of socially-condoned intoxication.
A complication, though, comes from the very growth in appreciation that makes the party possible: the art of giving a “proper” wine party, for most would-be hosts, has not been passed through generations or developed into something comfortable or reliable.
Fortunately, this also means that the guests generally do not come into a gathering with predetermined notions of what to expect. Herein lays opportunity. With a little planning and a fair amount of imagination, you can create an event that all will enjoy, and depending on how much everyone consumes, all may even remember.
Picking the Attendees
In general, a wine party should be small. A gathering with four guests – or even just four people including the host(s) – can be perfect, as it allows everyone to talk, to discuss the varieties selected, and to relax throughout.
You can go a bit larger, but there are two very good reasons to keep it small. First, almost any group will become less comfortable with more people.
Some thrive in a larger setting, but others will invariably be pushed to the margins of the group.
Second, from a practical perspective, you want everyone to be able to sample every beverage. So, assuming a 750-ml bottle will serve four to six people, you want to be sure you have enough of each kind to allow everyone to enjoy it, and examples of high enough quality to make it worth the party.
A big difference between a wine party and a tasting is that you don’t want everyone to swish a thimble-full and spit it out. You want them to enjoy it. So, keep the group within your budget, whatever that may be.
Finally, choose attendees who can find a sober ride home, or whom you trust to stay for the night. You don’t want to be the person who sees a person alive for the last time – especially if you are the one who served the alcohol.
Have a Theme
If you are going to have a wine party, setting a theme allows you to narrow down the focus in a way that makes sense. You might focus on varieties from a particular region, or a particular grape.
You could also do a comparison between regions, price points, blends, or anything else. It matters little what your theme is, so long as you have one.
On the other hand, you do need to keep your guests in mind here. If you know members of your group strongly prefer reds, for example, you are inviting trouble by planning a theme comparing oak-barreled chardonnays to steel-barreled chardonnays.
If you are entertaining novices, you may not want to focus your party on high-tannin wines. You want to share examples that you enjoy and those you want your guests to enjoy as well.
Plan the Food Too
Presumably, you want your guests to keep their faculties about them throughout the party. This requires something solid to prevent the party from taking a sordid turn. (If the whole point is a sordid turn, the rest of the tips here frankly don’t matter anyway).
Further, wines match up with some foods better than others. If the bottle provides suggested pairings, heed those suggestions.
If not, consult your local specialty shop or Foodal’s Wine Section. Generally these will be generic to the varietal, such as suggesting barbecue for zinfandel. The suggestions will thus be relatively safe, if not specific to your type.
If you have a strong sense of the nuances of a particular example, on the other hand, you may try your hand at matching on instinct.
What food will bring out the peppery finish of a spicy malbec, or the more subtle fruit nuances of your particular pinot noir? Is there a specific merlot that you’d like to show off and gather the opinions of others?
If you experiment and learn, you can show off rather nicely for the rest of your party.
Think about Order
This is a particularly tricky aspect of a wine party. You do not want to start out with the most powerful sample, as the rest may come off as too weak in comparison.
On the other hand, you don’t want to finish with the most intricate; unless you have organized a remarkable group, the palates will diminish in sensitivity as the evening goes. (If you do try to finish with a bang and miss the mark for this reason, you can of course take comfort in knowing that even Jesus missed on this one).
The best way to think about it is to plan transitions. What will the next course bring out that contrasts well with the one before it? How can you avoid a rut – or worse yet, a letdown – in moving from one variety to the next?
Move from fruit forward to fruit finishing, from delicate to bold, or with any other transition that will allow each wine its fullest appreciation.
Also consider if you want to showcase the strengths and weaknesses of various styles of wine glasses.
Do you want to demonstrate how a shorter stemmed wider glass is better to partake in a red that is served closer to room temperature vs. a white that is served chilled and thus requires a longer stem to keep body heat away from the liquid?
Choose wines you enjoy, and people whose company you enjoy. Hosting can seem overwhelming if you make it too much like work. You want your guests to have fun, but your mood will find its way into the rest of the party. Enjoy it, learn for it, and learn from it.
About Lynne Jaques
Lynne is a stay-at-home mother of two boys. As a former US military officer and the spouse of an active duty US military member, Lynne enjoys traveling the world (although not the moving part!) and finding new cuisine and methods of preparing food. She also has the habit of using parenthesis way too much!