So you want to host a blind tasting, eh? Maybe you’ve heard of them through articles, maybe you want to continue your palate education, maybe you’ve watched Somm recently and wonder how hard can it actually be, or maybe you just want an excuse to drink wine with your friends. Whatever the reason, blind tasting events are extremely fun but can be a bit daunting to prepare, especially if this is your first one. Calvin Howe, The Williamsburg Winery’s Wine Club Manager, has broken down some of the key steps to make any blind tasting party fun and easy for you and your guests to enjoy.
STEP ONE: I always try to taste on a theme, and while I appreciate the basic elements of wine, I enjoy looking for some of the more unique aspects of the wine. Themes can really give a talking point and I think they make every blind tasting better. Remember, tasting themes don't have to just be about the wine either! I like to have everyone bring their favorite bottle, giving you a story for each one, or have everyone bring wine they hate to admit they love (bring me your cheapest Vouvray and I will still be content).
If you want to focus on the wine, but you're really stumped, try making connections in wine styles. Say for example you really love Tempranillo, a grape very near and dear to my heart, which is commonly found in Rioja, Spain. You could host a tasting of only Spanish Reds, or reds and whites from only Rioja, or a tasting featuring Tempranillo from anywhere but Spain. Use what you like and branch out across the world of wine. By staying within a few degrees of separation of stuff you love, you're guaranteed to find some things that speak to you. If you're feeling a little more adventurous, these are some tastings I've loved in the past: French Oddities only, everyone just needs to bring a bottle of cool french wine, such as Sancerre, Tavel rose, or even Chinon Cabernet Franc. All wines that really speak to how incredible French wine can be, from some lesser known regions that still carry incredible quality. You could always do a tasting tour across a country too! Everyone picks a region in that country, and brings an iconic wine from there. Lastly, you can never go wrong tasting by the season. Bring out the crispest whites in the peak of summer, or enjoy your freshest roses when they first hit the shelves (not a shameless plug I promise). As long as it is a theme you like, I say plan it out, and others will love it too.
Once you’ve selected the theme, ask your guests to pick a bottle fitting that theme to bring. Having each guest bring a bottle both eases cost for you, the host, and ensures everyone has something that will also suit their tastes. Don't think everyone has to be a connoisseur to enjoy a good glass of wine, any good wine friend will be a great addition!
STEP TWO: Once you've gotten the wine element ready and the guest list prepared it's time to look at the night itself. Something that tends to go hand in hand with a great night of wine tasting is the food element. The kinds of food should match the intensity of the wines you're trying, and try to keep the bites smaller unless you really have a dynamite pairing, like steak with a series of California Cabernet Sauvignons (and who doesn't love steak and cab night).
But Calvin, you ask, how do you match the food and wine when you don’t know what wines everyone is bringing? You have selected a great wine theme for your party, so select popular foods to pair with the theme. For example, if we’ve selected Spanish wines as our theme, pick a few small bites that can work with a variety of spanish wines such as ceviche, tapas, and an assortment of spanish cheeses. Or, if the idea of blind pairing is intimidating, ask each guest to prepare a dish to work with the wine they are bringing.
STEP THREE: Once you've completed the arduous task of picking the wines you want everyone to bring and have decided on foods, then you can start getting everything together. You'll need enough brown paper bags for the bottles of wine everyone brings, and some ways for folks to jot down what they're tasting. Once you have the necessary materials, just bring out your best glasses and now is the good part, the tasting! When first approaching the wine, have some fun and see what you taste before committing to any one glass.
For a more in-depth tasting, I'd recommend all following a guide for tasting as that will let everyone be on the same page as they drink. The chief things to look for are sweetness, tannin, acidity, alcohol, body, and, most importantly, the aromas and flavors that go with the glass. You can always compete to see who gets it right, but everyone collaborating really helps the tasting stay fun. For a more casual tasting, don't be afraid to just speak your mind about what you taste! Lots of folks look for the right answers in wine, but truth be told, no one knows your taste better than you and if you have to break out a dictionary to describe it, don't let anyone stop you. To keep things moving along at a good pace, be sure to enjoy some sips here and there then move onto the next wine so that you keep your palate sharp and your bottles fresh.
STEP FOUR: All of the picking of themes, purchasing of wines and bags, and drinking of the wine leads to one big moment: the reveal where everyone sees who has the best palate. Lift the bag, talk about the any surprises that came up, and snag a picture for Vivino. Then it's time to get a second go at the wines and see how they all stood up to your notes. You don't have to be Robert Parker himself to have an opinion on wine either, and the scores you give the wines are always the most accurate. Sometimes not knowing the wines and what other people have already said will really surprise your taste buds more than you think!