Tastings Large and Small

Looking ahead to next week's Festival of Wine & Food, Amy Ruis provides a field guide for home tasting events. For a macro version of a tasting, check out the festival and its first annual hospitality awards...Read More.

I’ll bet that at least once in the last week you thought about the upcoming holidays. It might have just been a fleeting thought like, Where are we going for Thanksgiving? or What will we do for an office Christmas party this year? or We always have our best friends over for a quiet holiday party, but we just can’t play Taboo one more time!

If your thoughts are up that alley, I have an idea that is perfect for the holidays, a crisp fall evening or the quiet doldrums of a winter’s eve: Learn while you eat and sip.

Organize a wine, beer or cheese tasting as the entertainment for your gathering. There are a variety of ways to make something like this happen; just plan ahead so that it’s done right. You may want to plan the whole event yourself, gathering the goods and doing the research, but it’s also a lot of fun to have the guests do some of the prep work, too.

Set the ground rules

  • Right off the bat, find out what your guests might enjoy. Beer? Wine? Cheese? Mustards? Maybe scotch?
  • A good tasting is focused: Forty minutes to an hour. Many try to host tastings with too many people in the room or with too many selections or with guests without the desire to focus. I recommend keeping the group tight and prepare them so they’re ready to taste and analyze when they arrive.
  • Think about how many selections you might want to have. I think six is plenty and sometimes even three or four pushes the attention span of a group. You want enough to give variety and a point of comparison, to be educational and fun, but not overbearing.

Pick a theme

  • For a wine party, do all bubbles, all pinot noir or “Italian Stallions” (that’s a big red wine theme, doesn’t necessarily refer to the guests). Or do a Michigan wine tasting.
  • For a beer party, go with Michigan Microbrews, German Gems or, for those winter months, Stouts & Porters.
  • If you want to focus on cheeses, select a wide variety — from blue to cheddar to brie and certainly something imported and stinky! After all, this is about tasting and trying new things here!

Go shopping
Decide how much or little you’re comfortable spending and go to your local specialty store. Ask for guidance on your selections. What’s nice about small, local beer/wine/cheese stores is that the staff is usually knowledgeable about the selections they’re suggesting. Rely on them! If one store isn’t excited and ready to help you, try another.

Figure about 10-12 pours from a bottle of wine. Pours for beer in a sampler are typically one 3-ounce beer per person. Stick to your pouring limits during the tasting. If there is some left afterward, THEN have more.

As for cheese, I’d say a couple of ounces of cheese per person is good – though there is never harm in having extra cheese around for post-tasting nibbling.

And serve
When I put together a tasting for people, I always suggest a particular order for tasting — and the guideline is easy to remember. Taste the lightest or mildest items first, and move toward the most strong or dark. This way your palate won’t get ‘shot’ from tasting your powerhouse items.

Have a plan for good serve ware. Beverages DO taste better when served in a ‘good’ glass (as opposed to plastic or a cheap glass). Glasses vary in shapes and sizes, so ask your local retailer what glass is best for the Belgian beer and which will allow you to smell and swirl that Malbec. If you don’t have enough glassware, you can rent, or consider having your guests bring their own wine glass or beer stein. It’s also true that cheese will taste much better when cut with a different knife and presented on a nice slate board or tray.

Learn a bit of etiquette for tastings and details about what you will be tasting. Even if you choose to have others come with a selection, have the tasting basics down to keep it organized. If you’re sampling scotch, know its history. If you’re having a blue cheese, know where it came from and its basic origin. Know at least something about how to tell the difference between a sauvignon blanc and a pinot gris, and at what temperature each should be served.

No matter the food or beverage, use all of your senses, but especially these:

Look at what you’re tasting. Is it light or dark in comparison to the others? Is it creamy? Or does it look crisp? Does it look heavy but taste light? Use visual clues as to what each should or might taste like. And sometimes it’s deceiving, so pay attention.

Again here, assess first, as you can be deceived or disappointed or delighted. Use your nose to see if it smells like it tastes. Close your eyes and focus, concentrate on the flavor.

Give it time once it hits your mouth to roll around. Use your tongue to sense the texture, the flavors and nuances. Not all goat cheeses or cabernets taste the same. And they’ll taste different when they warm up in your mouth. Breathe in as you’re tasting, taking in oxygen. Make an assessment. Take smaller amounts so you can re-taste with what’s left in your glass. Encourage note taking and compare.

Now, as you might imagine, one of the keys to your event will be your locally owned shops. Tap these resources for their knowledge and selection. And yes, I am the first one on the list, but only because it’s alphabetical.

Art of the Table – Here you can purchase all of the items you desire for your tasting: From drinks and eclectic cheese to the plates you serve them on and the glasses you drink from. The staff will customize your tasting, guiding you through selections and finding fun serving and table décor. 606 Wealthy St. SE, Grand Rapids www.artofthetable.com 616.301.1885

Erika’s Deli – Erika’s has a small but funky Euro selection of imported cheeses and meats. It’s big in the catering department as well. 3989 Cascade Rd. SE, Grand Rapids www.erikasdeli.net 616.942.1450

G.B. Russo & Son – A wide variety of selections all around but known for their Italian expertise, the Russos can recommend wines and cheeses and are willing to give referrals if you would like an expert on hand during your event. 2770 29th St. SE Grand Rapids www.gbrusso.com 616.942.2980

Grand River Grocery – These guys are always willing to put together a custom tasting for your needs. They’ve got all the goodies on hand. 496 Ada Dr. SE Ada www.grandrivergrocery.com 616.676.9292

Martha’s Vineyard – Complete catering and selections abound. Glass and dishes rental available. 200 Union Ave. NE Grand Rapids 616.459.0911

Pauly’s – If you’re on the Lowell side of things, check out this shop’s large selection of Michigan wines. They’re expanding the beer selections as we speak. 11250 Fulton, East Lowell www.paulys.net 616.897.2669

Sicilianos – Want to make your own beer or wine and try it out with friends? They’ve got the supplies. Or if you just want the shop with possibly the most options of beer in town, make this pilgrimage to the west side. 2840 Lake Michigan Dr. Grand Rapids 616.453.9674 www.sicilianosmkt.com

Amy Ruis owns and operates Art of the Table, a specialty food, beverage, and tabletop retail store in the Wealthy Street Business District. She blogs at www.artofthetable.com/talk and you can reach her at [email protected]
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