See. Swirl. Sniff. Sip.

How to host a wine-tasting party

If you’re a wine drinker, you already know you like wine. But have you ever stopped to find out why you enjoy the wines you do? Hosting a wine-tasting party is an easy and approachable way to experience vino in a new way while gaining a better understanding about the wine you drink. 

“Wine tasting is for presenting wine, and having an opportunity to taste the wine for what it is,” said Olivia Potter, who has a background in science and is the bar manager at The Dörr Hotel in Sister Bay. “You just happen to also get the fun of hosting the wine tasting for your friends.” 

Less Can Be More

The program that Olivia Potter, bar manager at The Dörr Hotel, selected for the purposes of “research” for this story featured six wines. It started with a light, very bubbly sparkling wine (Henriot Brut Souverain from Champagne, France) and moved toward a rich, deep red blend (2020 Paxton organic Shiraz blend from South Australia) to finish. 
“Bubbles really get your palate activated,” Potter explained. “That is why you’ll often start a tasting with a champagne or sparkling wine, or why it’s often offered to you at the start of a meal.” Photo by Rachel Lukas.

From the guest list to the wine list, you’ll get more out of the experience by keeping the evening on the smaller side. Generally, six wines and six guests will provide you with that just-right amount of wine and just-right number of people to spark good conversation about the wines you’re tasting. 

“Usually a program is four to six bottles,” Potter said. A standard pour for a tasting is two ounces, but in a restaurant it may be a little more, or what is called a “dinner pour.” (At home, you’d likely follow the latter, but if you find a wine you like, who’s measuring?)

Select a Theme

Although a theme is not necessary to a successful wine tasting, it can help you narrow down your wine choices when you go to create your “wine program.” 

When choosing the individual wines for your program, you can taste your way through different types of whites or reds, or maybe you decide to taste all of one variety. One popular theme for helping you add diversity is to taste your way through a certain region or multiple unrelated regions. 

For the tasting program Potter created, she selected six wines: each from a different region, and each with a strikingly different flavor profile. 

Andrew: I see these little tips being used around the article. Maybe we can come up with a uniform way to call them out? A little wine glass?

Planning Tip: Consider having a map or globe on hand to show guests where each wine is from.

Move from Lightest to Most Robust

The only thing more exciting than actually drinking the wine is selecting the wine program.

“You’re always going to move in the order of lightest, or most stimulating, to that deep, overwhelming palate,” Potter said. 

Lighter to robust. Lightest to darkest. Potter said there are many ways to approach the order. The key is being able to move through the wines in such a way that no individual wine masks the flavor profile of any other. 

“What you don’t want is to taste something that is very powerful and then move to something very elegant,” she said, such as throwing a robust choice such as a cabernet between a chardonnay and a rosé. This is done so that each wine is tasted for what it is by itself, not in comparison to the other wines in the program. 

Planning Tip: Potter suggests adding one “fun” wine to the mix – something a bit out of the ordinary. Her latest go-to is a deceptively named orange wine. It’s a type of white wine that gets its name – and color – not from the ingredients, but instead, from the way it’s made. The grape skins and seeds are left in with the juice during the winemaking process, producing a lovely, deep-orange hue when poured from the bottle.

A standard wine glass (shown here) is used at most vineyard or winery tastings. It features a long stem, wide bowl and narrower rim. The bowl is large enough for swirling – which allows air to open up the wine – and the narrow rim makes it easier to smell the wine. The stem (listen up, fans of stemless wine glasses) is there to keep your fingers away from the bowl because the heat from your hand changes the temperature of the wine. Photo by Rachel Lukas. 

Look. Smell. Taste.

Now for the fun part: tasting the wine. Potter suggests first looking at the wine in the glass to note the color and intensity. Give the glass a gentle swirl; then bring it to your nose to inhale its aroma. 

“I say it takes three sips to adjust the palate,” Potter said. “So take a sip, and then just sit back and see if you can place any of the notes. Ask yourself, ‘What is this reminding me of?’”

Take your time, and know that there are no wrong answers.

“I like to think of wine tasting like listening to an album and then talking about it with friends,” Potter said. “It’s like asking, ‘What did you think of that song?’ or ‘What do you think was the meaning of this song?’”
It turns out that, like the feelings and memories sparked by a song, the descriptors used to describe a wine have more to do with how the wine makes you feel rather than how it actually tastes.

“For example, I may say I’m tasting gravel,” Potter said. “I’m not actually eating gravel, but the full experience of the senses – the taste, the smell, the way and where the wine hits my tongue – it makes me think of the elements that make up gravel.”

Wines with mineral profiles such as the 2020 Chablis Chardonnay might conjure this image. 

Moving down the line in Potter’s program, the 2020 Folk Machine Pinot Noir embodies an entirely different profile. It is cozy and woodsy and evokes all the feelings and images of being around a campfire on a crisp, fall evening. 

Work through each selection slowly, tasting and discussing the flavors and feelings it produces.

Olivia Potter, bar manager at The Dörr Hotel in Sister Bay, relies on her background in science to help guests at her wine tastings understand why different wines taste the way they do. She tends to focus her selections on small-batch wines from eco-friendly vineyards that guests have likely never heard of or tasted before. Photo by Rachel Lukas.

Planning Tip: Provide your guests with paper and pens to use to jot down their tasting notes. Potter suggests taking a sip, writing down a first impression, then taking another sip and writing down any changes from the initial impression.

The Supporting Cast: Palate Cleansers and Snacks

Cleansing the palate between wines helps you experience the full flavor of each selection. And although you’ll want to arrive at the wine tasting fully hydrated to ward off any post-tasting wine headaches, steer clear of cleansing your palate with water between tastings.

Even rinsing the glass with water can affect the next wine’s flavor, Potter said, because any water left behind in the glass after rinsing can dilute the next wine poured. Even the water itself – whether tap or bottled – can alter the flavor.

If pairing snacks or cheeses with your tasting, Potter suggests sticking with a menu that either complements or contrasts. 

“You either want to match the profile or do the opposite,” Potter said, so pair mellow cheeses with the lighter wines, or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, really sharp, aged cheeses with a light and bubbly champagne.

Savor the Moment

Although wine tastings are a great way to introduce yourself to new flavors and further develop your palate, don’t forget to enjoy the process. Avoid making too many rules about the tasting party, putting too much pressure on yourself to select the perfect lineup or jotting down the “right” tasting notes. After all, most of us turn to a glass of wine to unwind and enjoy time spent with friends, and your tasting party should be no exception.