If you don't know a vintage from a variety -- or think that "appellation" is just a strange spelling of that mountain range out East -- it's easy to cave in to the intimidation factor and start planning a backyard cookout rather than a wine-tasting party.
Beginners can start by understanding a few terms from the labels:
Part of the fun of planning a wine-tasting party is deciding which wines to sample. Although no one will have a bad time if you take a "little bit of this, little bit of that" approach, guests will gain more understanding of and appreciation for particular wines if you choose a theme.
Six to eight different wines is max for the casual party. It's best to serve about 2 ounces of each wine for tasting purposes. So, for eight guests, one bottle of each wine to be tasted should be sufficient. Keep more bottles on hand to sip with the food that comes later.
Start with white tablecloths to cover tables where the wine will be poured and tasted. White linens are part of the taster's tools: Guests hold their glasses against the white background to examine the wine color.
On top of the tables, arrange:
Now for the fun part! Before taking that first sip, remember that some red wines need to aerate, or "breathe," which means simply that you need to open and expose them to oxygen for a while before they're ready to drink. Serve all wines at the correct temperature. Consult your wine merchant, a good Web site, or a book to find out proper serving temperatures for the wines you're trying, as well as whether they should be allowed to breathe -- and for how long.
The proper order for tasting is: whites before reds, sparkling before still, light-bodied before full-bodied, and young before old.
If your guests are novices to the world of wine tastings, advise them to try the following techniques:
Talking about the wine -- and then seeing where the conversation takes you -- is the essence of a wine-tasting party. However, it's the area in which novices feel most adrift. Here are a couple of ways to get the conversation started:
There's something about a wine tasting that begs for a good selection of cheese. If you're serious about getting a clear, unaffected taste of the wine, you should hold the food until later. But once the sampling is over, toast your newfound favorites over a spread of well-chosen cheeses. Get started with our Cheese and Wine Guide. (Downloading this Guide requires Adobe Acrobat.)