See how I threw together a wine tasting party for a group of my close friends. I’m sharing the inspiration for the party, how I prepared, the wine and food served, and even the Spotify playlist I created for the evening. You’ll learn great tips and tricks for throwing a fun wine tasting in your own home sans stress!
THE INSPIRATION FOR THE EVENT
Last year, while waiting in the airport to take off for a beautiful fall weekend away in Colorado with some of my favorite people, my friend Cris purchased a copy of Food & Wine magazine. This issue featured an article titled “Drink These 25 Bottles and Become a Wine Master.”The premise of the article is that one of the best ways to learn about wine is to taste a lot of it (sounds great to me!). This is the same advice you’ll hear from sommeliers and in general, from people who know a lot about wine. When I was in grad school, my school had a food and wine club which hosted tastings with local sommeliers – these events were always informative and I learned a lot; however, I always want to learn more. I also find that I often order my tried and true favorites when I go out and I thought this would be a great way to try different things and maybe develop some new favorites. At the same time, if anything, it would be a good way to get my busy group of friends together on a somewhat regular basis.
The article suggests 25 wines to taste over the course of a year and includes both old and new world wines. In particular, the article does a good job of providing an overview of what the quintessential wines are in the various regions around the world and how certain wines made from the same grape may differ depending on where they are grown and produced. For example, a Pinot Noir produced in California’s Sonoma Valley, a new world wine, versus a Pinot Noir produced in France’s Burgundy region, an old world wine, which to me is earthier and akin to Pinot Noir produced in Oregon’s Willamette Valley (a lot of these differences derive from the type of soil or terroir in any one region).
So essentially, my eight friends and I read the article and decided to host wine tasting parties on a rotating basis at each of our apartments.
QUICK AND DIRTY INTRODUCTION TO SOME WINE TERMINOLOGY
I may mention (or have mentioned) these throughout the post so for those not familiar here are some definitions. This is not exhaustive, I just included what I may mention here and there. As a note, I really like the Wine Folly and Wine Spectator websites if you want to learn more.
- Wine Varietal: The type of grape used to make a wine
- Wine Region: Where the wine is produced
- New World Wine: Wines produced outside the traditional wine-growing areas of Europe and the Middle East. For example, those produced in Argentina, Australia, Chile, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States
- Old World Wine: Wines produced in Europe or the Middle East. Fun Fact – New world wines are typically named by the varietal and old world wines are named by the region
- Vintage: The year in which the wine’s grapes were picked.
- Terroir: how a region’s climate, soils, and aspect (terrain) affect the taste of wine
Now that introductions are out-of-the-way, I’ll talk about how I went about preparing for the evening.
SENDING THE INVITATIONS
Even when I’m having a relatively casual get together, I really like sending out an invitation. For casual events, I always use Paperless Post e-vites. I absolutely love this site – they have pre-made, but slightly customizable e-vites, some of which were created by design heavyweights such as Kate Spade and Kelly Wearstler. The selection is stylish and relatively inexpensive. Further, with pre-populated text fields and color selections you can make a nice-looking invitation without having a background in graphic design. To me, sending some sort of invite makes an event feel more special and festive than just sending out a regular e-mail or text message. Of course, for a more formal event such as a wedding or baby shower a physical invitation would be preferred, but these e-vites are a great way to elevate the everyday.
While we’re on this topic, you may be wondering when to send the invitations. The Emily Post Institute advises sending out invitations for a casual party between the day of and two weeks and for a cocktail party between one and four weeks prior to the event. My group of friends can be difficult to wrangle – some are married, some have very demanding jobs or travel a lot – so we probably discussed the date of this party over a month in advance and then I sent out the Paperless Post invite about two to three weeks prior to the event.
Manners & Manhattans Tip – if you’re the guest, make sure to RSVP to the host’s invitation. I know this sounds fussy because likely you told the person already if it’s a gathering of close friends, but speaking as a host, it’s nice to have a final count when you’re shopping for food, drinks, and other supplies. I personally always err on the side of having more than I need, but nothing is worse than having over-bought when the guest list happens to shrink at the last-minute (of course, things happen at times and we can’t control everything, but if your inability to RSVP is merely a case of FOMO on a better invite that may come along, it’s best to make an executive decision and RSVP as requested).
By the way, if you click on the mock-up of my invitation above you can see it on Paperless Post – the design is called Confettitini.
BUYING THE WINE
The Food & Wine article provides its main suggestions for each of the 25 wines as well as alternatives. My one criticism is that sometimes the wines suggested are a bit difficult to find all in one place – even considering the alternates. However, this is not a huge impediment – in these instances each person can pick up a bottle so one person isn’t running all around town for the wines. Another way to resolve this is to use wine.com or some other delivery service. I had good luck in finding the bottles recommended or a very similar alternate (i.e. same winery, varietal, but different year or vintage as it’s known in the world of wine) on this site.
About a week and a half prior to the event, I ordered the wine I needed. Given that this was a tasting event – I ordered one bottle of most of the wines I needed to purchase and bought an extra bottle of the ones that I thought everyone would enjoy the most given what I know about my friends’ tastes in wines. For my turn to host, I was covering wines numbered 13-17 – Riesling through Rosé for those who want to compare my blog post against the article. I purchased the following from Food & Wine’s recommendations – links to each of them are provided in the list below if you click on the prices:
- Dr. Loosen Red Slate Riesling Dry 2015 Mosel Valley (15.99): I was able to find the exact wine down to the vintage here.
- Robert Weil Estate Riesling Kabinett Rheingau Germany 2016 (34.99): At the time, I was unable to find the Dr. Loosen Blue Slate Kabinett 2015 and the other “sweet Riesling” recommendations, so I went with the Robert Weil Kabinett
- Penfolds Kalimna Bin 28 Shiraz Barossa Valley 2015 (31.99): Food & Wine recommended the 2014 vintage; however, it was out of stock at the time. Regardless, this was a great example of a classic Australian Shiraz
- Crozes Hermitage Shiraz Rhone Valley 2014 (24.99): Food & Wine recommended a 2013 vintage; again, had a bit of trouble finding that one so chose this instead
- Clos Cibonne Rosé Cotes de Provence 2015 (29.99): I was also able to find the exact rosé recommended by the article.
CHOOSING PARTY SUPPLIES
When I’m hosting, I typically like to use festive high-quality paper party plates, cups, bowls, and napkins for serving the food. It’s just so much easier to use these than china for a less formal event. Be sure to check out my earlier post on cocktail party essentials to learn about some of my go-to items. Regarding fun high-quality paper party plates I love the gold animal motif from Talking Tables which can be found on Amazon. Additionally, I recently discovered this company, Bonjour Fete, their supplies are so chic – you should check out their website and their Instagram feed – it’s a feast for the eyes.
Another thing I’d like to mention specifically for this party (which was not included in my post on cocktail party essentials) is make sure you have a good and easy to use corkscrew. My favorite is the Screwpull – it’s not particularly fancy but it’s practically foolproof to use and can be found on Amazon. Please note that the link for the Screwpull contains an affiliate link, meaning I may earn a small commission if you purchase it – this does not change the price you pay.
PLANNING THE MENU AND PREPARING THE FOOD
I love thinking about food (and eating it) so planning a menu for a party is always enjoyable for me. About two weeks prior to the event, I started perusing various resources – Bon Appetit, Martha Stewart, Food & Wine (of course), Saveur, and cooking blogs for ideas. I wasn’t planning to serve a full dinner, but a selection of appetizers. I always like to serve a cheese and/or charcuterie plate which is super easy, but with all the wine, obviously we would need some other items to add substance. I ultimately settled upon making several savory tarts, crostini, and a burrata dish to serve alongside the cheese platter, as well as some marcona almonds and olives. For the dessert, given that in my group of friends there were numerous April birthdays (which was when I hosted this event), I ordered Milkbar’s famous confetti birthday cake. Keep reading for the recipes, how I tweaked them, and to see the full menu for the evening, but before I show you that, I want to share my tips and tricks for planning and preparing your menu:
- Pick recipes you’ve used before or are confident you can make for the first time without getting stressed out. I’m all for trying something new, but when I’m hosting a group I like to stick to my tried and true or a variation on them.
- Try to pick recipes that use ingredients that are in season. I hosted in early April on the east coast and it seemed to be an odd time when nothing was really in season yet. It still didn’t feel quite like spring, so I just chose recipes I enjoy, knew my guests would enjoy, and going back to the first point, would be delicious without stressing me out during preparation. However, if you’re hosting in summer or fall when there’s a range of great items, it would be fun to feature those foods in your menu.
- This may be controversial as I know most people’s reaction is to groan when suggesting a host kowtow to his or her guests’ litany of dietary constraints, but do consider your guests’ tastes and restrictions. I’m not saying you need to create an all vegan or paleo menu, but if you’re aware someone is vegetarian, has a specific food allergy, or doesn’t eat a certain type of meat – you want to have options for them, too. To me, part of the satisfaction of hosting is creating a fun, enjoyable evening for your guests where they will feel comfortable.
- Give yourself more time than you think you will need to bake and assemble anything you make as you probably will need to clean the kitchen up a bit too.
- A week and a half to two weeks prior to the event, make sure you have the party supplies you need. I realized that I didn’t have enough matching wine glasses for the number of people I was hosting. Again, Amazon saved the day; I found a set of 12 matching wine glasses that also looked nice for about $34. Of course they weren’t the fanciest, but they got the job done for the evening. Please note, the above is an affiliate link, meaning I may earn a small commission if you purchase these glasses – this does not change the price you pay.
- Friends will offer to bring items – if you need some help don’t be afraid to ask them to bring something you need (i.e. a dessert, an appetizer, some sparkling water). In one instance, for a different party, I had asked a friend to bring me some paper towels because I wouldn’t have time to run to Duane Reade again. It was immensely helpful.
- If you are ordering a special dessert from a bakery, think about what you want and make sure to check the bakery’s policy for special orders about one week to a week and a half before the event. If you are making your own dessert, check out the resources I noted above for inspiration.
- Don’t feel like you must make everything from scratch. Really, no one cares and even Ina Garten acknowledged that no one wants to make puffed pastry. Sometimes, store-bought really is fine.
- Try to do as much prep as you can before the event day. I highly recommend this. I purchased the ingredients and chopped the vegetables for my tarts about two days before the event. At the time, I had a super tiny kitchen with little counter space. To me, it was just easier to chop before and then worry about assembly and cooking/baking the day of. This is also great if you have a busy schedule. At the time, I was training for the Brooklyn Half Marathon and knew most of my morning would be spent doing a long run.
- Like the last piece of advice regarding doing things ahead of time, aside from the kitchen, don’t leave cleaning your apartment for the day of the event.
- Most of all, have fun with the prep! Create a pre-party playlist with your favorite music to listen to while you prep food and do chores.
CREATING AMBIANCE FOR THE EVENING
This will vary a bit for everyone, especially if you’re working with a larger space, but regardless of where you are hosting your party, I think setting the mood for the evening is important. Here is how I created good vibes for my wine gathering.
- Consider where your guests will be socializing and make sure the space is conducive to the number of people attending the event and the type of event it is. In this instance, my guests were gathering in my living room where I had a couch, a coffee table, a small dining table with two chairs and an accent chair. Since this was a more intimate setting with close friends who all know each other quite well and would be tasting wines together, I made sure everyone had a comfortable place to sit around my coffee table and pulled out two spare chairs I kept in my closet so no one would be left standing or sitting on the floor (you really learn how to use every inch of your space when you live in a small apartment, complete with storing extra chairs in a closet)! However, by contrast, taking my annual holiday party as an example, which is a more “come and go as you please” event where people stop by throughout the evening and sometimes bring friends – I would forgo the extra chairs and make sure there was more standing room so that everyone could mix and mingle with ease.
- Stay away from bright harsh lighting. I turn off any overheads, use my lamps that provide a softer light, and light a few candles to create an inviting atmosphere for when everyone arrives. Manners & Manhattans Tip – for this event, you may want to blow out the candles before you start tasting the wines, so that there are no strong competing scents when you smell and taste the wine.
- Create a playlist that suits the mood for the evening. I absolutely love music and have since I was in high school, so this part of party planning is always something I look forward to doing. I create my playlists on Spotify and play them on my Sonos speaker – which has amazing sound despite its tiny size. I’m sharing the playlist for this event within my post and plan to create an entire post or series of posts on sample playlists; however, if you don’t want to create your own custom list, Spotify has a huge selection of playlists that cater to every mood and genre.
- For this event, make sure to have paper and pens handy as some people might want to take notes on the wines they taste. I love this pre-made grid from Epicurious and made sure to print them out for the event. I put out colored pencils for everyone to use because it looked better than a random assortment of pens!
- Make sure there are things for your guests to pick on when they arrive. The cheese and/or charcuterie board with the almonds and olives is perfect for this. Or if that’s not your style, it could be a Mediterranean style meze platter or vegetables with various dips. By the way, I do think it’s totally fine for items to be still coming out of the oven with your guests arrive. Although, for me, it’s not preferable because I feel stressed out that I am neglecting my guests by attending to kitchen duties. Manners & Manhattans Tip – If you’re a guest, it’s fine to arrive a tad late – maybe 15 minutes or so (even a half hour I can’t get mad out, although others may disagree). The French call this practice, among other practices of good manners, politesse. I’m always grateful for this because no matter how much I plan I’m always running a little bit behind. (Fun fact – Emily Post’s advice says that the host should always be ready exactly on time, but come on – this is real life we’re dealing with. ) That being said, don’t arrive so late that the evening is likely winding down, it’s best to just come to terms that you’ve missed the evening than showing up to an 8pm party at nearly midnight.
- Let your friends chill out and mingle a bit before the planned festivities begin. It’s great to have a welcome cocktail for your guests (at another party I did a port wine and tonic cocktail that was quite good and super easy to make) or to open a very drinkable wine to start the evening. In our group of friends, it’s usually an inexpensive bottle of Sauvignon blanc and we’ve affectionately labeled it the “basic B” sipping wine.
Now that I’ve talked about many of the tips and tricks I used for planning and preparing for this party; I’ll take you through the evening. Keep reading to learn more about the recipes, wine, my party playlist, and see pictures from the event.
BEHIND THE SCENES – MANNERS & MANHATTANS WINE TASTING PARTY
I used this recipe from Real Simple for the Caramelized Onion & Apple Tart. For this tart, I basically followed the recipe exactly as written and used Pepperidge Farm pre-made puffed pastry sheets which could be found in the freezer section of any grocery store or Amazon Fresh apparently. It was a little fall-esque, but was such a hit at my holiday party, I had to make it again. With the puffed pastry, make sure to take it out and let it thaw a bit before you use it and further, make sure you prick the entire pastry sheet except for a ¼ inch border, otherwise the entire pastry with bubble up when it bakes. Admittedly, when I was rushing a bit, I forgot to do this step on one of the tarts; it didn’t ruin the tart, but at times I can be quite the perfectionist. Additionally, as you’ll see with this recipe and the carrot recipe, doing all the chopping ahead of time is key and will save you so much time the day of your event. Further, I used crème fraiche instead of sour cream, but the recipe recommends either – so pick whichever you like better.
Onto my favorite of the evening – the Adriatic Fig Jam & Prosciutto Tart! I just made this up and didn’t follow a recipe. I knew from eating many a cheese and charcuterie platter that the sweetness of fig jam and the saltiness of prosciutto would be an amazing combination. Further, I knew that when the prosciutto cooked it would become crispy and bacon-like which would also be quite delicious. For this tart, I used the same puff pastry as noted in the Caramelized Onion & Apple Tart recipe and skipped the crème fraiche base. I picked a Croatian fig jam from Whole Foods. It’s just called “Organic Adriatic Fig Jam.” I imagine this could be found at any Whole Foods if you have them in your area or a specialty grocery store like Fairway which we have on the east coast.
Manners & Manhattans Tip – The apple tart recipe recommends baking for 30-35 minutes, but I noticed this tart is more prone to burning so make sure to keep an eye on it and see how it’s doing at about 20-25 minutes. Of course, this also depends on your oven – so use your own judgement.
The third tart of the evening was a Carrot & Herb Tart. I used a recipe from Bon Appetit’s website; however, I tweaked it a bit. Essentially, I skipped over the ricotta mixture that the recipe recommended (although, I’m sure this would also be great) and again used the crème fraiche base form the apple tart recipe. I mainly did this because I wanted to use up the crème fraiche and ricotta was a component of the crostini I was serving that evening. Again, highly recommend chopping the carrots beforehand. I’m a totally self-taught cook and learning everyday so I’m not the fastest or best at chopping vegetables, especially since this recipe called for carrot “coins” and I preferred to keep all my fingers! Further, if your grocery store happens to have pre-cut carrot coins (I know I’ve seen them before), feel free to just get those if you feel like paying a bit more for them – why make more work for yourself for something that doesn’t really (in my opinion) matter.
In addition to the three tarts, I served several smaller items including Ricotta & Honey Crostini. Whole milk ricotta and honey is such a delicious pairing. For the crostini, I sliced French bread, brushed it with olive oil and added salt and pepper, and then toasted the rounds in the oven for about 15-20 minutes at 350 degrees (until golden brown). Admittedly, in the future, I probably would just buy the crostini pre-made – slicing the bread took a lot of time for me and created a mess of crumbs. To me, this falls into the category of “not worth doing yourself.”
Next, was A Cozy Kitchen’s Roasted Radishes with Burrata and Arugula Pesto. This was an interesting recipe – I really liked it a lot. The pesto is untraditional – it’s made with walnuts and arugula, but it had a very nice clean and bright flavor that went well with the radishes and the creamy burrata cheese. Perfect for a spring or summer gathering!
Lastly, I served a small Cheese Platter which consisted of manchego – a mild Spanish sheep’s milk cheese, Cabot clothbound cheddar from Vermont – which is rich and nutty along with sour cherry and the same fig jam I used far the tart. I also served salty marcona almonds and olives on the side. This time I went rather light on the cured meats and only served prosciutto as part of the fig jam tart.
I made this reference sheet with all the wines we were tasting this evening which included some key bits of information about each wine that I was able to learn from the tasting notes on wine.com. This was a good thing to have as we were able to taste the wines, reflect on what was said about them, and see if we agreed. I also printed out the tasting grids I mentioned from the Epicurious website and set out colored pencils for note taking.
My favorite wines of the evening were the two Riesling wines and the Rhone Valley Shiraz. The rosé and the Penfolds Shiraz in my opinion were a bit heavy and perhaps I would have enjoyed them with a full-on meal – a Provençal inspired lunch with the rosé or perhaps a steak with the Penfolds Shiraz.
Funny little story – when I initially contacted my friends about hosting the wine tasting party in April, I told them we should celebrate the various April birthdays that evening as well – with a “good” cake. I was unintentionally using the terminology that Ina Garten has for the ingredients she instructs her viewers to buy – a “good” olive oil, a “good” salt – my friends did not miss a beat in noticing this. I take my cakes very seriously and have no time for lackluster ones! So, to deliver on my promise, I took this as an opportunity to get a Milkbar Birthday Confetti cake which I had been dying to try for the longest time. For those of you who don’t know, this is Christina Tosi’s take on the classic funfetti cake we all may have had as a kid. It’s so so good and it was a hit at the party. Tell me what your version of a “good” cake is in the comments!
I love using Spotify to create playlists – it’s super simple and you can see the exact one I used above. This is kind of my “go to” dinner and cocktail party playlist when I host a few friends for a low-key evening – it’s a mix of upbeat songs at the beginning (for when people are arriving) among lots of songs that will be conducive to blending into the background while people chat. This one heavily tilts towards dream pop bands (think Beach House, Washed Out, DIIV, Wild Nothing – as an aside, if you’d like an education on dream pop look no further than this article via Pitchfork) with faster paced songs from St. Vincent and Interpol as well as old stuff like David Bowie and Fleetwood Mac mixed in. This may sound like an odd combination, but it worked well, and I received so many compliments on it. As you’ll see this one is quite long with numerous songs – I like to do this, so I don’t have to worry about fussing with music changes mid-party.
THE CULMINATION OF A GREAT EVENING
I think this picture says all you need to know about the fun that was had throughout the evening!