How to Host a Wine Tasting At Home

Discover a new flavor of entertaining with a wine tasting event at home.

Every great party begins and ends with the guests, and the moments in between should be filled with spirited laughter and sparkling conversation. Home wine tasting parties can inspire an event to remember with effortless planning that will leave guests wanting another glass of hospitality.

Debra Antone, owner of Excelsior’s Scusi!, Chef Ted Hallson of Chef De Cuisine Inc., and John Farrell, III, vice president of Haskell’s, blend their expertise in décor, menu planning and wine selections to assist hosts and hostesses— from the entertaining novice to the wine aficionado—in planning the perfect wine event.

1. Create a plan

It’s not the aptitude—it’s the attitude of guests that matters. Not everyone needs to be on the same level in terms of wine knowledge. “Keep it simple, and make sure everyone has fun,” Farrell recommends. Let guests learn from each other, and as long as everyone is game to sample new vintages, it’s a win.

Farrell says there are only two rules to wine tasting: “First: Drink what you like—it’s your mouth! Second: Try new things.” So, how to build a successful event around those ideas? Start with a plan. The wine tasting doesn’t need to be the main event. Host a birthday party, team gathering, or a neighborhood celebration and include the tasting as a part of the event. It’s a great way to encourage conversation and allows for easy interaction.

Farrell also notes that there are no hard and fast rules about the number of wines to sample in relation to the number of guests, but that six bottles for every 10 guests can be a helpful benchmark. And remember, the cost of the wine doesn’t correlate to the success of the event.

Theme Ideas:

  • Begin with a theme. Sample by color, category, region, country or year, for example.
  • Just returned from a trip to Australia? Sample some of that country’s wines.
  • Celebrating an anniversary? Provide selections from the wedding year.
  • Hosting a bridal shower? Select bottles from the couple’s honeymoon destination.
  • Invite movie buffs to watch The Academy Awards, and select bottles to represent the Best Picture or Best Foreign Film categories.
  • Be prepared to have a lot of leftover bottles. Create a game where guests can win unopened bottles, or return the unopened wine to the supplier (check return policies ahead of time).

2.  Establish the tone

The party really begins once guests receive their invitations. Use innovative yet simple invitations to set the tasting’s tone. In choosing invitations, Antone says to consider, “What are you sharing? Why are guests coming to your home? Find your purpose.”

Invitation Ideas:

  • Send invitations in small, brown paper bags, with a bottle-shaped invitation tucked inside.
  • If featuring wines from a single vintner, inquire if the vintner offers custom invitations featuring the wines.
  • Use online tools to create a personalized wine label invitation.
  • Use online tools to create a tri-centerfold replica of your home, opening to reveal the event details.
  •  Dip the bottom of a wine glass in red wine (grape juice works well, too) and stamp a wine stain on invitation paper.Visit local stationary or home décor shops for unique invitations.
  • Use online invitation programs that help track RSVPs and allow invitees a peek at the guest list.

3. Set the scene

Creating interesting tablescapes and inviting ambiance can be achieved with simplicity, paired with creativity. “I like to decide who is the star of the show,” Antone says. “Let the bottles of wine be the accent.”

Décor and Atmosphere Tips:

  • Keep décor clean and simple by using white as a color base and accent with glass or crystal.
  • Add a color with grapes and olives from the region the tasting is exploring. Let the food serve as a decorative accoutrement.
  • While candles are an effective décor option, Antone says to refrain from using scented candles, air fresheners or infusers, as the scents can interfere with the wine bouquet and taste.
  • Outdoor venues can offer lovely vistas, but Antone says air temperature can unduly affect the wine. “Be conscious of your environment,” she reminds.
  • Showcase wine labels in placecard stands.
  • Play music that reflects the wine’s region. (Tasting Italian wines? Put on some Bocelli, Pavarotti or Vivaldi.)
  • Scatter magazines, newspapers or postcards from the region (Tasting French wines? Collect copies of Le Monde, L’Express or Paris-Match.)

4. Prepare to taste

Adhering to basic wine tasting elements will guide guests through the process with ease. Provide the gathered tasters with a few “how to” words of wine wisdom from Farrell and begin the pour!

Set Up Your Tasting:

  • Provide one wine glass per taster.
  • If the wines are tasted from white to red, there’s no need to rinse the glasses in between samplings. (However, if reds are sampled first, simply add a bit of white wine to rinse out the glass. Don’t rinse with water, as its PH level can influence the flavor of the wine.)
  • Provide buckets or decorative receptacles for guests to pour out leftover wine between samplings.
  • Keep plenty of water available (in separate bottles or glasses), should guests need to refresh their palates.
  • Sample pours should allow for two to three sips per tasting.

Tasting Tricks to Share with Your Guests:

  • Guests should swirl the sample to aerate the wine and smell the wine’s bouquet.
  • Taste, not once, but two or three times. (Food residue and even stress can affect wine flavor on the first go around.)
  • Consider the wine’s aftertaste, as well as the first sip.
  • If pairing with menu items, reflect on how the wine and food marry in flavor. Think about flavor nuances that are revealed through the combinations.
  • There’s no right or wrong “answer”—wine preferences are personal. The event’s success comes in “how many friends called and told you what a good time they had,” says Farrell.

5. Design the menu

Offer guests a chance to rest their palates between wine samplings with menu items that complement the wine parings in flavor balance or offer nods to the event’s theme. Feeling creative? Follow basic guidelines from

Need some ideas? Hallson suggests appetizers options for wine, red and dessert wines. “It’s fun to have the marriage of the wine with food,” Hallson says. “That’s the ultimate goal to show people how the food affects the wine and vice versa.” He recommends offering three or four bites of food per sample, and he notes a good sommelier can offer food-wine recommendations.

What to Pair With Your Wine:

Chardonnay: Brie or Camembert cheese, pork, veal, pasta (white sauce), chicken, delicate fish, salmon, tuna, lobster and shellfish

Pinot Grigio: Asian cuisine and pork

Riesling: Asian, ham, pork, chicken, turkey and vegetable dishes

Sauvignon Blanc: appetizers, Brie and Camembert cheese, goat's milk cheese, pork, pasta (white sauce), chicken, turkey, delicate fish, shellfish and vegetables dishes

Sparkling wine: appetizers, Brie and Camembert cheese, delicate fish and shellfish

White Zinfandel: appetizers, ham, chicken, turkey and Southwestern/barbecue

Cabernet Sauvignon
: Cheddar, Parmesan and Romano cheese, lamb, roast beef and steak

Chianti: appetizers, Asian foods, Parmesan and Romano cheese, and pasta (red sauce)

Merlot: Cheddar cheese, ham, lamb, pork, roast beef, steak, veal, chicken, turkey, delicate fish and Southwestern/barbecue

Pinot Noir
: Brie, Camembert, Gruyere and Swiss cheese, ham, lamb, pork, veal, chicken, turkey, salmon and tuna

Shiraz: Gruyere and Swiss cheese, lamb, roast beef, steak and Southwestern/barbecue

Syrah: Gruyere and Swiss cheese, lamb, roast beef, steak and Southwestern/barbecue

Recipes for wine-tasting success

At a loss for what to serve to complement your wines? Think small plates, finger food and snack-able sides. Chef Ted Hallson, of Chef De Cuisine, provides a few recipes to get you started.

Note: Recipes with a lot of spice, garlic or raw fruit can interrupt the flavor of the wine, so we recommend having guests try these in between sips of vino, or after they’ve chosen their favorite wines of the evening.

Red Wine Appetizers

Lamb Meatball Lollipop with Rosemary Roasted Shallot Mint Demi-Glace
Pairing: Red Zinfandel

  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil, plus more for baking sheet
  • 1 small yellow onion, minced
  • 1 lb. ground lamb
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • ½ c. fresh flat-leaf parsley, minced
  • 2 Tbsp. dried bread crumbs
  • 1 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1 ¼ tsp. salt
  • 1 ¼ tsp. pepper
  • 1 jar mint jelly
  • 1 oz. container of beef demi-glace

Directions: Preheat a broiler. Lightly oil a rimmed baking sheet. In a fry pan over medium-low heat, warm the 2 T. olive oil. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 5 minutes. Transfer the onion to a large bowl and add the lamb, eggs, parsley, bread crumbs, cumin, three-fourths of the garlic, 1 teaspoon of the salt and the pepper. Using your hands, combine the ingredients. Form the mixture into walnut-sized balls, rolling them lightly between your palms. Place on the prepared baking sheet. Broil the meatballs, turning once, until brown and crispy, 8 to 10 minutes.

Sauce: In sauté pan with olive oil, add chopped garlic, chopped rosemary and shallots. Sauté until golden. Add one jar of mint jelly and one container of beef demi-glace. Let sauce cook for 2 minutes and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve with meatballs.

Grilled Beef Tenderloin Bruschetta with Fried Onions, Blue Cheese and Horseradish Sauce
Cabernet Sauvignon

  • 1.5 lbs. beef tenderloin (center cut)
  • 1 baguette
  • Olive oil
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • 1 onion, sliced
  • Blue cheese crumbles
  • 1 c. sour cream
  • 1 Tbsp. steak seasoning
  • 6 Tbsp. horseradish sauce
  • ½ lemon, squeezed

Directions: Grill beef tenderloin to 125 degrees and let rest. Toast 30 slices of the baguette bread with olive oil and salt and pepper till crispy and golden. Slice the tenderloin in half lengthwise and cut slices that will fit on the bread. Place meat on bread. Add sautéed onions and a few blue cheese crumbles. Top with horseradish sauce, sour cream, steak seasoning and lemon.

Date and Aged Parmesan wrapped in Bacon
Pairing: Chianti

  • 24 dates, pitted
  • 1/4 lbs. Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  • 24, 3-inch strips of very thinly sliced bacon

Directions: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Using a small paring knife, cut a small slit across the length of each date. Cut the cheese into approximately 1/2-inch-by-1/4-inch rectangles (the cheese will not cut into perfect shapes). Insert a piece of Parmigiano into each date. Lay the strips of bacon out on a work space, next to each other. One by one, place each date at the end of a strip of bacon and carefully roll the date along the bacon strip, wrapping it tightly. Place the bacon-wrapped dates on a roasting rack set in a baking sheet, and roast for 10 to 15 minutes, until golden brown and crispy on the outside.

Ham and Gruyere in Puff Pastry Puff with Jalapeño Cherry Sauce
Pairing: Pinot Noir

  • 1 package (2 sheets) frozen puff pastry, thawed
  • 2 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
  • 1/4 lb. good-quality cooked or black forest ham, sliced thin
  • 1/2 lb. freshly grated Swiss gruyere
  • 1 egg, beaten with 1 Tbsp. water, for egg wash
  • 12 fresh cherries, pitted
  • 1//2 jalapeno
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 3 Tbsp. mayonnaise
  • 2 tsp. honey
  • Pinch of salt

Jalapeno Cherry Sauce Directions: Puree 12 fresh cherries (pitted), 1/2 jalapeno, 1 clove of garlic, 3 T. mayonnaise, 2 t. honey and pinch of salt in blender till smooth and place in bowl. Set aside.

Pastry Directions: Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Place a piece of parchment paper on a sheet pan and set aside. On a floured surface, lay one sheet of puff pastry and carefully roll it out to 10 by 12 inches. Place rolled pastry on the sheet pan and brush the center with the mustard, leaving a 1-inch border around the edge. Add a layer of ham and then cheese, also leaving a 1-inch border. Brush the border with egg wash.

Roll the second sheet of puff pastry on a floured surface so it is also 10 by 12 inches. Place the second sheet on top of the filled pastry, lining up the edges. Cut the edges straight with a small, sharp knife, and press together lightly. Crimp the edges together with a fork. Brush the top with egg wash and cut a few slits in the top for steam to escape. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until puffed and golden brown. Allow to cool for a few minutes before serving.

Serve warm (although the leftovers still tasted good cold the next day) with the sauce on the side.

White Wine Appetizers

Grilled Lemon, Butter, Rosemary and Garlic Shrimp Skewer
: Chardonnay

  • 2 lbs. of 16/20 peeled and deveined shrimp tail off raw
  • 2 lemons (2 tsp. of zest and juice of both)
  • 1/2 stick of butter
  • 1/4 c. olive oil
  • 1 sprig fresh rosemary, chopped
  • 3 cloves of minced garlic
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Red pepper flakes if you want a little heat

Directions: Soak 6-inch wooden skewers in hot water for 1 hour before skewering shrimp. Put olive oil and butter in sauté pan to melt. Add garlic, rosemary, lemon zest and sauté till garlic is warm, then set to the side. Season the shrimp skewers with salt and pepper and place on foil sheet tray. Brush with melted garlic butter.

Turn grill to medium high heat and grill shrimp skewers with the wood part of the skewer off the grill as to not burn.  Put grill marks on the shrimp, pull off and put back on the sheet tray. Once all the grilled shrimp skewers are back on the foiled sheet tray, brush again with the butter mixture and spray the lemon juice over all the shrimp. Put the shrimp skewers in 350 degree oven for 4 to 5 minutes till just done and serve on platter. Sprinkle with red pepper flakes if desired.

Pistachio and Panko Crusted Chicken Bite with Roasted Red Pepper Tarragon Sauce
Sauvignon Blanc

  • 2 lbs. boneless skinless chicken breasts (cubed in ½-inch pieces)
  • 1/4 c. mayonnaise
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1/2 c. pistachio crumbs (chopped in food processor) and 1 c. Panko crumbs, combined
  • 12 oz. jar of drained roasted red peppers
  • 1 clove chopped garlic
  • 2 Tbsp. chopped tarragon
  • Juice of one lime
  • 1 Tbsp. sugar
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. pepper

Roasted Red Pepper Tarragon Sauce Directions: Put drained roasted red peppers in blender with garlic, tarragon, lime, sugar, salt and pepper. Purée. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Put the chicken cubes in a bowl and add mayo and beaten egg and coat (season with extra salt and pepper). In another bowl, put the crumb mixture and add chicken pieces and coat on all sides. Place on a nonstick sheet pan and put in oven for 10 to 12 minutes until chicken is done through. Toothpick each piece and put on serving platter with Roasted Red Pepper Tarragon Sauce.

Seared Five Spiced Ahi Tuna on Rice Cracker with Pickled Ginger, Cucumber and Chive with Wasabi Mascarpone
Pairing: Riesling

  • 2 lbs. Ahi sushi-grade tuna, cut into 1-in rectangle strips
  • Sesame oil
  • 1 package of rice crackers (any flavor)
  • 1 jar of pickled ginger
  • 1 English cucumber (cut in half length wise and make thin half-moon slices)
  • Fresh chives
  • 2 Tbsp. wasabi powder
  • 2 Tbsp. mascarpone
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 Tbsp. Chinese Five Spices
  • 1 Tbsp. ground coriander
  • 1 Tbsp. coarse salt
  • 1 Tbsp. coarse pepper
  • 1 Tbsp. sugar

Directions: Combine coriander, coarse salt, coarse pepper and sugar and then use it to season the tuna all sides. Coat the bottom of a non-stick sauté pan with sesame oil and heat. Sear four sides of the tuna, five seconds on each side. Remove from heat and set aside.

Assemble the rice crackers on a tray. Slice the tuna in thin squares and put a slice on each cracker. Top the tuna with a half-moon slice of cucumber and pickled ginger. Mix wasabi powder and mascarpone and season with salt and pepper. Put a small pea-size piece of wasabi mascarpone on each. Finally, tear a couple small chive sprigs for each appetizer and serve.

Crostini with Brie and Apple and Fig Compote
Pairing: Sparkling White Wine or Prosecco

  • One long and thin baguette
  • Small Brie wheel
  • 2 Tbsp. butter
  • 1 Granny Smith apple
  • 12 dry figs (small chopped)
  • 1/4 c. of honey
  • Juice of 2 lemons
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • Cinnamon

Directions: Preheat over to 350 degress. Slice the baguette in 25 thin slices. Slice the Brie into 25 flat pieces that will fit inside the baguette. Peel the apple and dice very small and put into a fry pan and lightly sauté with butter. Add the chopped figs, honey and lemon juice and cook till the mixture turns a little mushy. Remove and put in fridge to cool a bit.

Put the baguette slices on sheet tray and coat with a little olive oil and salt and pepper and put into oven to crisp (7 minutes). Take out of oven and put the Brie slices on the baguette. Remove the compote out of the fridge and place 1 tsp. on each baguette. Return to oven for 2 minutes. Place on serving tray, sprinkle with cinnamon and drizzle with more honey.

Dessert Wine

Chocolate Fondue with Fresh Fruit
Dessert Wine or Port

  • ½ c. milk
  • ¼ c. heavy cream
  • 1 Tbsp. sugar
  • 6 oz. bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
  • 2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 12 strawberries, hulled
  • 2 bananas, sliced ½ inch thick
  • 1 small pineapple, peeled, quartered, cored and cut into 2-inch pieces
  • 1 small apple, peeled, cored, quartered and cut into 2-inch pieces

Directions: In a medium saucepan, combine the milk, cream and sugar and bring to a boil. Add the chocolate and remove the pan from the heat. Let stand until the chocolate melts, about 5 minutes, then stir until smooth. Stir in the butter. Bring the fondue to the table in the pan and let everyone dip their own fruit.

Tasting Tricks to Share with Your Guests

  • Guests should swirl the sample to aerate the wine and smell the wine’s bouquet.
  • Taste, not once, but two or three times. (Food residue and even stress can affect wine flavor on the first go round.)
  • Consider the wine’s aftertaste, as well as the first sip.
  • If pairing with menu items, reflect on how the wine and food marry in flavor. Think about flavor nuances that are revealed through the combinations.
  • There’s no right or wrong “answer”—wine preferences are personal. The event’s success is reflected in “how many friends called and told you what a good time they had,” says Farrell.