The best way to learn about wine is to taste it yourself. Almost no one disputes that philosophy. But with tens of thousands of new wines released each year -- and with ever-higher prices -- how can anyone keep up?
One proven way is to start or join a tasting group. You won't sample every bottle out there, but you will accelerate the learning process and develop friendships that can last a lifetime.
Finding enough people to gather for a tasting can take some time but shouldn't take too much effort. Ask around. Your local wine merchant and neighborhood restaurateur are valuable resources.
Some groups form in cyberspace. San Francisco management consultant Julius Schillinger first connected with his friends on the Wine Spectator Online bulletin boards. "We then started communicating offline," he says. "By the time we finally got together, it was great to turn all the bits and bytes into flesh and blood."
Stores and tasting organizations host their own events. Get on their mailing lists. It's a safe bet that you'll meet like-minded people who'd love to start a group. Organization is the key. Pick a day and stick with the schedule. The basic idea is that by pooling resources, a group can taste more wines of higher quality than an individual could taste alone. Plus, group members can exchange ideas and broaden their perspectives through discussion.
For more about starting a tasting group of your own, see our feature story, which appears in the Dec. 31 1999 - Jan. 15, 2000 issue of Wine Spectator. Or, join the conversation in our Tasting Groups discussion in WS Forums.
Ten Tasting Group Tips
- START SMALL: Begin with five or 10 people -- it's easier to handle the logistical demands of larger groups after getting a few events under your belt.
- SET A BUDGET: You can't organize a tasting until the budget is set. People need to make a firm commitment and agree that no-shows have to foot their portions of the bill. Pick a price range and stick with it.
- SCRUTINIZE THAT STEMWARE: Quality glasses are one of the best investments a wine lover or tasting group can make. Have at least two per person. Each glass should have a minimum capacity of 10 ounces (to give you room to swirl your tasting pour). A "Bordeaux-style" wineglass -- with a bulb-shaped bowl that tapers slightly toward the top -- is usually best. And make sure the glassware is sparkling: Soap residue, dust and grime have ruined more wine than harvest storms.
- LESS IS MORE: Five to eight wines is plenty. Pick a tight, focused theme. Trying six different varietals isn't nearly as informative as comparing bottles from the same region. Also, don't overpour -- remember that you're tasting, not drinking, and 1.5 ounces suffices for that first impression while leaving enough for a second go-round.
- BLIND IS BEST: The host should help everyone leave preconceptions at the door by concealing each bottle in numbered bags (don't forget to remove the capsules). Novices should consult with a wine merchant to help determine the order in which the wines should be served.
- LOOK AND LEARN: A wine's appearance reveals much about its grape composition and age. Good lighting is essential, as is some sort of white background -- the tablecloth, or even just sheets of paper -- against which the color can be judged.
- FIND FRIENDLY FOOD: Avoid spicy, powerful flavors. A bite (and sniff) of bread should refresh a tired palate. Try to sample the wines once without food, then revisit them with a meal -- the differences can be astonishing.
- CHAT IT UP: Every taster has a unique perspective. Listen, and you might well see the wines in a new light.
- NOTE THIS: Always take notes; otherwise, many of the lessons will be lost. If nothing else, indicate your preferred wines.
- EASY DOES IT: Pace yourself, and remember that it's no crime to spit good wine.
For more on creating your own tasting group, see our Dec. 31, 1999 - Jan. 15, 2000 issue, beginning page 82. Or, join our discussion online in our Tasting Groups discussion board.