Ideas for hosting a wine tasting party

Beginning in the summer of 2009, I started hosting my own wine tasting parties. At first, they were BYOB affairs where everyone brought the same $12 Malbec to someone’s house. Then, I tried going to events at retail shops, but often felt pressured to buy the wines at the close of the tasting. There were also the massive consumer functions where I’d roam from table to table for tiny pours. But none of these tastings were very inspiring, or much fun.

So, I started an invitation-only wine club called The Noble Rot and set about twisting arms and convincing friends to let me host themed wine get-togethers on their Manhattan rooftops and Brooklyn lofts. After several years, I had enough experience to put together a rule book for throwing a successful wine party.

This article is my attempt to share what I learned so that you too can host the best wine tasting party ever. Here come the secrets.

Getting Started: What You’ll Need

Good wine glasses are a must. Wines are designed to impress with inviting aromas, textures, and flavors. Good wine glasses are designed to enhance those elements. You’ll need a healthy stash of glasses from either Riedel, Zalto, or Schott Zwiesel. Or check out Master of Wine Jancis Robinson’s all-purpose glass, and Master Sommelier Andrea Robinson’s The One — both are intended for red, white, rosé, and bubbly — and both are dishwasher safe!

Next, you’ll need a few very good corkscrews. Get a Laguiole or any of these.

Choosing and Buying Wine

This is the fun part, and choosing a theme is your best bet for making the evening feel cohesive. Perhaps you’ll feature a lineup of global Chardonnays with producers from California, Oregon, Australia, and France’s Burgundy region. Or maybe you’ll serve only red wines from the Rhône Valley. Alternatively, you might go all sparkling all night — from California bubbly to Italian Franciacorta and French Champagne. Just be warned: this could end in a rather wild and untamed real bubble bath bash.

I strongly recommend being the sole buyer of wine for your party, rather than leaving it up to your guests. If you go this route, you should make it clear in your invitation that you will be selecting the wines, and that there will be plenty to go around. You can always ask your guests for contributions (in lieu of bottles) to help cover costs. Or, bite the bullet and be the outstanding host who pays for it all.

How much wine to buy depends on how many guests you’re entertaining. I’ve found that featuring five to seven wines per party is just the right amount for small groups. Figure that one bottle of wine comfortably serves five or six people with nice-sized pours. So, if you decide to feature five wines and are hosting 12 people, you’ll want at least two bottles of each wine. But everything here comes down to math: There are 25 ounces in a standard 750 ml bottle. If you want to offer only tastes of two-ounce pours, you’ll be able to serve 12 people with one bottle. If you want to offer more generous six-ounce pours, like if you were in a restaurant, you’ll serve just four to five people per bottle. A good rule of thumb: have more wine than you think you need. Leftovers are never an issue.

Food Options

One of the biggest rookie hosting mistakes is offering tons of wine and not enough food to soak it all up. Remember, you’re working on throwing the best wine tasting party ever, and that means the food needs to be fully integrated into your event — not an afterthought.

The big decision is whether to go with passed bites and plates or to tackle a seated meal. If you’re a whiz in the kitchen, you could take on the cooking, but if not, partner up with someone who is. This will take a little coordination, and you can up the guests’ suggested contribution to cover the food costs. Whatever the financial arrangement, whether you and the chef swallow the costs, or your guests contribute, having an expert prepare the food for presentation will make a big impression. I’m definitely not suggesting you hire a catering company. Maybe you have a friend who runs a supper club, or know an excellent chef at a local restaurant. Whatever the case, keep it casual and tap your own network.

If you opt for small, passed plates, work it out so the chef is part of the party, cooking and plating the food in your kitchen and inviting guests to grab in a first-come-first-serve fashion. A seated meal is just going to require a bit more planning, maybe a few rentals for seating, and you’ll need to enlist friends to volunteer playing server, plating, and clearing. It won’t be hard to find help if you promise free wine, food, and even a take-home bottle.

Educate By Telling Stories

When it comes to educating your guests about wine at a party, remember that this is a party you’re throwing. No 30-minute lectures about soil types, and no power-points — unless you work for Pixar and can get really crafty.

You do want your guests to learn something about the wine in their glass, because the thing about wine is that beyond the pleasure of drinking it, each bottle reveals stories of real people, histories of real places, and aspects of global cultures from farming practices to local traditions — all wonderful things to learn about.

I found that if I was planning to open five different wines throughout the night, presenting them one at a time every 15 to 20 minutes or so was a good way to keep people’s attention. Designate friends to be pourers, and while they’re filling everyone’s glass, take three to five minutes to tell a story about the wine going around the room, and then encourage a Q&A. It requires that you do a little research on each bottle to make your points engaging and fun, and to impart some real nuggets of knowledge. You could also enlist a witty, knowledgeable host if you know of someone (ahem, DM me on Instagram).

The Music and Atmosphere

Spend time compiling a great playlist that fits the theme of your party and that underscores — not overpowers — conversation. Enlisting a DJ definitely ups the ante. If your space can support it, live music is best. If you live in one of those Brooklyn lofts, or have a home with a backyard, enlist a full band (just warn the neighbors). Designate times throughout the night to gather around the musician for a short set, or song — and keep the wine flowing.

Lastly, create a warm, inviting atmosphere, with lighting dim enough to keep it moody, but bright enough to see the wine. Candles are great, especially in the bathroom — unscented of course. You don’t want anything interfering with the aromas in your wine glass. Keep the TP well-stocked and in an obvious place. And, if you really want to go all in on details, put out a fancy hand soap and just watch the compliments roll in.

As the guests begin to dwindle, be prepared with a surprise. I suggest ending with a sophisticated nightcap — some brown-spirit or Mezcal-based quaff out of Death & Co’s cocktail book. Send the last stragglers off with an unopened bottle, then pop open that Champagne you were hiding, because throwing a wine party this good deserves a victory glass.

This guide will help you create and host your own wine tasting party including tips on planning, choosing wines, serving food, and ultimately making your get-together a great success.

How to Host a Wine Tasting Party

wine-tasting-order
Wine tasting order: light and delicate to dark and rich

A wine tasting gives people the rare opportunity to compare and contrast wines with one another. Everyone will learn a lot about wine, including their own preferences.

  • Choose a selection of 4–6 wines that have a common theme
  • Enough wine glasses for each guest to taste 2 wines side-by-side
  • Serve wines in a well-lit room without too many distractions

A note on odors: Keep the tasting area as neutral smelling as possible–A wine will taste like bacon if the room smells of it.

Selecting Wines

Wine tastings that have a common theme are more educational and entertaining. Also, creating a theme will help you plan smarter. A wine tasting theme will focus on choosing the exact wines for your tasting. Here are a couple of classic themes to get you started:

  • A single wine from 2 regions (e.g. Malbec from Argentina vs France)
  • A blind comparison of cheap vs. expensive wines
  • A single wine from the same region by different producers
  • A single wine from different vintages

Check out a few more wine tasting themes for inspiration.

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How much wine to serve?

A standard tasting pour is about half the size of a regular serving, at around 2–3 ounces (75–90 ml), and a bottle of wine contains about 10 taste servings. You might decide to have a little leftover just in case. For a party of 8–10 plan on buying 2 bottles of each wine.

Supplies

  • Wine
  • Wine Opener
  • Identical Wine Glasses
  • Water
  • Napkins
  • Wine Tasting Placemat (download)
  • Palate Cleanser (water crackers)
  • Personal Spittoon (red solo cup)
  • Dump Bucket
  • Polishing cloth
  • Decanter (for bold reds)
  • Wine bags (for blind tasting)

 

Setting Up The Tasting

wine-tasting-place-setting
A typical place setting for a tasting

Before guests arrive you’ll want to set aside some time to prepare your space. First of all, decant any bold red wines that need air. Then set the table, organize your appetizer display and, finally, get your aperitif wine ready (your party’s “ice breaker” wine) as your guests start to arrive.

Tips

  • Rent glassware: If you’re hosting for more people than you have glasses, definitely rent glassware. Wines glasses rent for about $1–3 (depending on the quality) and you don’t even have to wash them. It will save you time, stress, and the headache of clean up.
    A white background helps see the color 
  • Start Simple: Professional wine tastings rarely include more than crackers (as a palate cleanser) along with a spitoon and a bottle of water. If they do offer food, it’s usually in the form of a self-serve appetizer station.
     
  • Easy Appetizers: Choose appetizers that are single-serve and easy to hold and eat with a napkin. Four easy-to-prep foods come to mind: cheese, fresh fruit, bread and cured meats.
     
  • Start With an Aperitif: It seems odd to serve wine before a wine tasting, but it makes sense. Just a splash of some sparkling wine or a simple wine cocktail will relax your guests and get them into the spirit of the tasting. They also will be less inclined to hover over you while you’re getting everything ready.
     
  • Stagger Wine Service: If you stagger pouring the wines into 15 minute intervals, people will take longer to analyze and get involved taking notes about each wine.
     
  • Wine Info Print-Outs: Print out the technical information of each wine (usually available on the producer’s website). This info will come in very handy during the tasting when people start asking questions. And believe me, they will.

champagne-sparkling-wine-tasting-ferrari

 

Formal Wine tasting Place Setting mise en place

More drinking ideas

Need more inspiration? Here are 13 experiential dinner party ideas.
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Written by Jane