Wine Behind a Mask

by Jim Clarke
October 2006

It’s Halloween season, and many of us – not just children – are dressing up for a round of seasonal parties. Costume parties are not just a chance to wear something you otherwise wouldn’t be caught dead in (or “undead” in, if you favor vampire or mummy costumes); you can even hide your identity completely. If you’re throwing a party, there’s something to be said for concealing the identity of your wine as well, and not just to disguise a meager party budget; consider a wine blind-tasting party as another way to bring your guests together.

Blind-tasting parties are a wine geek’s paradise, where the wine-savvy match their taste buds and their powers of deduction to determine the identity of a wine. Beginners may have less of a winespeak vocabulary, but are often pleasantly surprised by their success at recognizing a varietal or region. How involved you want to make the wine-tasting depends on you and your guests, but even serving an unnamed white and a red as your “house wines” can help encourage conversation if you make your choices interesting and perhaps give a prize for the guests who come closest to identifying the wines.

A more involved blind-tasting party requires a bit more planning. First, decide if you want a theme. All Pinot Noir. California wines, or wines from the Southern Hemisphere. Screwtop wines. French Sauvignon Blancs versus those from New Zealand. Six or eight wines will probably be enough; more than that and people’s attention begins to wander (You can always get multiple bottles of each wine to make sure you have enough.). You can even go BYOB; just set a price point for your guests and wrap up each wine as it comes to the door.

Disguising your wines in the next step. A brown paper bag around the bottle, secured with a rubber band, is the equivalent of the classic sheet ghost costume: cheap but effective, and to the point. If you only have a few wines, you can decant them using proper decanters, carafes, or even glass pitchers. Be sure to have plenty of glasses, ideally all of the same shape and size – your classic, tulip-shaped wineglass is the best. Spitbuckets may seem out of place at a party, but they keep designated drivers from feeling left out. It’s also smart to have some Wine Away or something similar available to deal with any red wine spills.

You can either try to present the wines in order – often a good idea if you want to make sure everyone gets a chance at each one – or let people graze, depending on how serious your guests are about blind-tasting. The recommended order is as follows: sparkling, white, red, dessert. Within that outline, try to put dry wines before sweet, and lighter-bodied wines before fuller ones. It’s also often better to serve older wines before younger ones; much as we might like to save the rare, well-aged wine for last, drinking a few over-the-top young wines first may wear on the palate, making it less sensitive to the subtleties of that 20-year-old Barolo. Encourage small pours so your guests get the chance to taste all the wines as opposed to drinking just a couple.

Some guests –especially those unfamiliar with wine-tasting – appreciate a note sheet to give them some guidance; even something simple like the following can help them feel at home with the process:

Wine #1






If you have time, do some research and find some tasting notes on the wines you’re serving, either from the producer or wine magazines. Be sure to only unveil them at the end, so as not to prejudice your guests’ impressions while they’re still tasting. The similarities or differences between your own take on a wine and that of the experts can be revealing and entertaining.

At the very least, you’ll want some water and bread or crackers on hand so people can clear their palates between wines. A competitive, serious group of tasters, might be content with that – no one wants to compromise their palate and throw off their taste buds – but this is a party, not a class, so you’ll want to have cheese and other snacks on hand. Halloween sweets and chocolate might be a stretch, though, since they’re often not very wine compatible.

Blind tasting is a mind game as much as a question of palate, and it takes some detective work to put together what your impressions might mean. High tannins and above-average acidity – does that narrow down the varietal possibilities? Does the rich gold color come from oak, or from aging? You can have your guests work in teams to encourage socializing, and reward the “winners” – those who best identify the wines – with a bottle of wine, a set of glasses, or the like. If you’re going BYOB, you can give an award not just for the identifying the wines, but also to the person who brought the wine that people liked the most.

Halloween heralds the holiday season, so there are plenty of parties ahead. A blind-tasting party is an excellent kickoff, where guests will have fun, learn something about wine, and get to know each other better on top of it.