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How to Throw the Perfect Wine-Tasting Party

We’ve entered the season of celebrations and warm gatherings, a time to bring together friends and family members to get caught up or just to reinforce our affection. Wine is a great elixir for creating and reinforcing those connections. And with wine stores entering the holiday mode, this is a good time for bargains.

So it’s time to have a wine-tasting party!

Need a reason? This Friday, October 24, is United Nations Day. Ask your guests to bring a wine from an unexpected country, someplace other than the usual-suspect wine-producing nations like Australia, Chile, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the U.S. and New Zealand, to name a few.

Just last week, John and I had a Cabernet Sauvignon-based wine from Morocco, the only Moroccan wine on the list at Barbès, a sweet and welcoming restaurant in Manhattan that specializes in Moroccan food. The wine’s earthy, red-berry flavors and subtle tannins made for a soulful pairing with John’s tagine de poulet with preserved lemons and green olives and my tagine de d’agneau with sesame seeds and prunes, with a side of couscous. The week before, we’d had a white from Slovenia that had hints of passion fruit, honey and hazelnuts. We’d had wines from Slovenia and Morocco before, but it had been a while, so these were fun reminders of how special they can be.

For people who think they need a specific educational component to wine tasting other than what their palates tell them, you can ask your guests to come prepared with one fun fact about their wine’s country of origin.

If United Nation’s Day doesn’t do it for you, the next Friday is Halloween. For this, guests could bring wines with scary labels or names that conjure frightening images like Egri Bikavér, or Bull’s Blood, a Hungarian wine we drank a lot of in our youths. Or you could go with a Trick and Treat theme and ask each guest to bring a bottle to open and another to put in a box. As they enter, each guest could write their name and the wine’s name on a folded piece of paper that then goes into a basket. As guests leave, they can retrieve a slip of paper from the basket and take the listed wine home. (This way, you won’t have guests looking through the box for a specific wine, as you know some would.)

If you’ve never thrown a wine-tasting party before, here’s how:

First, decide on a theme like those above and asks guests to bring a wine that fits it, taking care to put their name on their bottle. That way, others can talk to them about their genius contribution to the party.

If it’s a blind tasting, and those are a lot of fun, decide on a type of wine and price point, say Zinfandels under $30. Guests should bring wines for blind tastings in brown paper bags that obscure the label. If the type of wine is white, it should be chilled, ready to drink.

As host, you provide your own bagged bottle, glasses, food and bottled water. My mom loved giving us trinkets that fit on the stems of glasses so people could identify theirs. If you don’t have those, just have a few extra glasses handy for those who lose theirs. If this is a fancy, sit-down tasting, of course, you’d want a separate glass for each wine, but I’m for easy entertaining so I’d go with one glass each.

When guests arrive, pour them a little of your bagged wine (No. 1) and take their bagged bottles, number them and open them, disposing of the corks before anyone can read them. Put the numbered bagged bottles on a table and invite guests to pour the other wines for themselves, in whatever order they wish. Remind them that this is a tasting -- a little pour will do it. (Otherwise, each successive wine is bound to taste better!) Place spit buckets (vases, pitchers, etc.) around so that people can spit or pour out what they don’t want to drink.

Make sure you have substantial food—small sandwiches, quiches, heavy finger foods—and plenty of bottles of still or fizzy water. People should be well-hydrated when drinking wine so you’ll want to be something of a nudge about that. They’ll thank you for it the next day.

At this point, we prefer to let the evening take its course. People don’t have to talk about the wines, but after tasting a few, they will. Folks who are certain they can’t tell one wine from another will say they like number three more than number five, for instance.

Before it gets too late, ask if everyone has tried all of the wines. If the answer is yes, ask for a show of hands which they liked best. (The clear favorite, though, will be the bottle with the least amount of wine in it.) Then tear off the bags and enjoy the outbursts of discovery and the re-tasting of the lineup that follows.

We started hosting these long before the invention of cellphones and provided cards for people to jot down the names of wines they liked. Today, they can merely snap a picture with their phones.

Lastly, have a way for your guests to get home safely. They’ll want to do this again real soon.

Dorothy J. Gaiter conceived and wrote The Wall Street Journal's wine column, "Tastings," from 1998 to 2010 with her husband, John Brecher. She has been tasting and studying wine since 1973. She has had a distinguished career in journalism as a reporter, editor, columnist, and editorial writer at The Miami Herald and The New York Times, as well as at The Journal.

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