I frequently am asked what protocols are involved in holding a private wine tasting. There is a vast difference between a wine tasting and a wine drinking event. Each has its place in winedom, but a tasting is driven by information, comparison and the give-and-take of basic wine knowledge.
Wine tastings are held to enlighten participants on the selections for the evening and should be both informative and meaningful. Most successful tastings are run or moderated by a professional wine person, such as a vineyard or winery employee, distributor or retailer.
Many wine professionals are glad to lead a tasting, either for a nominal fee or for free when you include the wine they represent. They'll teach you not only about the wine but also about good tasting technique and what stemware to use. Nothing makes for a wonderful wine tasting more than superb stemware, and nothing results in a bigger downer than bad stemware. I've experienced some spectacular wines go completely flat with crappy stemware.
If you cannot get a professional wine person to help you, think about these three things: stemware, wine selection and amount of wine. A good resource for stemware is the local wine shop, which will have exactly what is needed for specific wines.
Wines should be chosen in an orderly fashion; that is, there should be a theme involved in every tasting event. Some events concentrate on specific vintages, others choose specific regions, and still others concentrate on one varietal for the evening.
Not long ago, I attended a private tasting in which 15 vintages of one winery's cabernet sauvignon were evaluated. This, of course, was a special tasting, but I bring it up to illustrate that specific themes are always the best way to go.
As for the amount of wine per tasting, you must use your own judgment. Know who is going to attend the tasting. This is very important. What you do not want is someone who drinks too much wine simply because there is a lot of it on the table. The rule is: half a bottle of wine per person for a three-hour event. This is about 4 ounces per hour and is acceptable.
Have the attendees pay an appropriate amount for the wine. Privately run wine tastings should always be a "pooled" event, meaning that either the host purchases the wine using attendees' contributions or each participant brings a wine meaningful to the event. For example, if Oregon pinot noir is to be the theme of the tasting, make sure that the parameters are well established: vintage date, region and price range. The event will be well-established, and everyone will have a very good idea of what is expected of them.
Try your best to evaluate the wines at the tasting by being contemplative and respectful of the winemaker's effort. Finger food, a container for spitting out the wine and ample water containers should be readily available for each participant. Lastly, have fun!
Lorn Razzano is former owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland and works there part time. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.