new year’s resolution

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Let me begin by wishing you all a safe and happy new year! This is a time to review the past and prepare for the future. With that in mind, here’s a column that first ran in the Seattle Times two years ago:

Let’s start the new year right, with a resolution to be pro-active about wine tasting in the new year. Let’s face it, most wine encounters are random. You grab a bottle while shopping for dinner, or you pick something off a restaurant list because the sommelier recommends it. Maybe you are visiting friends and they pull something out of the cellar for you to try.

There is nothing wrong with any of that. But if you want to make this the year that you really make some headway understanding wine, you should resolve right now to start a tasting group.

There’s a big difference between drinking wine and tasting wine in a (more or less) formal group setting. Drinking is for fun, for dinner parties, for nights on the town, with wine in a supporting role. Tasting is a different sort of social occasion, where wine is the star of the show, and attention is focused upon each bottle.

I am fortunate to be a member in two separate, long-running tasting groups. Both meet monthly, and taste the wines blind (meaning the bottles are concealed). Here’s how it works. A topic is chosen some time in advance – generally a specific type of wine from a specific region – and that becomes the focus for the tasting.

In one group, a volunteer gathers the wines. The total cost is then divided among the twelve members. This system works well in several ways. First, it guarantees that a diverse representation of appropriate wines will be poured. Second, it ensures that only one person in the group knows what any of the wines are. However, this system only works if everyone shows up and divides up the cost fairly.

If you want a more ad hoc approach, have the host assign the topic and let each tasting group member bring a bottle. That way, if a few last-minute cancellations occur, no one is on the hook for the money.

A tasting group of 8 to 12 people is just the right number; big enough for a lively discussion, but small enough to allow for generous pours. In one of my groups each person sets out a dozen glasses and the wines are all poured at once, from numbered brown paper bags. This offers the advantage of allowing the most direct comparisons among the entire group, because there is no specific tasting sequence required, and all wines are present at all times.

In my other group each person has just one glass, and the wines are tasted one at a time. We keep the pours small (one ounce per person) so each bottle can go around twice. This also works well; the first time through the tasters can get a good conversation going with a lot of guessing about such topics as the producer, the vintage, and so on.

The second time around the wine has had time to breathe, and impressions are likely to change. You’ll see that most wines are moving targets. Flavors expand, contract, harden, soften or morph into something entirely unforeseen when the bottle is first opened. Wines that at first seemed delicious sometimes quickly fall apart; wines that may have been hard and tight open up and reveal layers of flavor that were missed the first time through.

Why taste blind? The simple answer is, you learn more. It adds to the excitement and fuels the conversation. And when tasting blind, it is the prerogative of the host to provide a ringer – one wine (hidden among the rest) that is not from the assigned topic.

You may not be quite ready to sign on to a monthly commitment, but winter is a good time to host a preview wine tasting event, to see who among your friends might be interested in joining a regular group. The set-up is simple. Have a clean wine glass for each person, along with dump buckets, a note pad and pen, and some light snacks.

Once the wines are gathered, someone will need to pull the corks, wrap each bottle in a plain brown bag, seal it with a rubber band, and number it. Hide the corks so no one can cheat!

Now about those dump buckets. “We’re not going to spit good wine!” your friends may complain. Oh yes they will. That’s the serious part of a formal tasting. How else can you sample a dozen wines responsibly? As host, you will have to enforce that rule. For what it’s worth, in my two groups, which are mostly composed of winemakers, wine distributors and wine retailers, everyone spits everything all the time. That is how it is done in the trade.

At the end of the night, have everyone vote for their favorite – preferably before the bags are pulled and the wines’ identities revealed. In any group of a dozen wines you’ll discover a couple of gems that you’ll want to purchase. There are usually a couple of disappointments – pricey and/or prestigious wines that simply didn’t rise to the occasion. But for the price of a single bottle, you’ve tasted up to a dozen, and found the one(s) you like the best.

Happy New Year!


@nectarwine said...

That sounds like a lot of fun. You just gave me a great idea for an ongoing 2010 gig. Last year it was dinner parties (we hosted 15). This year, we're going to do wine tastings! Awesome, thanks Paul.

If anyone in Spokane reads this, track me down at my URL or Twitter

@nectarwine (twitter)

Sean P. Sullivan said...

Paul, I came across the original again column on this about a week ago and thought "I have to do that in 2010!" Thanks for the inspiration and happy new year.

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