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How to taste wine (and find bargains)
by hosting a wine-tasting party

Wine tastings will help you find "grape" deals.

"Wine makes daily living easier, less hurried, with fewer tensions and more tolerance," wrote founding father Benjamin Franklin. Merry old Ben was right, but choosing a wine can intimidate many wannabe drinkers into ordering a Budweiser.

"Wine really is not all that likable," says syndicated wine columnist Jonathon Alsop in Boston, Mass. "It's acidic, alcoholic, tannic. People don't like it at first as opposed to a strawberry milkshake. Wine is an acquired taste." Acquiring that taste will let you tap into enriching experiences for the rest of your life, and give you that air of sophistication that you've wanted to acquire as well.

Obviously the people who spend hundreds or thousands on one bottle of wine are not interested in a good bottle of wine to drink -- who would dare open a bottle of wine that cost so much! We're not wasting our time with that sort of conspicuous consumption and snobbery. Your purpose here is to find affordable wines that you enjoy.

"Life can be lived in a casual way, or plumbed to the depths," says Thomas Matthews, executive editor at Wine Spectator based in New York. "Really tasting wine adds an extra dimension to the basic daily routines of eating and drinking." Let's have fun learning to appreciate this complex grape juice. By making the effort to taste a few wines, you'll discover what type of wines you like, find some bargains, and most importantly, save money and hassle when ordering at a restaurant or shopping in a wine store.

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Calling all winos
To host your own wine tasting, you need some bottles of wine, a few glasses and open-minded friends. The friends come in handy because a) drinking alone is kinda sad, b) other folks' opinions can provide insight, and c) the cost can be shared.

Pick a "theme" for the wine tasting. For instance, keep it broad and focus on types of white wine, and you'll learn the differences between a strong Chardonnay, a spicy gewürztraminer and a light pinot grigio. Or pick a more specific theme, focusing on one type of grape (like Merlot or chenin blanc) or one region (like Italy or Australia).

Ask each guest to bring a bottle of the designated type of wine. Or control the selection by buying all the wine yourself -- and ask your friends to chip in later. Wines that cost less than five dollars per bottle are likely to be rather simple, alcohol being their main element. But since we're not discussing getting toasted, let's focus on $5 to $15 wines, which can offer some personality and complexity.

The old "rule" about serving red wine at room temperature refers to the room temp in a drafty old German castle. Stick those red wines in the fridge for 30 minutes before serving; this will actually take the edge off the harsh taste of some red wines. Chill the white wine for a couple hours, but remove it from the fridge about 15 to 30 minutes before serving.

Use wineglasses made of clear glass. Don't pour a lot in each glass -- this is a tasting after all, not a frat party. Give each person enough for three or four sips. The point is to analyze and enjoy the wine. Later everyone can fill their glasses with the remainders of their favorite and get down to partying.

Here's a hint on how not to look like a newbie wine drinker -- never hold the glass by wrapping your hand around the bowl. Your body heat will warm the wine. Use the stem of the glass.

Provide water glasses and mild munchies, such as crackers and cheese -- nothing spicy to interfere with the taste of the wine. You'll also want a "dump bucket" which can be an empty pitcher. If someone doesn't like a wine or wants to keep their alcohol intake to a minimum, they can dispose of the rest of their wine to prepare for the next pouring.

See
Ask everyone to look at the wine in his or her glass. This is best done looking through the glass at a white wall or tablecloth, not up to the light. Admire the color. White wines can vary from light green to golden; red wines display colors from garnet to ruby to brick.

Swirl the wine in the glass. The wine should coat the inside of the glass, not go flying across the table. Place the glass on the table and move the base in small circles if sloshing is a problem.

OK, enough already -- stop swirling the wine. As the liquid drains back to the bottom of the glass, you may see "legs" or "tears" of liquid forming on the sides. This reveals nothing about the quality -- but like a woman, the more leg the more kick (alcohol).

Sniff
Now, stick your nose into your glass. I'm not kidding, go ahead and do it. The swirling will have released the aromas of the wine. Your nose can pick up more sensations than your tongue -- and will give you a hint of the taste. At first you may think it smells like wine or grapes. Well, yeah. But take your time and have another sniff. You'll probably smell various types of fruits, herbs or wood smells.

Try to free-associate what the smells remind you of. I have smelled everything from chocolate to diesel fuel -- and those were wines I liked! A friend once swore she smelled "grape Play-Dough" -- I have no idea what she was talking about. The one smell you don't want is something like moldy newspapers. This means the wine is "corked" -- air got past the cork and into the bottle, ruining the wine. Most wine stores will refund your money if you bring the unfinished bottle back.

Sip
Finally, it's time to taste. Take a sip and swirl it around in your mouth, over your whole tongue. At wine tastings, it's not rude to make slurping noises, but try not to dribble. You may pick up different flavors than you got when smelling.

Swallow and notice how long you continue to taste the wine. This is called the aftertaste or finish. If the reason you drink wine is to enjoy the taste, then economically you want a wine you can taste longer. Compare a $4 bottle of wine that lasts about 30 seconds on your tastebuds to a $8 wine that lasts 90 seconds, and you'll see the second bottle is a much better bargain because you're getting more flavor for your money.

Discuss among yourselves
Now's the amusing part. Discuss and compare the wines. Remember there are no "right answers" in evaluating a wine. A good wine is what you think is good. Don't be ashamed if you liked one of the cheaper wines. If it's inexpensive, you'll be willing to experiment matching the wine with different foods and you won't need a special occasion to open a bottle.

Flashback to your school years -- it's time to take notes. Write down which wines you liked and why. Make note of the wine type, name, year, the region and what you liked about it. Thankfully there's no test, these notes will help you in future wine shopping.

"Try to build a relationship with a wine shop that treats you like a human being," explains Alsop. "You can go in and say 'I loved this wine' and they'll tell you 'Then you'll probably also like this.' You can expand the range of wines you enjoy." As you can see, your first wine tasting is just a jumping off point for a lifetime of enjoyable research!

 
-- Updated: Jan. 29, 2003
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See Also
How to save money on good wine
Vinvesting: Expensive not always better
Money-saving tips for the wealthy
Financial advice glossary
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