The 2010 SF Chefs Food & Wine event, which took place Aug. 9-15 in San Francisco, inspired me to share some of the best practices for wine-themed events that I observed there. Many of the savvy methodologies I saw lend themselves beautifully to budget-friendly wine tastings or wine-only receptions. For example, serving small (1-ounce) tastes of a variety of unique, artisanal (small-batch) varietals is a creative and easy way to control the overall quantity of wine consumed. Here are some additional tips to try.
Expert Advice A key partner to consider for a wine-based event is a certified sommelier -- a wine industry expert with extensive training in wines, as well as in food- and-wine pairings. (Note: The most widely recognized certification is regulated by The Court of Master Sommeliers; go to mastersommeliers.org for details.) These professionals can significantly inspire and elevate your wine event experience, as well as save you a great deal of money by steering you to exceptional wines with a lower price tag.
Upscale hotels and restaurants typically have a sommelier on staff who often offers free advice for an event held on-site. If your venue does not have an in-house sommelier, you can hire an independent wine professional to run or speak at your event; prices typically start at $50 per hour. To find one, contact the Society of Wine Educators.
Another partner to consider is a winemaker, who can explain the process, demonstrate blending, lead tastings, etc. (Some winemakers also are certified sommeliers.) Their services typically start at $100 per hour. One source is the National Association of American Wineries.
Perfect Pairings Many wines are enhanced by foods. In fact, experts say the average palate won't find some exceptional wines pleasing without the right accompaniment. Even some dessert wines, such as ports, can morph from mediocre to mind-blowing if accompanied by a gourmet dark chocolate.
Other tasting enhancers: A young, tannic merlot or an acidic zinfandel can become absolutely magical with prosciutto, salami or a pungent, washed rind cheese such as Red Hawk or Raclette. Traditional cabernets and lighter reds can be spectacular with bleu cheeses, and Gruyère cheeses can turbo-power the flavors of most chardonnays and sauvignon blancs.
Serving Savvy When selecting stemware for the event, use proper wine glasses, which will give attendees the full sensory affect of a wine (bouquet, flavor, texture, color). For wine-only events, you can go with a hybrid glass (used with both reds and whites), but when in doubt use a glass meant for red. For events that pair wines with food, offer both white wine and red wine glasses. Some wines, such as port, require a very specific small glass with an inverted lip to properly maximize the flavor.
For tastings, consider "flights" or mini sets of coordinated 1- or 2-ounce glasses. You'll go through significantly more barware with flights, so be sure to factor this into your count and budget.
Also consider the type of decanters you'll use to pour the wine. Decanters develop deeper flavors in wine by infusing oxygen. Most sommeliers recommend decanting wine for two hours before serving, but a so-called double decanter, such as the Riedel Eve (riedel.com; cost, $495) can cut that time in half.
Another invaluable device is the 1-ounce pourer top, available at most wine shops for about $3. This device provides a clean pour, maximizes pours per bottle and ensures consistent pours per person.