The following article was written by Ryan Messer. Read other articles from Messer here.
I am frequently asked , “What’s the best way to learn about wine?” And my answer has always been, “Drink more!” While this is a simple approach, it can be an expensive way to learn more about what you like or don’t like. Instead, my answer today is more nuanced - “Start a wine tasting group”.
Over the last decade, I have participated in three separate tasting groups. I learned something from each gathering, as well as from each group. My eyes have been opened to varietals, styles, regions, even friends. And while each group has evolved or led me toward a new direction, every experience was worth the time.
If you have never participated in a wine tasting group, I highly suggest putting one together. There are a lot of potential dos and don’ts, but the great thing is you don’t have to get it perfect the first time.
Here are six questions to answer - the who, what, when, where, why and how - before starting a tasting group:
1. Who – Invite those who might be as passionate about wine, or learning as you. It’s probably not wise to invite both a wine novice and a self-proclaimed expert to the same group, but having a diversity of people with different interests and experiences can broaden the learning experience. For the groups I’ve been in, women have rarely participated but mostly because it’s a group of buddies, and I like to think of my current group as sort of a book club for men.
2. What – Set some ground rules as to what you want to taste. Depending on who is involved, you may consider limits on a minimum or maximum price per bottle, how many bottles, etc. This is entirely up to you and what you want to get out of the group. I participated in one where we each brought a bottle of a particular varietal and had a suggested price limit. My current group is pretty much “go big” as each member is required to host all food and wine on their turn.
3. When – I’m a big fan of once a month and laying out the entire year in advance. When my current group formed in April, 2012, I was able to put in my calendar every event all the way through November of this year so I can plan around those days. I know the date, location, host, etc. And we also built in “off months”. December is too busy and July is vacation time so we scratched both. We also left April open for a group trip and January to include spouses or significant others.
4. Where – As mentioned above, my current set up is to have each member host in their home, or restaurant of their choice. It’s good to move around so no one feels the burden of the entire group on a regular basis.
5. Why – Pretty simple… to learn about and enjoy wine. Over the last year, I’ve tasted the wines of Argentina, sampled Australian Shiraz, discovered the different regions of Spain, sipped over $5,000 worth of dessert wine from three centuries in a night (with a slight headache the next morning), compared Oregon and California Pinot and hosted my own 2007 Washington Cabernet tasting, blind, with surprising results. This would have been virtually impossible to do on my own.
6. How – The beautiful thing about starting your own wine tasting group is you can determine how best to pull it off for youself and the others. There are no global right or wrong ways to set a group up. Some groups can have the same set group each month where others can be more fluid with different people coming in and out depending on availability. Some can pick particular themes to explore where others can leave it wide open. It’s up to you and the group.
Finally, a few additional things that I encourage you to consider:
- Each member hosts everything from food to wine to location (for proper pairing and optimal serving of the wine such as decant time, temperature, etc.). This allows everyone to share in the responsibility equally and at the level they feel most comfortable.
- Host chooses the wine. This is a great opportunity to share what you are most passionate about in wine. And, you have the ability to choose your own price range.
- Provide a list of wine served as well as any available information such as ratings, availability, price, etc. There will definitely be wine you want to purchase more of at one or more of the tastings, or want to know more about the producer, blend, etc. This is a great way to look back at the night without taking all of your own notes.
- Bring your own stemware. This saves the host from providing more stemware than they have, or the concern of breaking their own glasses.
- Plan to spit, or get a driver/cab in advance. With the amount of tasting you can do with a wine group like this, chances are you shouldn’t be behind the wheel.
- Try wine tasting blind. Eliminate any preconceived notions of what will be the best wine of the night and let your nose and palate be the judge.
However you put a group together, just remember to have fun. If you don’t, drink more!