I generally just post a summary of our 4 Wines & A Plate nights for the folks involved, assuming it would be of little interest to others. But I got a great comment from Rhonda that made me reflect on how many things I learned the hard way, that might actually be useful to share if you wish to start your own wine tastings.
First, Rhonda’s comment:
“Hi! I really enjoy your 4 wines and a plate reviews. Have been thinking of doing this with some of our friends. Not sure if we’re really “wine educated” enough,though. Do you research first then go out to purchase or just randomly pick out four bottles that look appealing? Also for the food, do you spend alot of time thinking up a menu or trial and error it? Do you serve all the wines first without food then bring out your meal and serve the remainder of the wine? Thanks for any info.“
Not “wine educated” enough
Wine education is certainly not a requirement. Not only that, the only real way to learn is to get tasting a whole lot of wine. Being open minded doesn’t hurt either. We often have newbies at the table, and I enjoy it as they often bring a fresh or unique perspective to the discussion. I think if you can determine ‘like/don’t like’ and be open to free association – spitting out anything that comes to mind, you’ll do great.
How do you go about picking which wines you are serving?
Lots and lots of homework – although there a few simple and broad items that always apply:
QPR – We do a buy-in format, now $30 a head, and I want to spend our money wisely. I’m always on the lookout for high Quality/Price Ratios [QPR] – trying to find some of the best wines in the price points I can.
Seasonality/the weather – I used to simply buy what interested me at the time, but found it to be a weak approach. For one, I found red wines were far less enjoyed in the summer. So the varietal choice is driven by season. Whites in the summer, leading into light reds in the fall, followed by bigger reds as the winter progresses, lighter reds and rosé in the spring.
The Ringer, The Heavy Hitter, and the Value Plays: I strongly believe in having a ringer in the flight. At first, the problem: If you have 4 $50 wines, someone will like one more than the other and think the one they like less is cheap and crap – they lack a point of reference for quality. I find that now the ringer is not only a good control, but an opportunity to find shockingly good QPR if you’re lucky.
I also strongly believe in having a heavy hitter. A big boy. A wine that will give you a point of reference for what is excellent in that particular varietal. Exceptional wines are often memorable ones – often showing funky, unusual characteristics that can be off-putting to some palates. But the effort and education pays off in spades in the end.
The middle two bottles are in the $20-40 price range. I feel that this is where some exceptional value can be found. With lots of homework, you can find superior wines at a fraction of the cost of similar, but perhaps more known/revered/collectible big hitters.
Also for the food, do you spend alot of time thinking up a menu or trial and error it?
I’ve done a fair bit of homework on food and wine pairings. I’m a huge fan of the book ‘What to eat with what you drink’ – I think anyone into wine and food should own it. Although I agree with Robert Parker that ‘good food, good wine, and good company’ is the basis of good pairing – I also believe there are some natural affinities that necessitate exploring. So I generally pick the classic pairings. I’ve gone so far as trying to pair a dish to a wine I knew [which is fun] – but wouldn’t do so for a party where the wines are unknown. All you can do is pair to varietal/style and learn what works and what doesn’t. That learning one of the best parts! Lately, I’ve been leaning towards more than one dish to taste, as it’s hard to say which dish [if any] will really knock it out of the park with the wines.
Do you serve all the wines first without food then bring out your meal and serve the remainder of the wine?
Yes. With most of the food prep being done, we pour the wines [we decant for 1-2 hrs or so prior for reds], then as a group go through the nose. Smell the heck out of them, one at a time, batting around ideas, taking notes, debating what we’re getting on the nose, etc. It’s fun. Once we’ve talked about the nose roughly twice through, we start tasting them, and having the same banter and discussion about the palate. Once we’ve been through that a couple times, then comes the food. More discussion about what’s working, what’s not. Certainly not rules, but we’ve found this routine is helpful in getting everyone talking about the same thing at the same time – which is simply more fun.
A few Unasked items:
Why 4 bottles? I started at 14. Too much booze, too many people, too much drinking and not enough wine geekness is what it boiled down to. I now limit the guest list to 6-8, and just over half as many wines. For our group, this works, keeping the buy-in affordable while maintaining the budget focus for the price points I feel are important to explore.
Spitting. I highly encourage spitting. I’ve nearly gone to the use of a breathalyzer, and may end up there yet. Spitting keeps you sober for safety of everyone, but also so that you can actually taste the wine after a few tastes. I think most wine snobs would agree that your ability to discern nuance is a whole lot better on a sober palate.
Blind. The wines are served blind, in brown bags, tied with kitchen string, lettered A through D. I have tasting sheets that I’d be happy to share if you are motivated enough to ask, that allow people to take notes and score the wines. Blindness is key. It teaches you loads about experiencing a wine without pre-conceived notions. Even knowing what the wines were since I purchased them, I’ve never guessed all the wines right blind. Parly frustrating and ego-bruising, but also humbling and tremendously important in developing trust in your palate.
Why have a tasting group? Education & comraderie. By far. Lagging behind is being able to try wines that you wouldn’t normally splurge to try – which half falls under the education banner.
Hope this helps Rhonda – thanks for asking!!!