Don't you dare light a scented candle.
Beginning in the summer of 2009, I started hosting my own wine tasting parties. At first, they were BYOB affairs where everyone brought the same $12 Malbec to someone's house. Then, I tried going to events at retail shops, but often felt pressured to buy the wines at the close of the tasting. There were also the massive consumer functions where I’d roam from table to table for tiny pours. But none of these tastings were very inspiring, or much fun.
So, I started an invitation-only wine club called The Noble Rot and set about twisting arms and convincing friends to let me host themed wine get-togethers on their Manhattan rooftops and Brooklyn lofts. After several years, I had enough experience to put together a rule book for throwing a successful wine party.
This article is my attempt to share what I learned so that you too can host the best wine tasting party ever. Here come the secrets.
Getting Started: What You’ll Need
Good wine glasses are a must. Wines are designed to impress with inviting aromas, textures, and flavors. Good wine glasses are designed to enhance those elements. You’ll need a healthy stash of glasses from either Riedel, Zalto, or Schott Zwiesel. Or check out Master of Wine Jancis Robinson’s all-purpose glass, and Master Sommelier Andrea Robinson’s The One—both are intended for red, white, rosé, and bubbly—and both are dishwasher safe!
Next, you’ll need a few very good corkscrews. Get a Laguiole or any of these.
Choosing and Buying Wine
This is the fun part, and choosing a theme is your best bet for making the evening feel cohesive. Perhaps you’ll feature a lineup of global Chardonnays with producers from California, Oregon, Australia, and France’s Burgundy region. Or maybe you’ll serve only red wines from the Rhône Valley. Alternatively, you might go all sparkling all night—from California bubbly to Italian Franciacorta and French Champagne. Just be warned: this could end in a rather wild and untamed real bubble bath bash.
I strongly recommend being the sole buyer of wine for your party, rather than leaving it up to your guests. If you go this route, you should make it clear in your invitation that you will be selecting the wines, and that there will be plenty to go around. You can always ask your guests for contributions (in lieu of bottles) to help cover costs. Or, bite the bullet and be the outstanding host who pays for it all.
How much wine to buy depends on how many guests you’re entertaining. I’ve found that featuring five to seven wines per party is just the right amount for small groups. Figure that one bottle of wine comfortably serves five or six people with nice-sized pours. So, if you decide to feature five wines and are hosting 12 people, you’ll want at least two bottles of each wine. But everything here comes down to math: There are 25 ounces in a standard 750ml bottle. If you want to offer only tastes of two-ounce pours, you’ll be able to serve 12 people with one bottle. If you want to offer more generous six-ounce pours, like if you were in a restaurant, you’ll serve just four to five people per bottle. A good rule of thumb: have more wine than you think you need. Leftovers are never an issue.
One of the biggest rookie hosting mistakes is offering tons of wine, and not enough food to soak it all up. Remember, you’re working on throwing the best wine tasting party ever, and that means the food needs to be fully integrated into your event—not an afterthought.
The big decision is whether to go with passed bites and plates or to tackle a seated meal. If you’re a whiz in the kitchen, you could take on the cooking, but if not, partner up with someone who is. This will take a little coordination, and you can up the guests' suggested contribution to cover the food costs. Whatever the financial arrangement, whether you and the chef swallow the costs, or your guests contribute, having an expert prepare the food for presentation will make a big impression. I’m definitely not suggesting you hire a catering company. Maybe you have a friend who runs a supper-club, or know an excellent chef at a local restaurant. Whatever the case, keep it casual and tap your own network.
If you opt for small, passed plates, work it out so the chef is part of the party, cooking and plating the food in your kitchen and inviting guests to grab in a first-come-first-serve fashion. A seated meal is just going to require a bit more planning, maybe a few rentals for seating, and you’ll need to enlist friends to volunteer playing server, plating, and clearing. It won’t be hard to find help if you promise free wine, food, and even a take-home bottle.
Educate By Telling Stories
When it comes to educating your guests about wine at a party, remember that this is a party you’re throwing. No 30-minute lectures about soil types, and no power-points—unless you work for Pixar and can get really crafty.
You do want your guests to learn something about the wine in their glass, because the thing about wine is that beyond the pleasure of drinking it, each bottle reveals stories of real people, histories of real places, and aspects of global cultures from farming practices to local traditions—all wonderful things to learn about.
I found that if I was planning to open five different wines throughout the night, presenting them one at a time every 15 to 20 minutes or so was a good way to keep people’s attention. Designate friends to be pourers, and while they’re filling everyone’s glass, take three to five minutes to tell a story about the wine going around the room, and then encourage a Q&A. It requires that you do a little research on each bottle to make your points engaging and fun, and to impart some real nuggets of knowledge. You could also enlist a witty, knowledgeable host if you know of someone (ahem, DM me on Instagram).
The Music and Atmosphere
Spend time compiling a great playlist that fits the theme of your party and that underscores—not overpowers—conversation. Enlisting a DJ definitely ups the ante. If your space can support it, live music is best. If you live in one of those Brooklyn lofts, or have a home with a backyard, enlist a full band (just warn the neighbors). Designate times throughout the night to gather around the musician for a short set, or song—and keep the wine flowing.
Lastly, create a warm, inviting atmosphere, with lighting dim enough to keep it moody, but bright enough to see the wine. Candles are great, especially in the bathroom—unscented of course. You don’t want anything interfering with the aromas in your wine glass. Keep the TP well-stocked and in an obvious place. And, if you really want to go all in on details, put out a fancy hand soap (Molton Brown’s orange and bergamot is perfect here) and just watch the compliments roll in.
As the guests begin to dwindle, be prepared with a surprise. I suggest ending with a sophisticated nightcap—some brown-spirit or Mezcal-based quaff out of Death & Co’s cocktail book. Send the last stragglers off with an unopened bottle, then pop open that Champagne you were hiding, because throwing a wine party this good deserves a victory glass.