3 Ways To Host a Blind Wine Tasting Event
Wine tasting is always a fun event. For my wedding we wanted to select the wines we wanted to serve to our guests. My fiance and I both knew the wines we liked but with a larger sample size, we would get a better idea of what the majority of guests would prefer to drink. That being said, we wanted to make sure our taste testers were not influenced by personal bias towards certain brands so we did a double blind competition to find the wine people liked best! It ended up being a really fun process that broke up some of the tedious parts of wedding planning.
Hosting a blind tasting may seem like something only the pros can do, but actually can be easy - it is a great way to select wine for an event, test your wine tasting skills, or just to have fun with friends and family. In this post we'll teach you 3 ways to host a wine tasting:
Single Blind Tasting
The single blind tasting is the easiest way to hold a tasting event. In the single blind tasting one person will know what the wines are but all other participants will not. The organizer can either participate or not, but they will know which wine is which.
To start, have all the participants leave the room. Bring out your wines. We of course were most recent tasting chardonnays. Place them in random order so you don't bias the tasting by putting them from least expensive to most expensive or some other logical order. Just so you don't get confused it is best to write the order down on a piece of paper in case the bottles get mixed up down the road.
Next, take tinfoil (or a brown bag) and wrap the wines so people won't know which wine is which. Two tips here: 1. take the cover off the top of the wine bottle. Even it it is just a solid color sometimes people may know what it is. I could always identify Rombauer blue for example ;-). 2. make sure to take the corks out before inviting people back in. The corks often have the winery name on them. Now label the bottles 1 through 4 so if your tasters move the bottles around you won't mix up the order.
Invite your tasters back in and start your tasting! Everyone will have a great time as they try to identify flavors in the wine and decide on the factors you choose to rate on. I typically have people write down what they taste in the wine, their guess on price, and ranking favorite to least favorite. But mostly I just want people to have fun and feel like wine experts. It is up to you, but I am a fan of letting people taste, repour and retaste again so they have a good chance to decide which wines they like. Everyone has a good time as you reveal which wine was the favorite and who got closest to the actual price. Note: When scoring the favorites I add up each person's rating and the wine with the lowest rating wins (see below with Wine 3 winning).
Double Blind Tasting
The double blind tasting is a little more difficult logistically but it is still easy to do. With this method the organizer gets to participate with the other tasters as he/she will not know which wine is which. Just like in the single blind tasting the organizer will need to take the top off the wine and remove the cork before wrapping the wines in tinfoil. Write down the order of the wines on a sheet of paper but do not write the numbers on the wine. (see below for step 1)
Take the piece of paper with the wines and their order and hide it from the group. Now it is time for one of your participants to complete the second part of setting up the double blind tasting. Without moving the bottles, have them write numbers 1 - 4 in any order they like on the bottles. In the example below my second organizer chose to label them 2, 4, 1, 3. She then writes down the order I placed them in as 1, 2, 3, 4 and associates her order with each wine so 1 = 2, 2 = 4, 3 = 1 and 4 = 3. Have your second organizer hide their piece of paper which is the key for which wine is which. Now they can place the wines in order according to the number on the tinfoil (1,2,3,4). The first organizer now will not know which wine is which and can taste with the rest of the group on even playing ground.
After you are done you can reverse engineer which wine was which by putting the two hidden cards back together. i.e. After tasting, the wine labeled #3 was the wine that was #4 when the wines were left out for marking on so it was the David Bruce chardonnay (see picture above). You can also just reveal the wines by taking off the tinfoil, but where is the nerdy fun in that!?
Double Blind Advanced
This type of tasting is the most expensive to put together but it is also the most fun. When I put these tasting on I usually have people get into teams of two so they can discuss the flavors. It's also fun to watch the team dynamics between couples and friends as they try to work together to win the game. I find it is more challenging to do this wine tasting with similar reds (i.e. Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cab) but you can also do it with white wines (Sav Blanc, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay). The added fun to this tasting is that you bring in the age of the wine as a component of the game. For this blind tasting you will need a newer vintage and an older vintage of 3 different brands. So maybe a 2005 Robert Mondavi Merlot and a 2014 Robert Mondavi Merlot then the same for the two other wine varietals (but choose different wineries for each type of grape).
Not everyone knows what older wines taste like, so to make things a little easier this event starts out with a pre-tasting. You choose some combination of 3 wines with a mix of new and old vintages like in the photo to the left. You will be best off if you have 9 bottles of wine total in this example (although 6 will do):
The next round is where the blind tasting comes in. In this round the organizer follows the steps for the regular blind tasting but with 6 wines. The organizer should not put the wines in any noticable order before they put the tinfoil on (i.e. don't put new pinot, old pinot, new merlot, old merlot, new cab, old cab) even though organizer 2 wouldn't know). Make sure to write down the order and which wines they are before putting the tin foil on. Then organizer 2 numbers the bottles at random 1 - 6 writing down the associated position and noting the number on the tin foil. Then organizer 2 puts the bottles in order by the number on the tin foil 1 to 6. The wines now wrapped in tinfoil should match the types (but not the order) of wine below.
Organizer 1 and the rest of the party can come in to taste the wines now! In addition to price and the order of favorite to least favorite you now can add "which brand do you think the wine is?" and "is this an old vintage or a newer vintage?" When I put on one of these tastings we score 1 point for old v. new and 2 points for guessing the brand/grape varietal. I usually have a prize for the taster(s) with the best score.
However you decide to host your tasting you'll have a great time enjoying wine with friends and family. I always learn a little something about the way I compare wines when I participate in these tastings. Enjoy and please leave any comments on your experiences!
Wente Vineyards and a new discovery, Lone Dove Winery
On our quest for great buttery chardonnay we traveled out to Livermore Valley on a Saturday to see what the region offered. First off, Livermore is a nice area filled with cool restaurants and a fun "small town" vibe. It is much more laid back than Napa Valley and lends itself well to a casual day of wine tasting. One thing to note, most tasting rooms in Napa open up around 9:30am or 10:00am but the earliest opening we saw of the wineries we wanted to go to was 11:00am -most open at noon. The first winery we went to and one we'd been to before was Wente Vineyards. Wente is probably the most well known winery of the Livermore Valley wineries and they had a very nice tasting. The staff was very friendly and they even let us taste some extra wines!
We only got to taste two of the chardonnays during our visit although I think they were the most relevant ones for Chardonnay Box. We started with the Morning Fog Chardonnay which is a very nice crowd pleaser chardonnay. It was not overly buttery or crisp, just a very good drinkable wine for anytime drinking or for a party where you have a diverse group of wine drinkers. I got a mixture of flavors that seemed like they mixed a sauvignon blanc with their chardonnay. It had a nice acidity with a hint of lemon zest. The second chardonnay and definitely one our fans will like is the Riva Ranch Chardonnay. This is one I get at the grocery store often as it is a good price and has great flavor (note: this wine had not chilled for very long when we tasted it so the flavors were even stronger). The Riva Ranch is filled with rich oak and butter. I got a bit of toasted marshmallow immediately after the oak and butter. The flavor that followed was an amazing creamier version of the dessert bananas foster. Notes of vanilla, cream with some banana mixed in and a delicious brown sugar to round it out. Don't worry, although I got a dessert flavor out of the chardonnay, the wine is far from sweet. Just a really great chardonnay all around.
In addition to the chardonnay, we got to taste some great red wine as well. The son of the winemaker, Karl Wente, created a sub brand within Wente called Nth° where he takes the absolute best grapes and make Wente's most premium wines. We did not get to taste the Nth° Chardonnay (although I have had it before and it is amazing) but we did get to try the Nth° Merlot. It was so fantastic I had to buy a bottle. These wines are very difficult to get unless you go to the winery or they do have an Nth° degree wine club where you get each wine as it is released. It's a pricy club but if you can afford it I guarantee you won't be disappointed.
We went to a couple other wineries but none that surprised me as much as Lone Dove. Lone Dove did not show up on Google Maps (2.25.17) but we found a Yelp page and were able to locate the tasting area. It sits in what looks like a temporary wine tasting area with 3 other wineries. They probably had upwards of 20 wines and so many of them were just delicious. They have quite a few white wines and a whole line of rosés which you don't see as often these days when tasting. I was blown away with how much I liked each of the different wines. They did a great job on their reds as well.
I got to meet the winemaker George while I was there and really enjoyed my conversation with him. He takes what he calls a "spice rack" approach to making wine where he has numerous say, chardonnays, that he can mix together to make the optimal wine that his customers will love. For example, he might have some stainless steel fermented chardonnay, some American oak barreled chardonnay and some chardonnay in French oak barrels that have been toasted to bring out more flavor. He will then mix and match until he gets the perfect wine. And he can experiment as he gets feedback from his customers. Additionally, George was a ton of fun to chat with and made the Lone Dove "tasting room" experience very memorable.
Most people who come to Northern California wine country may not have enough time to get out of Napa/Sonoma but if you can or if you live in the area and want a fun and laid back alternative, make the trip to Livermore Valley for a day or two. It's really fun, the people are so nice and, bonus, the tasting fees tend to be lower! ~ Have fun!
I made a quick trip up to Napa this week to taste at some wineries around the downtown area and had a wonderful tasting experience at JaM Cellars followed by a great culinary experience at Oenotri. While at Oenotri I revisited a hidden gem chardonnay I had tasted about 4 years ago.
First off, JaM Cellars has a cool tasting room that does live music every Friday night. You can really tell that a lot of passion went into creating the retro music vibe theme they have there.
If you already know JaM Cellars you probably know that I was drawn there by the call of their flagship chardonnay, "Butter." Don't let the name fool you, this chardonnay has way more than just a delicious buttery flavor. It starts with a wonderful chardonnay aroma that immediately gets you excited about your first sip. Like it's name, you definitely get that great butter flavor, but I would describe it more as the flavor you get when you put melted butter on brown sugar. Pure deliciousness. The winemaker did an amazing job of counterbalancing the butter with a slight minerality that rounds out the wine nicely. The wine finishes off with a hint of pineapple that invites you to take your next sip.
What is even more exciting about tasting chardonnay at JaM Cellars is that in addition to their California Butter Chardonnay, they have a Napa Butter Chardonnay which is sourced from premier grapes in Napa. In the picture it looks like two bottles of the same wine but you can tell the difference on the bottom of the bottle to see if it is Napa or California Butter.
The Napa Butter was a real treat. It is much more complex than the California Butter. First off, you get toasted marshmallow on the nose with just a hint of brown sugar. The first flavor that hits your tongue is sweetness. Not overpowering in any way, just a nice start to a fantastically balanced chardonnay. As the unique flavors of the wine start to emerge I got hints of roasted pineapple. If you have ever been to a Brazilian BBQ (churrascaria) and had them bring out the roasted pineapple on a sword, that is what it tasted like. The flavor is followed up with a mix of very soft vanilla and melon. I was chatting with the super friendly staff saying that the wine is so well balanced that it is quite difficult to pick out specific flavors. It's just a wine you want to just kick back and sip on. The only downside of the Napa Butter is if you want it you can only buy it from the tasting room.
Insider tip: they did tell me that if you call in you can place an order with the staff and they will ship it to you!
After the tasting I went across the street to Oenotri for dinner. I had been quite a few years ago but had forgotten how great their food is. They do traditional Southern Italian cuisine and they have it mastered. If you are in Napa I highly recommend making Oenotri part of your trip. As a huge bonus for my buttery chardonnay audience, they serve a hidden gem chardonnay here. Make sure you order the Rodde "Coombsville" Chardonnay. You can't get it at the winery or anywhere else that I know of except at the restaurant (as of 1/20/17). If you don't have time for dinner Oenotri has a bar area where you can order the Coombsville by the glass.
A gem on the road to finding the best buttery chardonnays
Last week I was up in Sonoma on business and had a couple extra hours to kill so I went out in search of more great buttery chardonnay for our customers. In my searching I came across one mention of a tasting room in Napa that apparently had excellent chardonnay. Now, when I call this tasting room a hidden gem it is somewhat of a double entendre because it is both excellent and hard to find physically. I tried to find it with Google Maps and the icon, although close, was not where the actually tasting room was. I ended up having to ask some of the staff of the Meritage Resort & Spa how to find the winery. On the map you can see that it's best to park in the back and walk down what looks like a deliveries entrance to get to the winery.
The tasting room it'self is in a cave where the hotel spa is as well. The website claims it is 40 feet underground which unfortunately is not an elevator taking you down to a subterranean cave but a tunnel built into the side of a hill that leads you to rooms under the vineyard. Still very cool though. I was there on a Tuesday and it was not too crowded but given the size of the tasting room and the fact that the hotel (and the one next to it) probably promote tastings there, I am sure it would be busy on the weekends.
The chardonnays at Trinitas are just fantastic. My tasting notes on the 2013 Chardonnay Carneros said "reminds me of Rombauer with less butter." I went on to taste the 2010 & 2013 Proprietors Reserve Chardonnay which were quite different. It was amazing to me that a 2010 could last that long and taste so good. In speaking with the staff they told me that the wine maker does his best to not agitate his wines while they are in the barrel and he minimizes air going into the barrels while they age. This allows the wine to mature without oxidation and is apparently part of the secret to how they get ageable chardonnays. It is hearsay but apparently one of the wine makers from Rombauer came to taste at Trinitas and said that they had great wines, so if the winemaker of my favorite chardonnay likes it, it must be good!
And for the tasting notes:
Trinitas 2013 Carneros Chardonnay
Nice oak and butter with a hint of brown sugar. This wine is made with half American oak and half Russian oak which leaves it with a lighter oak taste than 100% American or French oak. Interestingly, although the flavor has more of the buttery characteristics I love, it has a green apple aroma. And as I stated above, this wine reminds me of Rombauer. I think it is the hint of brown sugar which I don't tend to find in a lot of chardonnays but I think ads to Rombauer's perfect flavor. The staff described this as more of a cinnamon/apple pie flavor. $32
Trinitas 2013 Proprietors Reserve Chardonnay
This wine was great all around. It had a wonderful vanilla on the nose which made you just want to dive into it. It had great butter and oak which comes from 95% American oak, 5% Russian oak and 100% malolactic fermentation. This chardonnay was great because the oak and butter last on your tongue for quite some time. My notes say this is a "must have." $40
Trinitas 2010 Proprietors Reserve Chardonnay
This was a really cool part of my tasting. I actually got to taste the 2010 vs. the 2013. Now, you might think the 2010 would be over-the-hill but this wine was great. The wine starts with a wonderful mixture of toast, popcorn and marshmallow on the nose. I literally sat there just smelling the wine for a bit before tasting it. The chardonnay had some interesting flavors that I would not commonly use to describe a chardonnay but I think worked well together. I got a hint of campfire as the wine hit my tongue. It was not obtrusive at all (i.e. like a smoky scotch) but was inviting as the wines flavors developed. I picked up butter and oak next with a combination of whipped cream and lemonade. Lastly I picked up a subtle green olive flavor as the aftertaste. So, as I said, strange flavors to describe a chardonnay but I guarantee you, it worked.
Trinitas 2012 Family Collection Rutherford Chardonnay
This wine I described as a jewel. The wine spends significant time in new oak and goes through 100% malolactic fermentation. The first thing you notice is the aroma which gives off a beautiful oak marshmallow nose with butter, vanilla and cream. I even put in my notes "Wow! And I have not even tasted it yet." The first sip is like buttered popcorn in your mouth and you can taste that this wine has sat in oak for extra time. There is a slight bitterness but it rounds out into a fine cream. I tend to be pretty good at picking out and describing flavors but this wine is so complex that I had trouble picking out all of the subtle changes. Pricey at $65 but worth getting a bottle for a special occasion.
The chardonnays were so good here that I decided to try some of the reds as well. I recommend this if you have time. This winery has truly great wines.
A great time to go to wine country and a fun place to explore
This past weekend we took a trip up to wine country to do some research for Chardonnay Box. Every time I go up there at this time of year I am reminded of how gorgeous wine country is during the fall. Unlike many other parts of California, the vineyards actually have seasons similar to the North East. We felt like "leafers" headed up from Boston or New York to catch the changing colors in Vermont, New Hampshire & Maine.
We stopped at a few wineries along the way and then stayed over in Healdsburg, catching some of the wineries in the town square before they closed.
One of the more interesting sections of our drive was in the Dry Creek region. I had never been there before and it was truly beautiful. Interestingly, there is an ordinance in Dry Creek that you cannot hold events (such as weddings) there. It is zoned for farming and small business only. They claim to do this because the roads are small and they don't want the traffic congestion. It definitely helps to keep a small town feel in the region - although a wedding would be gorgeous here!
Our main stop in the Dry Creek region was at Ferrari Carano where we got to taste in both their reserve room and their main tasting room. The reserve room is a cavernous room down in the basement and is decorated with beautiful dark wood and stone. Even if you make it there and don't feel like doing the reserve tasting it is definitely worth going downstairs to take a look. Upstairs we tasted Ferrari Carano's mainstream chardonnay which is absolutely wonderful and for the price point it is well worth it. Downstairs we got to taste some impressive chardonnays that left us saying WOW after each sip of wine. Below are my notes on these wines:
2014 Fiorella Chardonnay
This chardonnay was very interesting. It definitely had some nice buttery notes to it but there was a decent amount of minerality. Fortunately that minerality was balanced out by a smooth oakyness. I noticed a bit of a dry sensation on the tongue as an aftertaste.
2013 Tre Terre Chardonnay
This chardonnay had much less minerality than the Fiorella. The oak and butter in the chardonnay were well balanced although not quite as pronounced as Ferrari Carano's mainstream chardonnay in my opinion. The subtlety of the balance makes this wine one that you would want to enjoy slowly to really appreciate the soft flavors.
2013 Chardonnay Reserve - Carneros
Well, I just can't say enough about this wine. My first tasting note was "just delicious." As you get into the reserve chardonnays in general you start to pick out some additional distinct flavors that really show the time and effort the winemaker put into each bottle. This reserve chardonnay has a lovely flavor of sweet vanilla. The sweetness is just right (not like a sweet wine) and when paired with the creamy butter and subtle oak, it creates a truly wonderful wine experience.