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As if the majority of the American public didn’t already think that “wine professional” was another term for “buzzkill who can’t get a real job,” I have a dirty little secret about professional tasting that I want to share. When we taste, it is not for pleasure. The job of the professional wine taster is to find the faults with the wine, and it’s a bit like finding all the reasons not to award the Cub Scout his Webelos badge.
As if that wasn’t enough to endear ourselves to humanity, then there are the tasting panels like a recent one for a major wine competition who were unanimous in their opinion of one California Chardonnay over another. The wine they rejected retails for $65; the wine they embraced was Charles Shaw Chardonnay (commonly, and sometimes affectionately, sometimes derisively, called “Two Buck Chuck”) – it sells for $1.99-$2.99 at selected Trader Joe’s. This kind of thing happens more than you might imagine, and far more often than “professional tasters” care to admit. When I hear things like that, what can I do but weather the slings of friends who call my profession a collection of frauds and phonies and do the perp walk of crooked politicians and disgraced corporate executives?
It doesn’t have to be like this, people!
The real fun of tasting wine is tasting for pleasure, not for punishment. And the best place to do this is at home, with friends, in a relaxed atmosphere of conviviality and generosity. Tasting wine at home is fun, coupled with a bit of self-guided “education.” Don’t worry, in this case “education” is like the learning curve that began with the awkward pleasures of your first kiss and grew exponentially into sensual subtlety: the confident strut, the irresistible smile.
How to begin? What wines? How many wines? How expensive should the wines be? What glassware? What room? Outside or inside?
Wait! The most important question is “Who should I invite?” You can taste some of the most glorious wines in the world, but if you taste them with miserable people, guess what? The wines will taste miserable, too. You want to invite friends who enjoy the company of other people, have a sense of humor, don’t judge others harshly, don’t want to be the “expert” but do have something to say. Finally, invite friends who are moderate drinkers. Wine tastings are not for lushes, who can diminish or even ruin the experience for everyone else. “Tasting” is the operative word, not “quaffing.”
Once you’ve put together your guest list, then start to think about the wine. Some basics:
Think thematically about what wines to serve. New World Reds under $10; White Wines from the Loire Valley; Sparkling Wines of the World; American Wines Not From California; Zigging and Zagging With Zinfandel. Tastings are more interesting and fun if the theme gives a structure in which you and your friends can see the diversity and variety that exists in each category. Of course, if money is no object, then feel free to host a tasting of Opus One: 1995-2005 and so on.
Use wine glasses, not plastic cups that make the wine taste like plastic cups. You’ll need one glass per person per wine, since it’s no fun to have to wash and dry glasses between pours, and pouring into a used glass will mix whatever’s left in the glass with the new wine. Most people don’t have enough glasses, so here’s a hint: Rather than burdening your guests with bringing glasses from home, check out the local party rental folks. You’ll be surprised how inexpensive it is to rent two or three racks of glasses — not necessarily great ones, but all of them the same size and shape, and racked together for convenience and to avoid breakage.
Provide spit cups and napkins. Tasting involves four steps. In order: looking — taking in the color of the wine, best against a white background (hence the napkins); smelling — getting into the “nose” of the wine and seeing what aromas you’re picking up; tasting — sampling a small amount and swishing it around in the mouth, focusing on how your taste buds and nose are reacting to it; spitting — that’s right, part of tasting is spitting the wine into a spittoon or spit cup. Spitting allows you to taste more wine without feeling its effects — and having the alcohol cloud your judgment! Pick up a sleeve of 16 oz. disposable cups, and place one at every setting. You may not be able to enforce spitting at a home wine tasting, but especially if your friends are driving away from the tasting, you can certainly encourage it.
Bread and water. Bottled water, with and without bubbles, or pitchers of cold tap water, should be plentiful and available. A few bread baskets filled with crisp sliced baguettes, or individual plates with water crackers, should be available for cleansing the palate between wines. Make sure the bread or crackers are as neutral tasting as possible; no brioche, croissants or flavored crackers because these will have a dramatic impact on the wine’s taste.
Tasting mats/tasting sheets. On your home computer you can make a simple or an elaborate and creative tasting mat, basically a menu of the wines with space to write notes of your impressions. If you are tasting the wines “blind,” obviously the wines will be identified by number only. If you know what wines you are tasting, list them by name. It helps your guests to be consistent in how you list the wine. I recommend listing this way, which is commonly how they are presented on restaurant wine lists:
Product, Special Attribute*, Producer, Sub-Region*, Region*, State or Country, Vintage*.
(*if any: if non-vintage — like most sparkling wines — write “NV”)
Pinot Noir, Reserve, Robert Sinskey, Carneros, Napa Valley, California 2007
Chianti Classico, Reserva, Banfi, Tuscany, Italy, 2006
Shiraz, Peter Lehmann, Barossa Valley, South Australia, 2003
Brut Cava, Reserva Heredad, Segura Viudas, Penedès, Spain NV
On the tasting mat — or if you are tasting more than five or six wines, probably on a separate sheet — allow each taster to make notes on each wine based on these criteria: color, nose, flavor, body, length of finish on the palate. You might ask “Did you like it?” and/or “What would be a good dish to pair with this wine?”
The tasting can be done indoors or outdoors — the more light the better to see the true color of the wine — in the afternoon or evening, as a prelude to dinner, or as its own little party. You should pour between one and two ounces per person per wine. Very important: make sure your guests stay for at least an hour or so after the tasting, and never let a friend drive drunk. If everybody is on the same page with the concept of the tasting, this should not be an issue.
At home, I prefer a tasting of accessible, affordable wines that my friends can appreciate and enjoy, and we can have some fun with, followed by a simple dinner or barbecue at home with the “partials,” the leftover wines. For an exotic and unexpected twist, have a tasting followed by a dinner at home of good Chinese takeout, the best pizza in town, or meze from that new Lebanese restaurant. You get the picture.
As for me, I’m busy planning my next blind tasting: $1.99 Chardonnays: World Class, Kick Ass, or I’ll Pass. See you there.
Steven Kolpan is Professor and Chair of Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY. He is the author of "WineWise," a consumer-friendly guide to the wines of the worldMore Steven Kolpan.