Swirl, Sip, Savor

How to host a wine tasting dinner

Jeff Amberg

Drinking good wine with good food in good company is one of life’s most civilized pleasures,” says Michael Broadbent, renowned British wine critic. As one of the most experienced lecturers and writers on wine, Broadbent’s teachings and opinions influence wine connoisseurs across the globe, and his statement regarding the fellowship of wine tasting rings true for wine enthusiasts of all nationalities. Congregating with friends to share in the pleasure of fine cuisine and wine brings together old and new acquaintances for an entertaining evening of laughter and conversation. In particular, a wine tasting dinner provides the opportunity for an intimate group of guests to enjoy an extended evening of choice wine, food, and friendship. 

On a warm fall evening in Columbia, Pete Strom and his fiancé, Susan Edwards, invited guests for a wine tasting dinner party. A gathering of eight, the party congregated in the sunroom and outdoor patio that contains a sweeping view of Forest Lake. As guests meandered around the bricked patio, the hum of conversation mixed with soft background music. Gentle evening light bathed each guest in a warm glow as they sipped Bollinger Champagne and ate Osetra Caviar, provided by Crawford Pressley, chef and owner of Loosh Culinaire Fine Catering in Columbia. A classic presentation, the Osetra Caviar was accompanied by crème fraiche, shallots, egg white, egg yolk, capers, as well as thin crackers and blinis. The capers diverge from the classic caviar hors d’oeuvre and provide an alternative option to caviar, while allowing guests to enjoy a similar culinary experience. 

As the twilight hour faded, Pete and Susan ushered their guests indoors towards his extensive wine cellar, where candlelight illuminated a banquet table draped in a white linen tablecloth. The fiery candle glow accentuated the cellar’s floor-to-ceiling wooden wine racks that contained an eclectic collection of fine wines acquired from around the world. 

Seated at the banquet table within the chilled cellar, guests buzzed with excited chatter as Crawford whisked out the first of five courses — a dish of Blue Fin Tuna Crudo, which contained cucumber and yuzu, micro capers, shallots, verjus, and first-pressed kalamanta olive oil. Crawford chose this light dish to start the menu so that the guests’ palate would not become overwhelmed at the dinner’s beginning. “The food and wine combinations need to increase in richness as the meal progresses,” Crawford instructed. “Regarding the wine menu, this often means starting out with lighter-bodied whites and progressing to rich, full-bodied reds.” 

In keeping with the light first food course, Pete served both red and white wines –– a 2014 Reserve Pinot Noir from Ponzi Vineyards in Willamette Valley and a 2009 Savennières produced by Domaine des Baumard from a single vineyard, Clos du Papillon. “By serving a red wine and a white wine, I invite my guests to compare how the different wines present with the food,” Pete said. 

The pinot noir from Ponzi Vineyards contained a rich flavor delivered in an elegant package. “The blue fin tuna is flavorful with texture, yet is remarkably delicate. The same can be said for Ponzi’s pinot noir,” shared Ingrid Chambas of Aleph Wines and Spirits, who helped select the wines for the tasting dinner. Furthermore, the salinity of the blue fin tuna brought out the fruit within the pinot noir, and vice versa. The Savennières was a very dry, concentrated chenin blanc with tremendous minerality. The richness of this white wine and its minerality complemented the sweeter notes of the tuna, and the yuzu and capers helped pull citrus fruit flavors from the wine. 

Crawford expounded upon the wine, naming the first course pairing as his favorite: “The first course exemplified two approaches to wine pairing — complement and contrast, and it demonstrated that both red and white wines can work with the same dish.” He continued, “The ripe tannin on the pinot noir brought depth to the dish that did not otherwise exist, while the acid and white fruit of the Savennières complemented the acid in the dish. Both were excellent matches.” 

Before guests tasted the wine and food pairings, Crawford explained his method of preparing a wine tasting dinner menu. The first rule when planning the menu was to ensure that the food did not overpower the wine. High acid or overly sweet sauces can overwhelm the palate and eliminate the fruit and acid of the wine, leaving nothing but the bitter qualities behind. However, in trying to keep the food from overpowering the wine, a chef might settle for uninteresting and underwhelming food. “The trick is to combine intriguing food and interesting wines –– this requires balance,” Crawford shared with the dinner party. “You want to allow the food and wine to work in harmony.” 

“That sounds like a relationship!” Susan interjected with a smirk. 

The dinner party proceeded to evaluate the wine’s “nose” by swirling wine in the glasses to produce a smell. Next, the guests tasted the wine, evaluated its merits, took a bite of the Blue Fin Tuna Crudo, and then tasted the wine again to reevaluate. “When tasting a glass of wine, the first thing you want to look at is the color,” Pete said. “With a white wine, the younger it is, the lighter the color. The older the white wine, the paler the color. However, if the wine becomes too pale, that is a signal that the wine is beyond its time. With a red wine, the brighter the wine the younger the bottle. As the red wine ages, it becomes browner around the edge, which is the classic sign of a nice, older wine. You also can look at the color to identify the type of wine.” 

Pete also explained that to properly taste a glass of wine, look at color, swirl the wine around in the glass, and smell it as different wines have different signature aromas. “Having identified certain aromas, taste the wine and swirl it around in your mouth,” he said. “Then, you want to swallow the wine and ponder how long the taste lasts in your mouth. A lower quality wine will not have much structure and will dissipate in your mouth quickly. However, a classic older wine, such as Bordeaux, will stay in your mouth for an extended period of time, which determines the length of the wine. Thus, a longer wine is better than a short wine.” 

While tasting, guests discussed opinions and impressions of the wine, calling out various detected smells or particular tastes. Murmurs of agreements or contrasting opinions echoed across the table throughout the tasting process. More experienced wine tasters offered tips and guidance, and Crawford helped guests connect food tastes with wine flavors. 

The next dinner course featured butter-poached lobster with roasted yellow corn and white field pea succotash, truffle froth, micro sorrel, and basil salad. Pete presented the selected chardonnays –– a 2008 from the village of Puligny-Montrachet in Burgundy and a 2014 Chateau Montelena from Napa Valley. This chardonnay selection adhered to an “ours versus theirs” approach that dictated wine pairings for the second, third, and fourth dinner courses. “We are pairing a wine from America and a wine from the Old World,” explained Pete. “The French wines are older, while the American wines are slightly younger. American wine is intended to be consumed at an earlier age, while the French wines peak later.”

The village of Puligny-Montrachet in Burgundy produces some of the most exquisite chardonnay in France, and the Chateau Montelena Chardonnay from Napa Valley won the best white wine in the 1976 Judgment of Paris –– a blind wine tasting that simultaneously shattered France’s conviction of the natural superiority of French wines, bolstering California’s winemaking reputation throughout the global market. Both selections were elegant chardonnays with subtle flavors that accentuated the sweetness of the lobster and cut the richness of the butter. According to Crawford, the chardonnay and the lobster together completed the circle of flavor.  

Okonomiyaki, a Japanese pancake, comprised the third course. Green cabbage, dashi, and sesame oil created the exotic flat cake, and kewpie, guanciale and a quail egg garnished the dish, adding a rich accent. Pete served two viogniers to complement the Okonomiyaki. The viognier produced in the village of Condrieu in the Rhone Valley showcased a wine considered to be the most highly regarded viognier in the world, and Jones Von Drehl’s 2015 viognier from Yadkin Valley, North Carolina, represented an exquisite selection from North America. “Viognier is a unique varietal that has the weight to combat the richness of the quail egg on the Okonomiyaki,” Ingrid said. 

The fourth course ushered in the menu’s entrée –– roasted breast of squab purchased from Palmetto Pigeon in Sumter. This flavor-packed dish contained fingerling potato dauphinoise, wilted roquette, soubise, local chanterelles, and game jus with black currants. The rich squab entrée was paired with two Bordeaux blends, a combination of cabernet sauvignon and merlot. The 2001 Chateau Latour Haut Brion, Cru Classe de Graves, and the 2010 Cook’s Flat Reserve from Smith Madrone were powerful, yet elegant wines that complemented the dark meat entrée. Within the wines, subtle tannin and dark berry fruit accented the sweet, heavy squab. This course, paired with full-bodied wines, provided a culinary climax of rich tastes for the guests. 

The final dessert course of peach cobbler combined intriguing tastes of sweet and salty and was paired with two late harvest wines –– a 2001 1er Cru Sauternes produced by Château Guiraud and a 2011 Le Vol Des Anges made by Bonny Doon Vineyard. Sauternes are late harvest, semillon-based wines made from botrytised (a rare fungus that causes raisination of the grapes) fruit, which only occurs in extremely specific climactic conditions, because of the raisination. Consequently, sauternes are rarely produced. 

“Sauternes are a rich, sweet, complex wine with an unmistakable honey-like aroma and remarkable acidity that has the capability of aging for generations,” shared Ingrid. Le Vol Des Anges, produced by Bonny Doon, is also a result of the botrytis phenomenon, the difference being the varietals of affected grapes. 

The peach cobbler combined the traditional dessert dish with seared Foie Gras and Spiced Moulard Duck Jus. This luxurious delicacy contained a juxtaposition of savory, sweet, and rich fat that complemented the sweet late harvest wines. The acid and sweet backbone of the late harvest wines drew harmony between the savory, fatty element of the foie gras, and the sweet fruity flavor of the cobbler. The duck jus, the product of the duck that produced the foie gras, brought a rich savory element, offering a very round, complete, mouthful of complexities and undulations of flavor and texture. “I like to include fare that is not commonly served,” said Crawford. “Unique dishes are a great way to broaden your guests’ horizons.”

As guests savored the peach cobbler “twist” and late harvest wines, conversation hummed and bursts of laughter erupted. Pete’s wine cellar echoed with jovial voices as each guest shared in the joy of wine tasting –– one of life’s most civilized pleasures. 

Wine Tasting Dinner Tips

Throwing a successful wine tasting dinner party is a fun and feasible event; however, attention to detail and a foundation of wine and culinary knowledge are required. Crawford Pressley shares his professional tips for planning a wine tasting dinner. Following his expert advice will ensure a lively evening of friendship, laughter, food, and most importantly, wine. 


What are the first steps to organizing a wine tasting dinner? 

Come up with a guest list of friends who share a passion for food and wine, or, even more fun, include guests who are novices, desiring to learn. Plan the menu based on group preferences –– be adventurous if you can. Then, source the wines. Go to a wine shop with your menu if you need assistance with the pairings. 


What advice would you give a beginner?

Notice that there are no flowers on the dinner table for this feature –– that’s because their fragrance can interfere with the nose and taste of the wine and food, but especially the wine.

If you plan to serve dinner and join your guests, try to plan a menu that is not too taxing. Prep the menu as much ahead of time as possible, and have everything in place –– as the French say, “Mise en place.” Group the components of each course together to avoid confusion when it comes time to plate. Heat your plates! Even fine china is safe at 160 F. Food can sit on the plate as long as 10 minutes while you plate, serve, and describe the dish while seated at the dinner table; however, hot food will maintain its heat better if served on heated plates. 


What is the ideal number of wines for tasting? 

Ideally, you want to taste as few as five wines and as many as 12 or 15 at a tasting dinner. Anything beyond that becomes difficult to assess. Plan ahead for how many wine glasses you will need for every guest as it is important to use a fresh glass for each wine.


What wine glasses do you 


I prefer Reidel glasses that are specific to the varietal and region being tasted. 

How do you determine different textures and weights of wine? 

This aspect of wine tasting will be most evident in the palate but can be seen by tilting the glass over a white background and looking at the color and translucency. A purple-red, dark, non-translucent cabernet will likely be very heavy in the palate, whereas a light, red, translucent pinot noir will likely be lighter on the palate. 


How do you detect varying aromas and flavors of wine? 

One of the most difficult parts of a tasting is vocalizing what you are experiencing.  Many specific descriptors can be used to describe the nose of a wine. Some may seem unusual, like leather, petrol, asphalt, etc. To assess the nose of a wine, first swirl the wine in your glass to oxygenate or aerate the wine. If the nose of the wine is pronounced, the aromas will be evident. If the nose is not pronounced, continue to swirl the glass in hopes that more oxygen will bring about the nose. If this fails, do not fret, as the food, if well paired, will likely bring out some aromas; smell can bring out taste, just as taste can bring out smell.


How do you evaluate the balance of flavors in wine? 

I think of tasting wine as I think of listening to music –– the majority of the character is in the midrange, and the high notes (acid) and bass notes (tannin) make for a more full experience. If the bass or treble is too prominent or not prominent enough, the sound will be awkward. The same is true with wine for similar reasons. We artificially adjust these levels with the food we pair to “create” a wine that is balanced with its underlying mid-spectrum.


What is the proper “finish” of wine? 

All wines are different in regards to their “finish.” Some are long. Some are short. A long finish is most desirable. Some wines, such as the Puligny-Montrachet featured in the second course at Pete Strom’s dinner party, have finishes that last for as long as five minutes! The finish is likely the result of a wine’s viscosity — a heavier wine will stay on the palate longer.

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