How to host a wine tasting party

Bacchanal in a bottle: A wine tasting party could boost your street credibility.

A wine tasting partyAt most wine-tasting parties there’s a distinct buzz in the air. Glasses clink and candles flicker as moist, berry-stained lips part, allowing delighted laughter to escape into the room.

And there you stand, soaking in the sexy, fun and (gasp!) educational experience like a hunk of French bread in a saucer of au jus. With just five bottles of wine, some palate-pleasing finger foods and about 10 of your closest friends, you can add life to your social circle’s humdrum party circuit.

Wine experimentation in a festive setting can be fun, unpretentious and simple, says Kelly Gilboy, owner of the Wine Boutique in Middleton, WI. “I think if someone is ready to try wine and is dining out, but doesn’t know how to order it, a wine-tasting party can be great, because you learn among friends,” she says. “It takes the edge off in an informal setting. There is so much out there to enjoy, and you’re in an environment where people might not be so intimidated.”

Eden Langerman, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, enrolled in a wine-tasting course last spring. “I wanted to be more knowledgeable about wines,” Langerman says. “I think that it’s really impressive and learning about wines is so much fun. You might get trashed from beer, but drinking wine is like an art form.”

Look Like a Pro

Standard wine-sampling techniques include holding the glass by the stem to observe the wine’s clarity. This also prevents the warmth of your hand from heating up the wine. Swirl the liquid gently to create a bouquet — the odor comprises 80 percent of the wine’s flavor, experts say.

Langerman’s first college wine-tasting party was a success. “I bought four of my favorite red wines, invited seven friends over. Someone brought crusty French bread. It was a great way for my friends to reunite and for them to learn about new wines,” she recalls. “We got a little loopy and had fun.”

Gilboy suggests a basic, five-bottle wine menu. She recommends selecting a sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinor noir, cabernet sauvignon and merlot. These fab-five and some amateur wine-drinking knowledge will help your guests get acquainted with the various wines’ flavors.

To get the party started, Gilboy recommends starting everyone off with a glass of champagne or sparkling wine. Then pour small samples of each wine; plying guests with full glasses means you might have to drive everyone home early.

Start with the light sauvignon blanc and progress toward the merlot as the evening wears on. “That journey takes you … from light to full-bodied,” Gilboy says. “You always want to go from dry to sweet.”

If a wine is described as “dry,” it offers a flavor that is tart or tannic. “It dries your mouth and makes you pucker, like fresh-squeezed lemonade without the sugar,” Gilboy explained. In the world of wine, there are some rules that should generally be followed. While white wines are customarily served chilled, reds are consumed at room temperature. “If you chill a red wine,” Gilboy said, “the fruit ‘locks up’ and you lose the flavor.”

White wines are best when served in glasses with smaller bowls, “so when you swirl the wine to get the bouquet, you get a lot of that explosive aroma,” Gilboy says.

Put a Cork in It

Don’t bother smelling the cork. What’s more important is the cork’s texture and moisture level. “If you hold the cork and it crumbles in your hand, that’s a red flag, meaning the wine was stored vertically, which is incorrect,” Gilboy said. A saturated cork isn’t desirable — it means the wine was likely stored in heat or sunlight. A dry or soaked cork is usually associated with a vinegar-like taste. Look for a cork that is wet only on the bottom half to ensure the most flavorful, enjoyable wine.

But, like all rules, some are made to be broken. The traditional white-wine-with-white-meat, red-wine-with-red-meat mantra “has kind of been thrown out the window,” Gilboy explains. “Now, some of the most highly regarded chefs in the world are pairing the texture of the food with the texture of the wine.”

While Langerman’s favorite wine is chianti, she enjoys experimenting with other types. She thinks a wine’s flavor is more interesting than its price or packaging. “Wines in boxes are great,” Langerman said. “A lot of people think ‘Ugh, Franzia, how low-class.’ But they are great introductory wines. They help whet people’s appetites for wine experimentation.”

Gilboy agrees. “If it weren’t for wines in a box, and if it wasn’t for white zinfandel, there wouldn’t be as many wine drinkers today,” she says.

Kevin Fogelson, of Lake Forest College in Lake Forest, Ill., likes the wine-tasting party concept as an escape from the college monotony of beer guzzling. “I don’t like beer … that much anyway,” he says. “I prefer wine — it’s sweeter and more relaxing.”

Melissa Hicks had to be carried out of her last wine tasting party.