How to host a wine tasting | Food Feature | Indy Week
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How to host a wine tasting 

I've hit a new demographic, and I'm not celebrating. I'm now solidly in the over-35 category, as hit home when I bought a rowing machine. Glancing through the instructions, I came across this pearl: "Persons over 35 should consult a physician before using this machine."

I celebrated a birthday, and now I might die from a wee bit of exercise?

I see my age every time I go to church, where just a few short years ago, I was a youth group adviser to kids 10 years my junior. Today, though, I'm more than twice as old as those in youth group. I am, frighteningly, old enough to be their mother.

Except when I notice how many of my friends are struggling with their own or their parents' illnesses, I certainly don't feel that old. Usually I still feel barely into my 20s, and hardly the figure of grace and self-assurance that I expected to come with age.

But I have found one way to feel happily, thoroughly adult, complete with full sentences and intelligent conversation about something other than how many hours my baby slept last night: wine tasting.

A friend and I started a wine-tasting group last summer, putting together snazzy invitations for a hot summer night. We don't bother with fancy invitations anymore, and the group tends to change from month to month depending on who can get a babysitter and who has no sick children--but the adult-ness remains.

For the first party, we tasted two proseccos--sparkling Italian wine--just for the fun of having something bubbly to kick us off. I've been in love with prosecco since a trip to Italy 10 years ago; it's inexpensive and has thus far proved hard to find a truly unpleasant bottle. It's just the thing for a summer night or anytime when you want something bubbly but unpretentious. From there we made a major switch to shiraz, tasting four from around the world.

Most of the partiers were new to wine tasting and a bit nervous about expressing an opinion at first, but that didn't last. (Note: Make it clear to people what "a taste" is--don't pour anything close to a full glass unless you have cabs--taxis, that is--lined up outside the door!) What helped was a tasting sheet for everyone to fill out. I got mine off www.wineskinny.com/reviews/tastingnotes.htm. It's a detailed sheet that gave people a way to say more than "this smells like wine," which was often the only comment I could muster in the early wine tasting sessions I had at cooking school.

We also printed out a suggestion sheet for how to taste and smell a wine (such as what you look for when you swirl the wine in the glass and how to judge color). Internet sites can offer you more help than you could possibly want in this, along with such detailed lists as what food generally goes well with what wine and how to serve cheese with wine.

Some wine snobs will tell you to use fresh glasses for each wine tasted; personally, I've no desire to wash all that at the end of the night. Instead, we bought inexpensive sets of glasses from a linen shop, and provided pitchers of water for rinsing the glasses between wines (along with bowls for dumping out the water or wine).

As a vague rule, expect to get about eight tastings from a bottle of wine; we aim to taste five or six wines each night. Any more than that and we lose the ability to compare the last bottle with the first. Because we're not serious wine tasters (we almost never spit, for starters!), we tend to go through a bit more wine than that--when people find one they especially like, they want to pour a whole glass and relax with some food.

How to choose the wine? Generally, we choose what kind of wine we want to taste (shiraz, viognier, etc.), then take our money to the wine store and ask for help. We get ours from the Chapel Hill Wine Company, which also will print out its descriptions of each wine so that at the end of the night, tasters can read them and feel stupid or vindicated.

For a dessert-wine tasting in December, however, much of what we drank came from one winery, offering a chance to see the similarities in style from one winemaker.

Then, how to choose the food? As I mentioned, internet sites can guide you in what foods go with what types of wine, as can a decent wine store. We always have cheese (wonderful with dessert wines as well as regular), and we always have some dessert (a good ending can make people forget any flaws that went before). Not only does this not need to equal a full meal, it shouldn't: Aim instead for enough food to keep guests from feeling sick from too much wine, but not so much that your palate grows weary. Offer plenty of bread and crackers, some dips and things with crunch--I find crunchy food especially necessary at a wine tasting.

Lately I've become attached to the frozen phyllo cups made by Athens Foods; when you're pressed for time, these make a great vehicle for everything from a goat cheese mousse to lemon curd and berries. (You can easily make your own phyllo cups, but these are simpler to eat than any I've ever made, which tend to be messily flaky.) On the other hand, I may never again buy a tortilla chip, now that I've finally tried baking my own. I've known for years about this trick (it's too simple to be called a recipe) but never got around to trying it. Recently, though, I took small flour tortillas, brushed both sides lightly with melted butter, stacked them and sliced them into triangles (eight per tortilla), spread them out on greased baking sheets and sprinkled them with fine sea salt. Baked at 375 degrees for about 10 minutes until they were deeply golden and crisp, these chips were utterly addictive, perfect for scooping up guacamole. Better yet, they kept for several days in a sealed plastic container, so while they're best fresh, they're an easy do-ahead for parties. The same method works for corn tortillas, but the flour ones crisped better. For a sweet snack, you could sprinkle them with cinnamon sugar before baking.

No matter what, keep it simple. Don't plan for much that needs be served hot, given that people eat exceptionally randomly at tastings. There may be parties where you don't mind being stuck in the kitchen, but not these. To feel like an adult, go be with the adults!

Cook's notes: It's hard to go wrong with chocolate, but simple fruit desserts may be a better option at the end of a tasting. I generally want to avoid temperature-sensitive foods for dessert so that I can put them out midway through the party and then be done. The exception to all this could be chocolate fondue; it's easy to make ahead and can be served with plenty of fruit, plus cake cubes. I suggest putting out half of the fondue you've made, then restocking if needed. Spend the $10 or so for a dessert fondue pot if you're unlikely to make any other fondue again (these sit over a tea light; look for one with the light as low under the pot as possible to avoid a burned spot in the middle). Or consider spending more for electric fondue pots. I was skeptical of these, given the lifetime I'd spent learning from my father how to fiddle with the sterno flame to keep our annual cheese fondue from overheating. But, though they lack romance, they are absolutely wonderful, with quick-response temperature control and low settings. They'll also work better if you're feeding a crowd. Most chocolate fondue recipes suggest using chunks of pound cake for dipping, but I prefer the recipe here, from Gourmet magazine; it's quick, tender, moist and lighter than pound cake.

Almond Cake
36 to 64 squares, depending on size
4 large egg yolks
3/4 cup granulated sugar, divided
2 tablespoons milk
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 cup all-purpose flour (preferably a soft Southern flour such as White Lily)
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt, or 1/4 teaspoon table salt
2 large egg whites

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease or butter a 9-inch square cake pan and line bottom with parchment or wax paper. Butter paper and dust pan with flour, knocking out excess.

Whisk together yolks, 1/2 cup sugar, milk and almond extract in a large bowl until combined well, then whisk in flour and salt.

Beat egg whites with an electric mixer at high speed until they just hold soft peaks. On low speed, very gradually add remaining 1/4 cup sugar, beating until whites just hold stiff peaks. Fold about a third of the whites into the yolk batter to lighten it, then fold in remaining whites gently but thoroughly.

Pour into prepared pan, spreading evenly, and bake in middle of oven until pale golden and a tester (such as a toothpick) comes out clean, 14 to 16 minutes. Cool cake completely in pan on a rack before cutting.

Dark Chocolate Fondue
Serves 4 to 6; can be doubled or tripled
3/4 cup heavy cream
12 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped (you may also use high-quality chips, such as Guittard)
1 tablespoon liqueur of your choice, optional (such as Kahlua, Amaretto, Cognac, Grand Marnier)

In a heavy medium pan, bring cream just to a boil. Remove from heat, stir in chocolate and let stand a few minutes, stirring occasionally. Add liqueur and whisk until smooth.

More by Sharon Kebschull Barrett

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