Wine means a lot of things to a lot of people. For some it’s a hobby, for others it’s religious. For some it’s just a type of alcohol, for others it’s a lifestyle. Some may find it unappetizing, while others swear they couldn’t live without it.
But we can all agree on one thing—wine has been around for centuries, enjoyed all over the world by all groups of people, and it’s not going anywhere.
So, it’s a no-brainer to host an event where you can toast, taste and sip wine.
“There’s nothing quite like a wine-tasting event,” says Kent Benson, owner of Swirl Wine School in the St. Cloud area. “It’s instantly inviting and creates an atmosphere of camaraderie.”
PUT ON YOUR SCHOLAR HAT
At Swirl, which provides customers with in-home tastings, corporate events, customer events, six-part wine courses and much more, the main goal is to instill confidence in attendees’ ability to select wines they will enjoy drinking, which is what inspired Benson— who’s also a certified wine educator and certified sommelier—to get into the industry in the first place.
“Like most people, I was intimidated by all of the options,” he says. “I wanted to be able to do more than randomly select something solely based on price. The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn more.”
And education is a perfect starting point for a wine tasting.
Bill Coy is a wine education extraordinaire. The wine writer for Mpls.St.Paul Magazine and owner of Vintage U Inc.—a winetasting company in Minneapolis—has been in the business since he was a bartender at the Rainbow Room in New York City many years ago. He’s passionate about wine, but he’s also passionate about teaching others.
“It’s always fun to explain something that [guests] don’t know,” he says.
One example? Earlier this summer, Coy held an event where he informed guests, among other things, that Kim Crawford (that of a stellar sauvignon blanc) was a man. Truly shocking for some.
“There is always something new to find out about wine,” he says. “Everybody from a complete novice to a connoisseur can learn more every day.”
Part of what Coy does is lead food-and-wine-pairing dinners. For him, he makes it approachable and fun—steering away from a classroom-type setting. If you’re hiring someone to lead a tasting or provide a class, ensure they only talk big picture. Those interested in more specific information can approach the wine expert later on to get answers to more specific questions, from those looking for a wine they had on their honeymoon to those who want to know what “finish” is in the wine vernacular. (It’s simply a fancy word for aftertaste. Who’d have thought?) In doing this, the class isn’t sidetracked, and guests still receive the general background that serves the purpose of the event.
Twin Cities Wine Education is another great source for hosting educational wine activities. Opened in 1998, the company offers public classes, private tastings, corporate events and more. “Wine is an intimidating subject for many, but it really doesn’t have to be,” says Jason Kallsen, owner. “It’s fermented grape juice that brings us joy.”
PICK YOUR POISON
In hosting a tasting or other wine event, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, choose a theme. Doing so allows you to focus on one subject, giving you a broader knowledge base and larger scope.
Benson advises starting with regions, grape varieties or producers as topics easy to dive into.
Kallsen, who originally planned to be a high school teacher before a server job led to a passion in wine, agrees that starting simple is great, but outof-the-box activities as an accompaniment should also be considered. Think wrapping the bottles in foil and numbering them and having guests vote for their favorites. He also notes snacks are important—cheeses, breads, meats and plenty of water.
“Don’t complicate it,” he says. “Just keep it to hedonism and enjoyment.”
Blind comparisons also make for great events. “One of the best ways to learn about wine is to taste them without knowing what they are,” says Benson. “It takes a little more planning, but it’s well worth the extra effort.”
Leslee D. Miller, owner of the Minneapolis-based Amusée—which dabbles in everything from private parties and team-building activities to corporate events and client appreciation dinners—has plenty of experience with themes, working wine-and-golf events, wine-andbeer tastings, wine-and-floral pairings, yoga-themed wine events, wine/cooking classes and international trips. The options are endless.
Bottom line: It doesn’t matter what the theme or event type is, rather the experiences guests bring to the table. “[Wine events] are so different because they get people to open up because wine is so personal to many people, and wine is educative,” she says. “Wine is a completely engaging experience.”
THE NUTS AND BOLTS
At any wine event—be it educational or another nature—greet guests with a glass of sparkling wine or champagne so they feel welcomed. Wine tastings are hugely popular right now, and showing guests you thought ahead makes them feel appreciated. “[Wine] makes people feel special,” says Coy. “[A greeting] shows you’re putting a little extra effort into the party.”
After the initial greeting, Coy recommends meeting guests in the middle, and selecting at least one red and one white to please everyone’s palate.
Miller emphasizes that hiring an expert is the best way to host a successful event. “Find somebody that is certified; find someone who is licensed [to lead a tasting],” she says. “Make sure they are licensed and insured so you’re not putting your company at risk.”
Coy encourages letting professionals take the lead. Give them a budget, time and place, but let them suggest ideas and come up with something tailored perfectly to what you’re looking for.
“You want to give them the leeway to shine where they shine,” says Coy. “You almost always are better off letting [experts] do what they do best.”
As for the number of wines you should feature at a tasting, Benson recommends eight, although 12 is doable. Pours should be less than 2 ounces. (Eight wines at 2 ounces is about three regular glasses.) And even if there is no food, make sure to supply water and bread or crackers. “Any more than that, and the event can go too long and you run the risk of someone drinking too much,” he says. “Over the course of a couple hours, most guests should remain unimpaired.”
After deciding on the wine specifics, you must consider the décor. Avoid aromas that could interfere with the tasting—candles and perfumes can have a huge impact. Provide good stemware, as mediocre glasses do have an effect on the taste and smell. Though it may seem counterintuitive, use a white tablecloth. The contrast will give attendees a better ability to compare the wine colors. Finally, give something—a list of the wines tasted perhaps—to guests so they remember what they liked best.
“Wine is one of the great social lubricants,” says Kallsen. “It makes our thoughts more profound, our jokes better and our dance moves awesome.”
And indeed it does, but Benson notes there are other benefits, too. The first, and most important, is simply how much fun wine can be. “Wine is all about enjoying life, and a wine-tasting event is the perfect opportunity to demonstrate that,” he says.
The second is the opportunity it gives guests to expand their knowledge—whether big or small— about wine and all it has to offer. Even the few hours they might spend at the event provides them with an experience that will lead them far into the future.
Benson notes that for some guests, a tasting event is the first time they will look more deeply into what wine is all about. “Just the simple act of swirling a wine before it’s smelled is an astonishing eye-opener for some people,” he says.
Miller agrees that wine can, in a small way, change people’s lives. Guests can take away what they learn and apply it when picking up wine at the store or ordering at dinner. In her opinion, wine events work because of their uniqueness and the different experiences and knowledge people bring to them—wine truly brings people together.
“When you do a blind taste and people smell, they actually engage their sense and evoke memories,” she says. “The next thing you know, people are sharing stories about a bottle or experiences or something they’ve done with their life.”
Kallsen notes that aside from bringing people together, wine fosters deeper and more interesting conversation. “A wine-focused private event enables a topic of discussion that is often intimidating for many, interesting for most and entertaining for all,” he says. “It’s a rare opportunity to learn, taste, laugh and enjoy all at once.”
Kallsen likens wine to music. Upon hearing a new song, you tap your foot, you search for its name, you download it and you buy more from that artist. “You don’t need to figure out why you like it,” he says. “And you definitely don’t need someone to justify your enjoyment.”
At the end of the day, whether it’s a $5 or $500 bottle, all that matters is that you and your guests like it and that you’re drinking in good company.
“If it tastes good to you or the general public, then it’s good wine,” says Coy. “Drink wines you like with people you love because it tastes better.”
AN ASSOCIATION FOR WINEMAKERS
When you think of Minnesota agriculture, winemaking probably doesn’t land high on the list. Napa. Rome. Bordeaux. These are places that make you think of wine. And while Minnesota is not close to their scale, we do have our own little niche.
According to Steven Unverzagt—marketing director of the Minnesota Grape Growers Association—there are approximately 50 wineries across the state with about 2,000 acres of vineyards and 20 grape varieties that can be planted and successfully grown here.
Unverzagt knows what he’s talking about—MGGA just had its 40th anniversary (40 years dedicated to wine—you can’t beat that) and boasts about 500 members. So, while corn, walleye and food on a stick are more Minnesota’s style, our wine industry is nothing to scoff at.
COOKS OF CROCUS HILL
Cooks of Crocus Hill has been on the Minnesota food scene for over 43 years, offering classes, hosting private events and selling everything you need to be a professional chef. And, of course, wine is a big part of what they do. “Wine has been an important part of our food experience since the very beginning,” says Susie Tucker, director of culinary sales. The culinary company has three locations across Minnesota with a fourth opening in Minneapolis’ North Loop neighborhood. All of which have hosted blind wine tastings, step-by-step tasting seminars, wine pairings and basically anything else you can think of. “We’ve offered private experiences for almost 20 years,” says Tucker. “We’re innovators in this area.”