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How to Throw a Great Wine Party

Hint: Throwing a great wine party isn't as hard as you think it is.

To most people, the thought of throwing a wine party is both terrifying and impossible; doing it well—or at all—is daunting at best. But armed with these few simple tips, anyone can successfully execute a fun, engaging wine party.

For novices, trying to decide which wines taste best can lead to a palate-pleasing search. The bottles look alike, and books are not much help. But there is one sound approach that always works: open the bottles and taste the wine.

Knowing wines and how they taste with certain foods is mainly a matter of memory. One of the quickest ways for a novice to catch up is wine-tasting parties, and they're both fun and educational for all involved.

Here's what you need to know for a great night tasting wines:

Eight to 12 people is a good number for a tasting party. If you have more, the logistics get complicated and any less makes it difficult to serve a real variety of wines.

At a tasting organized purely for examining the wines, dry breads and neutral cheeses are the favored foods. People who taste wines for the fun of it serve tasty foods as accompaniments to the wines. Buffet dinners or hors d'oeuvres are logical choices. They can be prepared beforehand, eaten with little tableware, and paired with different wines.

Luncheon meats, assorted cheeses, a potato salad, and fresh fruits make a tasty cold buffet. Chafing dishes will enable you to serve such heated hors d'oeuvres as fondues, beef cubes, and cocktail sausages. Breads or crackers are always a good fit.

Glassware can be simple or complicated. The simple way is to give each guest an all purpose glass as they arrive; they can rinse it with water between wines. The traditional but more complicated way is to have a separate set of glasses for each wine. The reason—a debatable one—is that the last few drops of one wine might muddy the true identity of the next. 

Many wines can be set up for the tasting, but four to six are manageable for beginners. There are several varieties to compare. A first tasting can demonstrate the great diversity of wines by offering a rosé, a dry red, a champagne, and a port or cream sherry.

Other ideas: A half-and-half tasting of California whites and reds (Rhine, Chablis, Burgundy, mellow red); a straight tasting of whites (Johannisberg Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Chardonnay, Sauterne); or a straight tasting of reds (Zinfandel, Barbera, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon). Try such brands as Almaden, Mirassou, Sebastiani, Christian Brothers, or Inglenook for the bigger reds. Further variations can include different wines from one winery or one type of wine from each of several different wineries—a tasting of sherries can be intriguing as well.

If your guests are just learning, they will probably enjoy themselves more if the bottles are all set out, so they can identify wines as they taste them. More advanced students may prefer trying to identify the contents of masked bottles; paint numbers on masking paper bags, put corresponding numbers on the glasses, and provide scorecards. The trick is to study the color, aroma, and flavor of each wine and match your observations with what you know about the names on the list. For a really difficult test, don't reveal the names of the wines being tasted.

Another game is the triangular test. Two glasses are filled with one wine, and a third glass with a slightly different wine. The taster is asked to say which glass contains the different sample.

These games ought to come early in the evening; having broken the ice, they leave guests free to compare notes at leisure. It always helps if there are notepads or scorecards on which guests can jot down impressions, and one can decorate the room to enhance the vinous atmosphere. An added incentive in tasting games are prizes for the winners; a great bottle of wine is a fascistic way to cap off the evening's successful wine party.

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