Call me biased, but I think a wine tasting is one of the best ways to entertain. It's not just any old party–it's kind of like a gastronomic treasure hunt. You and your friends spend the evening exploring different wines and discovering new favorites, and experiencing how the flavor of a wine can change radically when it's paired with food. With this plan, it's easy to host a tasting of your own.
Why pinot? I loved pinot when pinot wasn't cool. It's my favorite red because of its earthy fragrance and satiny texture, and it pairs well with a variety of foods. This tasting highlights four different varieties of pinot noir. Fewer than that gives you little to compare, and more than that is hard to manage.
Wine specifics. Each of the wines is from a different U.S. region–the Willamette Valley in Oregon, and California's Carneros, Central Coast (or Monterey), and Sonoma Coast regions. All cost about the same (around $21 a bottle), so the quality of each is comparable. You'll need two bottles of each (eight total) for this particular six-person party. It's fine to substitute other pinots; your local wine shop can suggest similar wines with similar prices.
The floor plan. A buffet-style tasting like this is really low maintenance. Create five stations: a wine station, where you'll compare the wines to each other, and four pairing stations, where you'll experience the interplay between each wine and its matching dish. Arrange the stations in different areas of your house–in the kitchen or on the coffee table, sideboard, dining table, or deck, for instance–so guests can move, mingle, and sip at their own paces.
The wine station. It should have one opened bottle of each wine; guests should pour 1- to 2-ounce tasting portions.
The pairing stations. Each features one opened bottle of wine and the dish it's paired with, plus a pitcher or bottle of water and water glasses. We've paired the Sonoma Coast wine with a Chocolate, Cheese, and Berry Platter; for this station, serve up your favorite quality dark chocolate, smoked cheddar or Gouda, and sweet-tart berries.
When your guests arrive, give each one a glass and a tasting note sheet so they can jot down their reactions. Encourage them to hit the wine station first, then the pairing stations to try the wines with the dishes.
Before you start sipping, though, run through these simple tasting steps:
Look. Tilt the glass against a white background (your tasting sheet or a napkin) to look for any variations in the pinot's translucent, ruby-red color.
Swirl. This is the best way to aerate the wine and release its scents and flavors (just popping the cork doesn't let in much air at all).
Smell. You might pick up on fruity notes–cherry, raspberry–as well as earthiness, smokiness, and even a slightly sweet vanilla scent.
Savor. You don't have to slurp the way pros do, but do let the wine coat your palate so you can get the full flavor and texture.
Rate. Rank the wines on a scale of 1 to 4, in order of preference. Each guest will do this twice: once when they visit the wine station, and again after they've experienced each pairing. After everyone's had a chance to run through the stations once, collect the rankings and tally the scores; the wine with the lowest score is the winner. (Hint: For an instant cleanup crew, promise a bottle to anyone who stays to help–always works for me.)