How to Host a Wine Tasting Event

How to Host a Wine Tasting Event

What I learned while hosting a blind tasting (wine taste challenge) with foodies.

wine tasting score card

Wine tastings are not about drinking lots of wine per se, but rather more about smelling and experiencing the subtle flavours present in each glass. Sommeliers taste wine in four distinct phases. First they visually inspect the liquid, and then they smell it to try and identify aromas through orthonasal olfaction (breathing through your nose). Then they experience it on the tongue and then in the back of the mouth. Wine tastings educate people on how to think and speak and how to remember the wines they taste.

While there are many thousands of wine reviews published online, and many posts about how to taste wine, there is surprisingly little documentation about how to properly host a wine tasting event. This entry outlines the task of designing and executing a successful Tasting.

Wine tasting score cards asked participants to identity vintages

Wine Tastings are Experiential

On some level, no matter how exotic the setting, or how impressive the exhibitors, a social gathering centered on wine is an experiential marketing event. Any occasion in which the participants experience something new for the benefit of a sponsor, whether it’s a venue, a wine related publication or a wine producer or distributor, some experiential marketing concepts can be applied.

When making experiential attractions, the goal is usually to give consumers, especially the target audience, a chance to engage with your brand in a manner that makes powerful memories. Organizers should select scenic venues where attendees can make Instagram-shareable moments. If geography or local scenery doesn’t accommodate, consider renting or constructing your own unique attractions and buying or making pop-up banners that have the event name, or the brand name or both visible behind the bar to give folks a title and context for their Insta-posts.

Upscale wine tastings by contrast are often set in stylish venues with great ambiance and high quality appetizers and soft music. These are also social events. They’re set-up to make interacting with others easy as its proven that most wine lovers prefer to acquire knowledge in a social context.

A Singles Wine Tasting group listens as Laura Bilotta discusses why she bought these wines and how she matches the meals in her Italian Cooking Class with proper vino.

Set the Tone with a Brief Introduction

Wine tasting sessions are the most fun when they’re not taken too seriously. Hosting such an event is great way to do something classy and different with your friends. The snob who wants to educate everyone should be balanced out by the clown who wants to make everyone laugh, and this article discusses invitees below. But most tastings do have a knowledgeable patron or a wine sommelier who shares their wisdom at the start of the event to give all participants some backstory and provide some context for their upcoming taste experiences.

A sommelier, or wine steward, is a trained and knowledgeable wine professional who generally works in fine dining restaurants and who specializes in all aspects of wine service as well as wine and food pairing. Their role in fine dining today is much more specialized and informed than that of a wine waiter and they are usually great fun at wine tastings.

The opening introduction should set up the theme of the event as well as introduce the wines. We used the opening speech to inform our guests that one wine in the flight was priced equal to the other three combined, and we asked them to try and identify this vintage, (nobody could incidentally), and we gave away wine racks as prizes to the best taster.

What is the theme of your wine tasting event?

Probably the very first thing to discuss with regards to hosting a wine tasting party is deciding what kinds of wines you want to sample, and then set parameters, a motif and theme accordingly. There’s no right answer that will please all your guests, or lead to a perfect party, but here are some suggestions.

Single in the City wine tasting was done ‘blind’ and guests were asked to identify the grape, sugar content and finally to select the priciest wine.

Wine Regions Theme: The vast majority of wine tastings select beverages based on geography and grape. They tend to sample different winemakers’ products from one region, such as Niagara, Okanagan Valley, Santa Barbara wine country, Willamette Valley, or remote locations like France, New Zealand and Chile. This is generally popular because the winemakers in those regions have marketing budgets to host such events and because they are quite successful at raising awareness and amplifying sales at LCBO, and through wine distributors to restaurants.

Vintage theme: A wine vintage is the year in which the grapes were harvested. A wine’s vintage can greatly affect the taste and quality, primarily because of the weather that affects the vines throughout the growing season. Our own Oct 2019 wine tasting was a semi horizontal taste test wherein we decided to taste wines produced in 2018 from all over the world. Originally the idea was to taste our friends’ favourite wines, but when we went to our local LCBO we found they were not available so we improvised and changed the theme.

The four wines the were selected for my October wine tasting in Toronto.

Taste Theme – No two wines are the same even if they originate from the same grape in the same region. One popular idea is to organize tastings exclusive to one particular grape, or a type of wine, or perhaps the same varietals but produced in different parts of the world; like selecting only Cabernet Sauvignon, but opening bottles produced in Napa Valley, France, and Argentina.

Colour Themes – Reds, Whites, Rose. Many tastings sample only reds, whites, sparkling wines, or dessert wines. Just remember that dessert wines tend to be sweeter and may be more difficult to taste in such formats.

Producer Themes – Do a tasting by winemaker? For example, if you really like Robert Mondavi, Cake bread, Stag’s Leap, or Duckhorn wine. Such selective tastings are usually sponsored by the winemaker.

Proper lighting and white table cloths

One necessary ingredient that our tasting event lacked (because I had not seen the venue in advance) was white tablecloths or even white napkins. Such a simple thing is entirely necessary to help guests see the color profiles of the wines. Colour is a very important determinant when it comes to tasting and appreciating wine. Our big round table had a wooden surface and this made it harder to see the shades. I witnessed guests using the white backs of their paper score cards to see the colour.

Refrigerate the whites and open the reds right away. In our event the wines arrived late and so they were not properly prepared in advance. An aerator or decanter for red wine can help bring out the flavors, but simply putting the Copain in the fridge or freezer for few minutes before opening would have helped its taste presentation.

crusty bread for cleaning palette
French bread is considered by most sommeliers to be among the best ways to cleanse a palate because of the starchy flavour of the bread

Major venues have proper wine fridges near the dining room and if you’re researching establishments in which to host your event this would certainly be something to inquire about, a check-box on your checklist.

Bread is required quench the tongue and erase the flavour of the last wine from tasters’ mouths. Believe it or not, plain white bread or crusty french bread is considered by most sommeliers to be the best way to cleanse a palate because of its simple starchy flavor. It works well at absorbing the flavors from the previous wine as it brings mouths back to neutral

Soda Crackers, due to their plain taste, work similarly to bread for palate cleansing. Resist the temptation to lay out dips alongside these bare offerings. Avoid putting anything out on the table that will interfere with the wine flavors (and yes this includes cheese).

Pineapple – There are some fruits that are said to have palate cleansing properties and by all accounts pineapple works particularly well because of its dry, acidic quality. The juice combats the tannins in the wine and keeps them from overlapping.

Rosehill Wine Cellars retails Oenosablier spittoons, each laser signed L'Oenosablier. The hourglass-shaped wine spittoon is not a wine spitting bucket.

Don’t forget the basics. Put out napkins and at least one garbage can and regularly clean-away half consumed glasses of wine. Put out cups of ice water for your guests as well as a pitcher of water for the table. Make sure people have pencils, scrap paper, bread or biscuits. There should be some food on the menu after the event least everyone get too inebriated. You might consider buying or renting silver spittoons for more high volume tastings.

The best spittoons are made of silver which forgives everyone involved because of their semi-precious composition. Rosehill Wine Cellars distributes authentic Oenosablier spittoons which are laser signed L’Oenosablier as a mark of authenticity. The spittoon is designed for wine professionals and connoisseurs and is available in three styles. Because of its universally recognized classic style, the Oenosablier wine spittoon easily and quickly transforms an ordinary meeting into a professional tasting event. Read more on How to furnish your wine tasting room, on our blog.

Cover the bottles properly if you’re conducting a blind wine tasting then have something more artful that a brown paper bag made-up to cover the label. Our tasting used white paper that was applied with Scotch tape and it looked rather crummy.

Prepare a tasting grid to help guests mentally separate flavours

Wine tasting score card

A tasting grid can help your guests identify the flavors of the wine and easily record their first impressions. The wine tasting score card template you see on the right can help guests track each wine’s appearance, aroma, body, taste and finish. If you assign each category five points then you have scores out of twenty-five total points

There are other more advanced wine tasting grids available online that allow tasters to list individual wine characteristics based on visual, aromatic, and specific flavour information. Trained tasters use the grid as a system to mentally separate aromas and tastes and they can be handy in taste test challenges to help reveal the identity of a wine. On some level, the grid is not only good for blind tasting, it’s also essential to understanding what makes great wine.

Invite enthusiastic guests

The ideal number of guests for a proper wine tasting is between six to twelve people. If you have a nice big dining room table, invite enough people so that they can comfortably stand around it. You don’t want any extra people leaning over the group and making everyone feel uncomfortable. If you really want to be formal and fancy about it, you can send out nice invitations or evites and theme is important for that greeting.

You should try to invite people who have a similar knowledge about wine. If everyone knows almost nothing, then that’s fine, but you want to avoid the awkwardness of having just one person who knows absolutely nothing, or that one guy who is Mr. Wine Expert and tries to educate everyone else at great length.

If you’re doing marketing for a winery you might consider making pragmatic experiences. Consumers like physically interactive events such as “create your own label” or hand picking grapes or other “hands on” exercises to facilitate further brand engagement.

Wine Societies Are Built Around Wine Tastings

If you’re interested in attending more upscale wine tastings then the best advice is to seek out and join wine clubs in your area. A quick Google search will show all manner of communities that routinely meet and are always eager to grow their membership. Sometimes these meetings invite the winemakers themselves to attend tastings and speak on their products. This is a great, if biased, way to taste their wines. It’s also very educational as the producers are often keen to give detailed accounts of production specifics to tasters who ask the right questions.

Some people have a remarkably good memory for tastes and these folks can sometimes even pinpoint the origin of a wine as well as the variety of grapes that have been used to make it. Most people cannot do this. The important thing to remember is that anyone can be a good wine taster, as long as they have an unimpaired sense of smell and taste and are prepared to concentrate on the experience.

Furnishing Your Wine Room, Wine Bar or Tasting Room

Furnishing Your Wine Room, Wine Bar or Tasting Room

Add Classic Decor with Howard Miller Wine Furniture  

For many good reasons, a wine cellar is NOT the best room in your house in which to conduct wine tastings.  It’s just too cold to be comfortable, and too small to be accommodating.  Your wine cellar is probably not furnished with comfy chairs or couches, and so there’s likely nowhere to sit down or relax.  And it’s dark down there, and turning on the lights is not recommended.  These are the most obvious reasons homeowners don’t host wine tastings in wine cellars. With all your eggs in one basket, why put your wine at risk? Human bodies affect temperature and humidity. They change the lighting and make vibrations just by talking loudly and stomping around (looking for a place to sit down) and even worse, strangers have the tendency to touch the bottles.

Rosehall Run’s Wine Room, Photo Credit: Daniel Vaughan, Photo courtesy VisitPEC ca

How is a wine room different than a wine cellar?   

A wine room denotes an area of a modern residential home which is just like any other room, except that wine is stored here in climate-controlled wine cabinets, and possibly there is some furniture for people to sit around and enjoy the wine.  A wine cellar by comparison is a purpose-built dimly lit refrigerated room for aging wine that has no accouterments for human comfort or wine appreciation.

If you do a search on the words ‘wine room’ on Wikipedia, you’ll be directed to their wine cellar page.   That’s because few humans really understand the difference.   At Rosehill Wine Cellars we believe a wine room is very different than a wine cellar.

A wine room denotes an area in a residential home or business where wine is stored in climate-controlled wine cabinets.  Wine rooms themselves are set at comfortable 72 degrees Fahrenheit – room temperature. And the space often is furnished with tables, chairs and couches and the walls decorated with suitable artwork.  Strangers are welcome to sit in the wine room and admire the wine collection that is safe behind glass in wine cabinets and wine refrigerators in that room.  

A wine cellar by contrast is a specially contained area in a home or business that exists behind an exterior quality door. The dark and chilly room is specially designed for long-term storage of wine.  It may have an attractive glass door, but the space inside is likely off-limits to unaccompanied strangers. 

Wine tasting room at Closson Chase winery in Prince Edward County – photo courtesy of Sandbanks Vacations / PEC Wine Tours

What is a Wine Tasting Room?

Wine Tasting Room – photo courtesy of Sandbanks Vacations / PEC Wine Tours

A commercial wine room is often called a wine tasting room and is generally focused around a walk-up bar counter where staff offer guests small samples from a list of products produced by the featured winery (and usually for a fee).  Wine is poured by staff that has been trained in the particulars of that operation’s products and production practices. In most tasting rooms, the proprietors encourage the tasters to keep their glassware which generally has the name of the brand stenciled on the side. Destination marketing is more important than ever for modern wineries targeting tourists and hoping to make a memorable brand association. Instead of promoting just the wine cellar door there’s a need to broaden the offering and this includes upscale tasting room experiences. We can learn from the wine industry as we design comfortable wine tasting rooms in residential houses.

Ideas for Decorating Wine Rooms

Ithaca Pub Table

Generally speaking, the wine collector’s own wine cabinets and wine fridges are the star attractions in the wine room.  The exception to this rule is when the room has a fancy bar or another visual amenity, but in general the wine storage device is the central item on display and arguable the most important thing in the room.

Howard Miller’s beautifully crafted line of spirits and wine furniture offers a variety of styles and sizes of wood wine cabinets including a cleverly designed line of hide-a-bar cabinets. Please note these cabinets are not climate controlled but they are handy for storing amenities like openers, special glassware and wine glass coasters.

Below is the Shiraz Wine Cabinet, by Howard Miller. This is a Hide-A-Bar ™ wine cabinet console with raised door panels allows ample room for wine and spirits. The center console of the cabinet features a lazy-susan style door that spins like a secret panel to reveal additional storage.

Because there are so many styles of wine cabinets available these days, it’s easy to find a unit that matches your design theme. 

There are Howard Miller wine cabinets with an art deco theme or all-wood construction or stainless steel finishes, but if you’re starting from scratch it might help to start with the best fitting furniture pieces, regardless of style, and then design and match the decor of the rest of the room around that centerpiece wine cabinet.

Two temperatures are sometimes required in wine rooms. One cabinet maybe set warmer for immediate serving temperatures, while another compartment or separate machine may be set for colder temperatures to better accommodate long term wine storage requirements.

Wine Glass Racks and Wine Glass Caddies for Wine Tasting Rooms

chic wine accessories for oenophiles
Crystal wine decanters for sale at Rosehill Wine Cellars showroom in Mississauga

In a wine cellar we talk about wine racks for bottles, but in a wine room we look for racks for glassware. Wine glass racks should accommodate at least three different styles of wine glasses, but we have laid out four different categories below.

The wine glasses in your wine room are very important. If you stock and serve red wine in your tasting room, you may consider buying premium glassware to help set the proper tone at these special occasions.

Zalto Stemware is made to very high standards in a boutique glassblowing factory in Austria, and because of its fine lines and the company’s attention to detail, the brand is widely praised in Europe by wine professionals and journalists. Glassware matters: Some researchers believe as much as eighty percent of what we taste happens in our nose, not on our tongues.  If your guests can’t smell the wine they’re drinking, then they’ll not be able to properly taste it. So your wine glasses need to be the right shape to accommodate the bouquet that comes in every bottle.

Four Types of Glassware in the Wine Room

Four styles of glassware best suit the different types of wine served at tastings

Red Wine Glasses
Red wine glasses are easily identified by their spherical bowl shape. They are often the largest type of wine glass because the larger bowl enhances the bouquet and flavor of red wines.

White Wine Glasses
White wine glassware has a slightly longer stem, more upright, with a smaller more U-shaped bowl as white wines do not need to be aerated as much as red.

Sparkling Wine Glass (Flute)
Sparkling wine glassware is commonly referred to as “flutes” or “champagne flutes”. This type of wine glass is typically used for all sparkling wine and not just champagne. With its long stem, the flute is tall and narrow. This design is necessary as the extra surface area within the glass helps capture the carbonation and retain the flavor.

Dessert Wine Glass
Dessert wine glasses are smaller than other types of wine glasses. Common glasses for dessert wines are sippers, port glasses and sherry glasses. The main characteristics that these wine glasses have in common is their small, compact shape that will help accentuate their rich aromas and sweet flavors.

Wine Room Furniture Improves Tastings

George Nelson – Howard Miller clocks are still made today in the classic themes and styles he presented in the late 1960s and 1970s

Depending on your lifestyle, your wine room can be a highly social environment with a custom bar and stools, or tables and chairs, or it can be more intimate; two armchairs by a fireplace works equally well as the perfect setting for pouring and tasting fine wine. Whatever the case, you need to make sure it has style.

Howard Miller, the famed American clock-making company has also manufactured high quality furniture for wine rooms since the mid nineteen seventies; they make wooden cabinets, and tables and chairs that are iconic and have over the last forty years come to signify the quintessential style of a classic American wine rooms.

Howard Miller – Niagara Games Table is a classic hexagon shaped Pub & Game Table that has a durable clear coat for wear protection. There’s a non- refrigerated cabinet in the base of the sturdy table. Its hexagon shaped top comfortably accommodates six people and features six full-extension drawers. Each drawer holds beverages and snacks and includes a removable sandstone drink coaster to absorb moisture. The reversible top features cherry veneers in a sunburst pattern on the dining surface side and a Texas Hold ‘Em pattern on the lounge side. Below are the chairs that could be matched with the table (the Niagara Club Chair in the center is the match to the Niagara Games Table above). All photos of Howard Miller furniture have been used courtesy of Howard Miller USA.

Howard Miller – Ithica, Niagara and Bonavista Club Chairs

Barware, corkscrews, glass decanters and other accessories

Classic Gold colored Pulltaps corkscrew for restaurant and bar professionals.
Classic Gold Pulltaps corkscrew

Widely used by restaurant and bar professionals, the Classic Gold colored Pulltaps corkscrew is made with a double lever design. This design feature allows any bottle of wine to be uncorked in two steps without damaging or breaking the corks.

Proper Lighting, Lamps and Sconces

Unlike the cellar where the overhead lighting is subdued to protect the collection, a wine room in a residential home can have wide open windows and bright lights, but often just the opposite is true. Wine tasting rooms set the mood with stone fireplaces, artwork, bookshelves and proper furniture.

Forgotten Furnishings in Wine Tasting Rooms

Silver wine spittoons for upscale wine tasting events at home.

Silver spittoons scale-up sophistication in wine tastings

Every tasting room needs a proper spittoon for people who wish only to taste the wine, and not consume so much they become inebriated. The best spittoons are made of silver which forgives everyone involved because of its semi-precious composition, history and tradition.

Rosehill Wine Cellars retails Oenosablier spittoons, each laser signed L'Oenosablier. The hourglass-shaped wine spittoon is not a wine spitting bucket.

Rosehill Wine Cellars distributes authentic Oenosablier spittoons, each of which is laser signed L’Oenosablier as a mark of authenticity and to signify that this sturdy hourglass-shaped wine spittoon and not simply a wine spitting bucket. It’s L’Oenosablier.

The spittoon is designed for wine professionals and connoisseurs and is available in three styles.
Because of its universally recognized classic style, the Oenosablier wine spittoon easily and quickly transforms an ordinary meeting into a professional tasting event.

So You Want to be a Wine Connoisseur: Sniff

So You Want to be a Wine Connoisseur: Sniff

There are five steps to drinking wine like a connoisseur, and the first two were covered in Part 1 of this series – See and Swirl. The next “S” is to sniff the wine. This is truly an essential part of enjoying the flavors in a bottle of wine. We appreciate this step at Rosehill Wine Cellars because proper wine storage in a custom wine cellar or wine cabinet ensures that the aroma is a pleasant one. Custom wine cellars have wine cooling units that maintain the ideal atmosphere for wine storage. Among the top manufacturers we use to keep the right smell in the wine bottles are WhisperKOOL, Wine Guardian, Cellar Pro, and Koolspace KoolR.

Take in the aroma

glass of red wineThe nose has a profound effect on how we experience the taste of wine and foods. To truly focus on the aroma, close your eyes as your put your nose into the glass all the way. Breathe in deeply. Try to identify the scents you detect. If it’s red wine, you may pick up on cherries, tobacco, strawberries, or many other possible aromas. White wine often smells like lemons and other fresh scents, such as pineapple and many others. There is no way to fail the sniff test. At any given wine tasting, for example, if everyone writes down what they catch a whiff of, even ten different wine tasters may pick up on a different smell.

Significance of the sniff test

Ultimately what you’re doing with a sniff of your wine is you are preparing your brain for what your taste buds will soon experience. It enhances actually drinking the wine, to smell it attentively first.

One thing that could happen when you smell the wine is that you could pick up clues that the wine is “corked.” It means that you should probably choose a different bottle to drink. Corked wine has become contaminated with cork taint. The cause is a chemical compound called TCA or 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole. The aroma of corked wine is musty like wet dog, dank towels, or wet newspaper or cardboard.

Proper storage helps pass the smell test

The entire purpose of wine cellars and the use of reliable wine cooling units is to protect wine as it is stored, so that the taste is as the winemaker intended. If temperatures are too warm or if they fluctuate too frequently or if there isn’t the right humidity level, wine can be spoiled. Protecting wine is something you don’t need to worry about when your custom wine cellar or wine cabinet has a cooling unit by a manufacturer such as WhisperKOOL, Wine Guardian, Cellar Pro, or Koolspace KoolR.