Pros Weigh In: 5 Tips To Starting (An Amazing) Wine Tasting Group

wine tasting group

Everyone knows that the best way to learn about wine is by tasting it. And there’s no better way to do that than by creating your very own wine tasting group that meets regularly.

“Tasting in a group setting with people you are building a friendship with can be less intimidating than tasting in other formal settings,” says Desiree Harrison-Brown, wine educator. “The pros of having a regular tasting group are becoming a better taster, tasting diverse wines that you might not usually go for, and – best of all – splitting the cost of the wines!” 

But, what sets a productive wine tasting group apart from one that’s not so educational or – even worse – one that’s downright boring? We talked to top wine educators and experts for their best tips for setting up a regular wine tasting group.

Establish a Group Goal

Tasting groups can come in all shapes and sizes, but it’s important to consider – and make clear – the goals from the start, Harrison-Brown says.

“It may not be beneficial for someone studying for Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) to be in a group with more casual tasters just doing it for fun,” she says. “While it can be beneficial to have varying levels of tasters in one group, the tasting format should align with the group’s goals.”

Marianne Frantz, president and founder of American Wine School, agrees that deciding on the mix of levels of tasters is key.

“Do you want everyone at the same level, or do you feel it is best to have various levels at the table?” she recommends asking. “More experienced tasters can often help less experienced tasters during a session. That said, the range should not be so wide that it slows the group down. The more experienced tasters need to feel challenged, too.”

Meghan Zobeck, winemaker for Burgess Cellars and winemaker/owner of M. Zobeck Wines, recommends having at least one person whose palate doesn’t align with the rest of the group.

“It’s very easy to fall into a group-think mentality,” she says. “In my tasting group, we have two people whose opinions and palate are wildly different from the rest of ours, which helps to create a lively discussion and challenge our opinions.”

Frantz says 10 to 15 people is a good range regarding how large the group should be.

“While this depends on the venue size, keeping your group small enough to give everyone a pour from the same bottle helps with wine logistics,” she says.

“Typically, you will have some no shows and dropouts, so starting with a group a bit larger might not be a bad idea.”

Decide on a Wine Tasting Format

Once you have a group goal set, it’s time to decide on the format you’ll be using as you taste through the wines.

“You can use the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) Systematic Approach to Tasting, the CMS tasting grid, or DIY more casual tasting criteria,” says Harrison-Brown. “This will depend on the group’s goals.”

Frantz says it’s wise to decide on the number of wines to be tasted each session – and even set a time limit.

“If you tell members the tasting is an hour-long event, work hard to keep the tasting on schedule and end on the hour as promised,” she says. “For new tasters, you might want to allow 10 minutes per wine for a total of six wines each session. More experienced tasters can taste twice that amount.”

While blind tasting may be fun (or look fun on SOMM TV), Frantz recommends that new groups begin with an open-label policy to start. For example, she suggests that if a group is studying Italy, then narrow it down to a region such as Piedmonte and taste samples with the labels known. Then, about a month or so later, try tasting those wines again – but do it blind.

“I have found that blind tasting is not a good learning tool until you have the basic profiles down first,” she says. “Simply put, start with the notion of learning over blind guessing.”

And, a great way to have the best of both worlds? Consider playing the SOMM Blinders Game, which is fun for wine tasters of all levels and allows you to blind taste wine without the pressure of making a full call.

Find Your People

Now that you’re clear on your group’s goal and format, it’s time to find the right people to invite.

Harrison-Brown found her wine tasting group through her formal wine studies. 

“Before taking WSET classes, I didn’t have any wine friends,” she says. “I formed a tasting group with my classmates and continued to taste with them well beyond the end of the class.”

If you’re looking for new wine friends but are not studying for an exam, Harrison-Brown recommends asking your local wine shop or wine bar if they host classes where you can connect with other wine lovers or see if they can refer you to any tasting groups. 

If you’re in wine country, consider joining your favorite winery’s wine club, Zobeck says.

“They usually have a few gatherings per year where all club members are invited to taste the new releases,” she says. “It’s a great way to meet fellow wine lovers.”

And, if you’re not in wine country, try the internet. Zobeck recommends doing a simple search for “wine events near me,” and Frantz says that Zoom and Facebook can be great options for tasting together all over the world.

“Lots of my students start Facebook groups and even taste virtually together on Zoom,” Frantz says. 

Work Out the Logistics

As your wine tasting group begins to come together, one important thing to remember is that as the organizer, you are responsible for keeping the group going and remaining active, says Frantz. This can be a bit time-consuming, so you’ll want to ensure the logistics are covered for things to go as smoothly as possible.

For example, Frantz says to create a plan for how wines are purchased.
“Some groups ask each member to donate a case of wine to be cellared with other member cases,” Frantz says. “Other groups might ask each member to bring one bottle to the table each tasting.”

“Some groups ask each member to donate a case of wine to be cellared with other member cases,” Frantz says. “Other groups might ask each member to bring one bottle to the table each tasting.”

Harrison-Brown suggests rotating the leader for each meeting so that it does not become overwhelming for one person.

“The leader can be in charge of selecting the theme, sending out reminders, and confirming details like meeting time and location,” she says.

You’ll also need a plan for who’s in charge of the rest of the supplies you’ll need for each meeting, like glasses, tasting grids, and covers for the wines if you taste blind.

“Even if you don’t think you need it, if you want the wine tasting to stay scholarly or keep your palate intact, have something to spit in,” Zobeck says. “Water, crackers, a notebook and at least a few facts on the wines are also helpful.”

Grab Your Wine and Have Fun

For your first meeting, Zobeck recommends avoiding a massive line-up and sticking to just three bottles. If you’re unsure what to get, hit your local wine shop.

“The folks at the wineshop get to taste a lot of wines and are usually really excited to find new bottles for you,” she says. “They are great at saying, ‘If you like that; you should try this.’ It’s a great way to discover new wines.”

As you get into meeting and tasting regularly, there are an endless number of fun themes for you to try, Harrison-Brown says.

“You can do old world versus new world, sparkling wines from around the world, the same varietals from around the world (example, Cabernet from different regions), etc.,” she says.

Frantz adds that it can be interesting to do vertical tastings, partial blinds, producer tastings, style tastings, climate tastings, terroir tastings, and – especially for beginners – mixed bag tastings where anything goes.

Zobeck enjoys throwing a few curveballs in now and again, too.

“I highly recommend dedicating at least one tasting to wines your group thinks they dislike,” she says. “Ask your local wine shop for help with this.”

And, perhaps the best advice of all when setting up a regular wine tasting group? Spread the wine love!

“Always invite new people to join you,” Zobeck says. “You never know when you will inspire the next wine lover.”

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