Swirl Girl: How to host a perfect at-home wine tasting party

At-home wine tasting parties rock. They're fun. They're educational. And most important, they involve drinking unseemly amounts of wine, all in the noble pursuit of practice. There are literally dozens of types of wine-fueled soirees you can throw with only a modicum of effort, and you're guaranteed to endear yourself to everyone you invite.

How, then, to execute such an affair without coming uncorked in the process?

Start by deciding what kind of wine tasting party you want to have -- über-casual or something more formal. You can pour different examples of a single grape varietal, an assortment of wines from the same region, or different vintages from the same producer. All red wines costing less than $10? Definitely. A Champagne-lover's fantasy? Please invite me.

Here are a few road-tested wine party formats worth giving a shot.

The Wine Cocktail Party: Wine-based cocktails are ridiculously delicious, and yet ridiculously underappreciated. Set yourself and your friends straight by whipping up a batch of apéritif-laced concoctions; prepare to be hooked. Wondering what in tarnation an apéritif is? Nothing more than a positively delightful liqueur (i.e., St. Germain, Pernod, amaretto) or aromatized wine (Compari, Dubonnet, etc.) typically drunk at the start of a party, a meal, or if you're really lucky, a love affair. They're known to be appetite stimulants, generally rank lower in alcohol content, and might even feature a bounty of botanicals including cilantro, cumin, thyme, nutmeg and cloves. A must try: The Golden Door, which combines equal parts white Lillet (a refreshing orange-flavored wine spirit) and Champagne. Garnish with an orange twist.

The Blind Wine Tasting Party: Think you can tell a Pinot from a Pinotage without setting eyes on the label? Then prove it. Ask each guest to bring a wine of their choice (you might think of setting a max dollar per bottle limit), with the bottle securely disguised in a sealed brown paper wine bag so nobody can sneak a peek. Once all the bottles have arrived, be sure to mix them up so that even their rightful owners couldn't pick them out of a lineup. Give each bottle a name ('70s movie and television stars was a recent winning theme) and stack Post-It notes and pencils in front of each. Have everyone taste the wines, using the Post-Its to write down their guess as to the varietal along with a brief, one-sentence description of the wine. When everyone's finished, read the descriptions aloud (and enjoy the uproarious laughter) before revealing the labels. Tally up the number of correct guesses per person and award a prize to those with winning palates. Three easy (and cheap) giveaways? The Pampered Grape Waiter's Corkscrew ($15), VacuVin wine pump set ($10, available at Sur la Table), or a copy of The Wine Bible ($15).

The Obscure Wine Tasting Party: If you've always wondered what that bottle of 1999 Minnesota table wine you got from Aunt Irene tastes like, but you've been too afraid to find out, now's your chance. Invite a group of friends over and ask them to bring the most random wine they've got in their collection. Set the tone by having everyone tell the story of how they came to have such an obscure wine in their possession. Make things interesting by placing a friendly wager (before tasting, of course) on which wine you think will be the tastiest/rankest/most surprising in the bunch. Note: Ift you're the host, be sure and have a least a couple of perfectly lovely wines on hand, just in case the obscure wines all suck.

It's usually a good idea to have food at your fête, too, but keep it simple (and your guests relatively sober) by having just a basic assortment of plain crackers, simple cheeses, and olives. Oh yeah, don't forget to have plenty of water, too.

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Kendra Anderson