Hosting a Tasting?
Make Up Your Own Rules
By James Laube, senior editor
A WEB SITE READER -- about to host her first wine tasting at home --wonders whether there's any protocol or rules she should abide by so her first tasting is a critical success.
No, there are none that I'm aware of -- aside from the basics: wine and glasses. Spit buckets -- or glasses -- (you usually spit when you taste) also come in handy, as do snacks for after the tasting.
The most common wine-tasting clubs I'm familiar with involve small groups of like-minded wine lovers anxious to:
a) sharpen their wine-tasting skills, knowledge and vocabulary, by tasting themselves and by listening to and learning from others' opinions;
b) compare their wines (in the case of wine professionals) with their direct competitors and others, such as writers, restaurateurs or retailers, who do comparative tastings to evaluate different wines;
c) socialize and second-guess wine critics and/or ratings of others, in much the same fashion as we play "Monday morning quarterback" with movie and restaurant critics when we go to the theater, rent a video or dine out.
IF YOU'RE NEW to wine and are eager to explore different grape varieties and/or wine or regional styles, you can start by mixing and matching different wines.
This can be as simple as arranging six or eight wines, red and white, and using Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Zinfandel and Cabernet (in that order--one rule worth following when tasting a range of varietals is "white to red, light to heavy").
You can also stick to one variety or type, such as Cabernet or Merlot, and oftentimes it's fun to compare different regions or appellations. For your most objective analysis, it's best to taste blind, where you don't know the wine's identity, label design, price or any other potentially influential material, such as the winery name.
You can wrap the bottles in either paper bags or plain paper to conceal their identities, or prepour the wines before starting the tasting.
HOW MUCH YOU spend on wine depends on your budget, but I've always found it instructional to have a range of prices.
So even if you're focusing on $10 Chilean Merlots, or $15 Australian Chardonnays, it helps to have one inexpensive wine and one more expensive wine mixed in.
That way you'll quickly learn that price has little to do wine quality.
It's just as wise to include a $10 Cabernet when you're tasting the super-ultrapremium $60-and-higher Cabernets, for the same reason.
Over time, if you find you like inexpensive wines better than the pricier ones, don't be disappointed.
Just think of all the money you'll save.
ONE OF THE benefits of a wine-tasting group is you can defray some of the costs by splitting the tab, especially once you acquire a thirst for life's more expensive beverages.
Another fun way to learn about wine is to host a party and taste and rank the wines before dining.
Then drink the wines with your meal and see how your evaluations and perceptions of the wines change when they are paired with food. This is a good way to test red wines with fish and white wines with beef or poultry or cheeses.
Keep an eye on which bottles empty the fastest.
There's also nothing wrong with tasting the wines straight up, where you know the appellation, price and producer.
BUT DON'T BE surprised if the group gravitates toward the priciest wines with the fanciest pedigrees. Price and prestige have a way of swaying opinions.
Sad to say, but most wine tasters hate to unbag the bottles and discover they've rated the $5 Gallo Hearty Burgundy ahead of the $200 Margaux, which is why blind tasting can be so humbling.
So don't worry about any rules -- just get your wine in line, your glasses set and let your corkscrew be your guide. Make your own rules along the way.
Got questions about wine for James, or any of the other Wine Spectator editors? Ask them on our Ask the Editors bulletin board.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a roster of Wine Spectator editors. This week we hear from senior editor James Laube. To read past Unfined, Unfiltered columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.
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