11 Strategies for Hosting an Epic Wine Tasting Party

I’ve never seen my dogs so tired. No, we hadn’t gone on a 5-mile hike. Nor had the pups been out chasing squirrels all day. They were wiped out because the night before my sweetie and I threw a little wine-tasting party. There were people coming and going throughout the evening. There was lots of good food to mooch. And there was lots of good conversation and boisterous laughter that prevented the dogs from getting to bed at their usual hour.  

By the time the last guest left we were pretty dog-tired, too. In a good way.

I’m devoting today’s post to a recap of our gathering for several reasons.  First, it was a fun, festive, and delicious gathering of friends who we know from many facets of our lives: work, the neighborhood, cycling, the gym, and various parties and happy hours we’ve attended in the last few years.  We are blessed to know each of them. Second, our goal was to give these friends an opportunity to mesh, connect, get to know each other – and have fun doing it. As a life-long connector, this was very important to me.  Third, we wine-lovers love to get together to taste good wines!

So here goes. A few strategies that helped us pull this party off in grand fashion.

  1. Go for quality. Sure, you can get a quaffable bottle of wine for under ten bucks (under five at Trader Joe’s), but we wanted to offer something extra nice to our good friends.  We shared 12 bottles of high-quality wine that were among our favorites.  They were a little pricier than your typical grocery store wines, but totally worth it. (Note:  We’re more into gifting experiences to our friends these days, rather than just offering them more stuff. I think that is a trend – and a good one.)
  2. Be strategic with your guest list. I have friends who are not “wine people,” but would brighten any room they enter. I invited a few of these who, as it turns out, were previously committed or chose not to come.  In general, the advice here is consider chemistry and mixability.  Overall, we invited friends who we knew love good wine.
  3. Give people reasons to move about and mingle.  Ever notice how everyone ends up in the kitchen? That’s where the food and beverages are.  It’s human nature to stick close to the refreshments.  This works when you are entertaining 6 to 10 people, but we had 16 guests who RSVP’d. I wanted to encourage movement and mingling, so I set up six wine tasting stations. Each station had two comparable wine varieties that tasters could compare:  Station 1 had two chardonnays, Station 2 had two pinot noirs, Station 3 had two red blends, and so on. The wine stations were numbered from lighter wines to richer, more complex wines.  You didn’t have to taste the wines in a certain order, but some people did prefer that.  This really worked in getting people into circulation, especially when they heard the extra fancy, ultra delicious cabernet was stationed in my little-used front room.  We had to dig up and open a second bottle of that amazing vintage.
  4. Make it interactive.  We wanted to know what our guests thought of the wines we selected (and get them to really taste and enjoy the wines),  so we had comment sheets and pens available. These weren’t score cards you carried around with you, as many wine-tastings have.  Those can make it even harder to juggle a glass and a plate of food.  Instead our sheets were designed to stay put at their assigned wine stations. The sheets encouraged tasters to offer up a word or phrase that described the wine as well as a rating on a scale of 1 to 10.  The funniest comment of the evening was “tastes like the end of a fish hook.”  (What?!? That was a primo Malbec! But not everyone likes Malbec, I guess.)  As the night and tasting went on the comments got progressively more creative and witty. My neighbor Georgia declared that one wine offered hints of dill. I think that was because she had just ingested a pickle. Who knows, though? Wines are complex.  Another guest decided to comment in French and Spanish.  How very continental!
  5. Offer a variety of good food.  It goes without saying that a responsible host offers good food as well as good drinks. Fortunately for me, Mark is a talented cook and made both Italian and Greek style meatballs. We also had some nice bread for sopping up the savory sauces as well as plates of cheeses, crackers, hummus, fruits, veggies, nuts, and dark chocolates.   Delicioso!
  6. Help guests pace themselves.  Today it’s considered stylish and savvy to have humongous wine glasses that allow you to take in the complex aromas and subtle tastes of chi-chi wines.  (I say these glasses just encourage you to drink more.)  I have glasses that are generously, but tastefully sized as well as some that are so huge they are almost ridiculous.  I’m sure I can use these extra big glasses as goldfish bowls in a pinch. For this party we invested in some smaller glasses for obvious reasons.  If you’re going to attempt to taste 12 wines in a single evening, it’s best to go easy and pace yourself.
  7. Help guests keep up with their glasses. When you have lots of guests and are moving about the house whilst swilling wine, answering the door, making new friends, acting out your favorite scene in a movie, and enjoying good food, it can be easy to misplace your wine glass or accidentally grab one that belongs to someone else.  Marking your glass in some distinguishable way is a great way to prevent this. Some people have a collection of those adorable little charms that you can wrap around the stem of your glass, thus identifying it as yours.  The collection I had got lost or accidentally went down the disposal. I can’t recall.  I had zero time to replace them, so I went a different route and purchased some special marking pens that work on glass.  Guests wrote their names or initials on their glasses as they arrived.   (Shout out to my highly organized speaker friend, Maura Nevel, for this idea!)
  8. Help people with names.   I’ll say it right off the bat: we had name tags.  I highly recommend name tags.  I know. It’s sounds more like a networking event than a party when you have them.  But again, this was a gathering of people who, for the most part, didn’t know each other.  Given how hard it can be to remember names, I like making that part easy.   What’s more, if you’ve ever heard me present, if you’ve read my book The Intentional Networker, or if you’ve ever attended one of my gatherings, you know that incredible networking can happen anywhere and everywhere!  Name tags make it so much easier to remember who you’ve met.  And many of us are visual learners.  So there.  Have name tags.  Get over it.
  9. Throw in a little surprise.  We wanted to add a fun twist to the evening, so we came up with a formula that would allow guests to discover their Sommelier / Wine-Tasting Names.  I looked online for an existing formula, but it was boring and lame. So we developed our own. (If you email me at patti [at] intentionalnetworker [dot] com I will send you this hilarious formula along with a copy of our wine tasting comment sheet.)  We revealed the formula after everyone had enjoyed a little wine.  What a hit!  My sommelier name,  if you must know is “Pignolia Juicy Dorado.”  So affected.  Everyone enjoyed this activity and swapped out their real name tags for new ones.  It was fun to compare and contrast and note how ridiculous they sounded.  (I am wondering if anyone left our party and moved on to another event wearing their new name tag. Now there’s an ice-breaker!)
  10. Embrace imperfection. The older I get, the more I appreciate that “perfect” is impossible to achieve. Not everyone you invite to a party will be able to attend. You’ll also discover (too late) that you forgot to invite someone – their feelings got hurt. (Sorry, if that’s you!  We will have another party, I promise!)  Many guests will forget to RSVP, leaving you wondering, “Will there be 10 people? 20?  30?” In addition, something will go terribly wrong right before guests arrive: the dog will throw up on the new carpet or present you with a half-dead baby skunk; the oven will decide to not work;  you’ll need something at the store or will discover you bought the wrong (critical) ingredient; you’ll discover that awesome outfit you wanted to wear doesn’t fit!  Aaargh!! The list can go on and on. You just have to take a breath, relax, improvise, and know that a party is to enjoy, not stress over.  Getting a little head start on the wine doesn’t hurt either.
  11. Congratulate yourself on a job well done.  After our last guests departed, we gave each other a big high five.  “What a blast that was!”  Success!  We spent the entire next day relaxing in the glory of an awesome party in the books. And, as I said, we will be sure to do it again.

Here’s to your Holiday Season and hoping whatever type of gathering YOU choose to host in the future, whether this weekend or next year is fun and a memorable place and time for people to gather, meet, reconnect, and have a wonderful time!  Please share your party strategies and tips with me. I could certainly use more help!

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