We’ve all done it – bought the bottle with the beautiful label over the one that looked like Ma and Pa Winemaker printed it on their dot matrix relic from the 1980’s. Even wine critics fall prey to labels, predisposed to like wines from producers they “know” to be great or have liked in the past.
One of the best ways to break yourself of the “label” bias is to taste blind – that is, without knowing what’s in your glass – and it’s always more fun with a group. Here are some tips and tricks to hosting a successful blind tasting party. You may be surprised at which wines you actually like – especially if you throw in an “Old Maid” of the “Two Buck” variety.
- A variety of wines (see theme ideas below)
- Brown paper wine bags
- Rubber bands
- Appropriate wine glasses (i.e. red glasses for red wines, white wine glasses for whites, or even varietal specific Riedel glasses if you want to get nerdy about it)
- Spit cups and dump buckets (if you don’t spit after each taste, you’ll probably like the last wine the most no matter what the quality)
- Notebooks, scratch paper, or index cards and writing utensils
- Palate cleansers like crackers, green apple slices, celery, or even radish slices
- A great playlist and a fun group of friends (they can be serious wine dorks or invite friends with various levels of wine knowledge – it’s always fun to watch an “expert” fall for the Old Maid while the newbie nails the Grand Cru)
- Choose a theme (see theme ideas below).
- Invite the guests – be clear about their assignment and set price boundaries. If the theme is pitting expensive wines against inexpensive wines, have guests bring receipts and tally up the total, dividing the cost evenly between guests.
- When guests arrive with their bottles, put each one into a brown paper wine bag secured to the bottle neck with a rubber band. Have a guest who didn’t watch this assembly mix up the order (think “shell game” here). When the mix up is complete, label each bag with a number so guests can keep their notes straight.
- Pour the wines in order, instructing guests to use their spit cups after tasting. Allow a few moments for guests to write notes. Then repeat the process for each wine.
- After all the wines have been tasted but before the big reveal, let guests revisit any of the wines they would like and open up the discussion. Compare tasting notes and make predictions about which wine is which – this is when the competitive folks start to get vocal.
- Remove the bags and reveal the truth. Discuss the predictions and results. Find yourself amazed and surprised at new discoveries or pat yourself on the back for a well-honed palate that could discern quality from swill (consider carefully whether it’s worth shaming the loudmouth “expert” who sung Chuck’s praises and is now horrified by their traitorous tongue).
- One Varietal, Global Sources – Choose a varietal (e.g. Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Chardonnay, etc.) and assign guests a region of the world known for it (e.g. Sauvignon Blanc from Bordeaux, New Zealand, California, Washington, and maybe a wild card like Israel or South Africa).
- One Varietal, One AVA – Compare Pinot Noirs from around the Willamette Valley, Syrahs from Walla Walla Valley, Rieslings from Alsace, Cabernet Francs from Loire, etc.
- Highs and Lows – Choose a wine style (e.g. red blends from Washington State) and assign guests a price range that includes a bottle or two at each level (e.g. under $10, $10-25, $26-50, $51-70, $70-100). See note above about how split the costs.
- Label Specific – Make it all about the label (e.g. animals, ugly, masculine, feminine, humorous, artist series, etc.) but still choose a wine theme like Cabernet-dominant red blends, GSM’s, or white wines.
- Cellar Purge – If your crew have overflowing wine cellars, choose bottles you’ve been “saving” for no particular occasion. Be sure to choose a varietal, style, or region to keep the tasting consistent – you can’t exactly compare aged Chablis with Shiraz.