Host a blind tasting party this summer

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Take your outdoor gathering to a whole new level by hosting a blind tasting party!

Lining up the lawn chairs and setting out the bocce balls is a good start for planning a summer event. Take your outdoor gathering to a whole new level by hosting a blind tasting party!

Wine tasting for flip-flop weather

Summer gatherings are unique for the sheer variety of outdoor location possibilities: the garden, deck, campsite, patio, around a bonfire, poolside, or at the boathouse. No matter what the occasion, wine is a lovely summer accompaniment—and blind wine tasting is an easy activity to while away an afternoon.

Here’s how to get organized:

Invite friends (with wine)

When you decide to host a blind tasting party, spread the expense and turn up the fun by asking everyone to bring a bottle of wine.

Guests can bring either their own personal favorite for true grab-bag-style tasting, or you, as host, can set parameters:

  • A single variety (ex.: all Rieslings, or Chardonnay, or Cabernet Sauvignon).
  • A region (ex.: Australia, Chile, Finger Lakes).
  • Assign wine varieties to individual guests to ensure diversity.
  • Or, make up your own way to play – there’s no wrong way to do it!

A single bottle of wine is easily enough for 15 people to taste from, but if your guest list exceeds that number, keep in mind that more people will mean more wine is needed.

Get set up

When you host a blind tasting party, the key is keeping secret from your guests what wines they are tasting. Large wine and spirit markets might sell kits, or you can order a kit online. But all you really need are paper lunch bags, a marker, notebook paper, pencils, and someone willing to be “in-the-know” (your party sommelier). Set up tips:

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When you host a blind tasting party, the key is keeping secret from your guests what wines they are tasting. Conceal in paper lunch bags or wrap in foil. [Photo courtesy of winefolly.com]

  1. Your party sommelier takes all the bottles out of sight and slips them into paper lunch bags, or some other method of bottle concealment. Only they know which is which! (Make sure they make a list that they keep secret!)
  2. Number or letter the incognito bottles in a suggested order of tasting (dry to sweet, white to red).
  3. Pass out notebook paper and pencils to guests.
  4. Set out the bottles, and let the games begin!

The Blind Tasting

Will your blind tasting party be casual and self-serve, or will it be a formal sit-down and poured by a designated server? You decide. A few tips:

  1. Guests should take notes on each numbered wine. Have everyone score wines using the same system—numbers one to five, stars, 10 point system—just make sure you are all on the same page. This will make tallying scores easier in the long run!
  2. Always taste two times—the second sip is always your truer taste!
  3. Avoid rinsing your glass with water—this just waters down your next wine!

Variations and Opportunities

An afternoon on the deck might not lend to such technical pursuits as trying to guess the grape, but it’s your party, so you decide how the game is played. A blind tasting party is really a great opportunity to taste outside your comfort zone and challenge notions of what you like and don’t like.

Not usually a patron of Merlot? The name of the game in a blind tasting is that you get to taste anything and everything, with no chance to refuse! Be open to the experience, and encourage your guests to be, too.

Host Tips

Ask your wine-bringing guests to chill the wine. Sparkling wines or champagnes should be well chilled (to about 45° F/7°C) prior to serving, so refrigerate it for 3 hours. White table wines should be served at about 55° F/13°C, so count on 2 hours in the fridge; the same goes for late harvest or ice wines for dessert. Red wines, ports and sherries should be served at cool room temperature (65° F/18°C), so if your room isn’t that cool put it in the refrigerator for 1 hour. [source: www.newyorkwines.org]

But do not keep the open bottles on ice! Over-chilling a wine hides delicious flavors and aromas, a condition of wine often referred to as “closed.”  Plus the lunch bag will get soggy. If the day is hot and you expect your guests to take their time tasting, either stagger putting out the wines, or use chiller bags, sleeves, or chilled bottle inserts to maintain wine temps. And, set up the bottles in a shady spot—direct sunlight is never a friend to wine!

Plan your glassware. Just because it’s a backyard party doesn’t mean that red solo cups are the way to go. Drinking wine out of a quality glass is proven to be a better experience, both to see the wine and, yes, for flavor and aromatics.

Do be careful with real glass when outdoors, especially poolside. Stemless are fine if your guests plan to keep their glass set down (not hold in their hand and warm the wine).

If you go for plastic, get the best you can find. Look for quality acrylic outdoor ‘glassware’ that can be reused at your next summer soiree.

Snacks do matter. Opt for palate cleansers such as mild cheeses and crackers, fruit such as strawberries and sliced apple, and nuts such as Marcona almonds. Avoid anything spicy or overpowering for the palate (chips and salsa, strong cheeses, briny olives). Water is also great for palate cleansing, and for hydration through a hot afternoon. A great post-tasting refresher is iced-coffee, something drivers especially will appreciate.

Pour mindfully. Yes, it’s a party. But if 10-15 guests bring as many wines, that’s a lot of wine to drink under a hot sun during one afternoon.

One 750 mL wine does in fact contain 20-25 tastes, if you can accurately pour 1 oz. at a time. Again, each bottle should be enough for 15 people to taste. In the Sheldrake Point tasting room, we use aerators called Haley’s Corkers, which are pouring inserts that happen to slow down the flow of wine, also reducing drips and splashes. You can pick up a bag of basic bottle pourers at a housewares or liquor store.

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Wherever you like to hang out in the summer, it’s the perfect setting for a blind tasting party!

Tally & Winning

The wine is poured, your guests have taken notes and ranked the wines. Now is the time for the big reveal! If you want your guests to have a little (grape)skin in the game, ask everyone to bring an extra bottle of wine. The owner of the top-rated bottle takes home the stash!

Blind tasting party for pros

The mystery of blind tasting wine always lends to a party atmosphere. Even winemakers get in on the fun. Dave and Julia, Sheldrake Point’s winemakers, are regular attendees at a tasting group hosted by our friend and neighbor Peter Bell of Fox Run Vineyards, where area winemakers blind taste together.

Sometimes the winemakers bring their own wines to get honest feedback, or the purpose might be educational and focused on a particular wine region. These structured events are a just one example of the great collaborative community found in the Finger Lakes wine region.

Bocce has never been this much fun

When you host a blind tasting party, it is easy to customize to the setting. All you need is the wine and the willing participants. Take it from us here in the Finger Lakes—wine goes very well with flip flops and sunscreen. So much that you and your guests might see your preconceived notions about wines vanish like ice cubes under a hot sun.

A Finger Lakes native, Kyle brings longtime Finger Lakes winery experience to Sheldrake Point. After over five years combined at both Fox Run Vineyards and the Seneca Lake Winery Association, Kyle joined Sheldrake Point in March, 2016. She has earned degrees in Hospitality Management and Interior Design, as well as her Sommelier Certification via the Court of Master Sommeliers, and holds the WSET 2 Certificate. She is a founding board member of the Finger Lakes Chapter of Women for WineSense, and teaches wine education classes at the New York Wine and Culinary Center.