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How to Host Your Own Wine Club

The best new way to entertain? Launch a regular wine-tasting group

Joanna Linberg and Sara Schneider
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Wining and dining

If you’re reading this, we’re guessing there’s a fair chance you have a book club or two in your past. Excellent things, book clubs. But to be honest, sometimes the best part is the chance to get together with friends and drink great wine. Why not get straight to the point and start a wine club instead! We’re not talking about a typical wine club, where you sign on with a single winery to receive a couple of bottles every month. Instead, extrapolate from the book club model and plan regular gatherings focusing on a few wines that push the boundaries of your knowledge a little, but more important, create good times. We’ve thrown the first party, to get you started. Here’s the plan in four easy steps.

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Pick a wine theme

Is there something about wine you’ve wanted to explore for a while? (Say, What’s the difference between Syrah and Petite Sirah? Or, Do rosés made from different grape varieties really taste different?) The idea is to settle on a theme (as you would a book) that will give you a handle on an interesting pocket of the wine world by the end of the evening. The theme we chose for our party actually derives from a fun fact: In Burgundy, France, if a wine is white, it’s almost certainly Chardonnay; if it’s red, it’s Pinot Noir (those are the two dominant grapes grown there). An interesting question follows then: Do Chards and Pinots from Burgundy taste very different from West Coast versions? Perfect party theme: an Old World–New World comparison of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir! The handy bonus embedded here is the need for four bottles for the evening—not a bad number for four to six guests. A knowledgeable wineshop clerk would be an invaluable resource for steering you to good bottles for most themes. For this party, though, we’ve made it even easier through Sunset’s new wine club, Firstleaf. We chose a white and a red Burgundy and a California Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the club. Below is the lineup, in the order we set them up for our tasting, from lighter to fuller bodied.

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Bottles for our party

The set of four wines is available from our Firstleaf wine club ($50 with membership or $70 without membership):

  • Aurélien Verdet 2009 Bourgogne Blanc (Hautes-Côtes de Nuits)
  • Annabella 2014 Chardonnay (Napa Valley)
  • Bourchard Père & Fils 2014 Réserve (Bourgogne)
  • Calstar Cellars 2013 Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley)

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Create a menu to match

The idea is to come up with a substantial nibble to pair with each wine—which together add up to dinner. Helpful principles to think about are, first, match the weight of the food and wine (lighter foods with lighter-bodied wines, richer proteins with heavier-bodied wines); second, echo the wine’s flavors in your appetizers (fresh herbs, for instance, or specific spice flavors); finally, find complementary contrasts (acidity in wine cuts through rich foods, while lush fruit can tame heat). We played with these principles in our Test Kitchen and came up with an appetizer for each wine. Our pairings were measured by the heartiness of the thumbs-up from the staff (recipes follow).

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Mustard-Tarragon Shrimp Toasts

For the white Burgundy

Sweet, succulent shrimp are a great flavor and texture match with Chardonnay. But the minerality and bracing acidity of the Burgundian Chard make an excellent foil for Dijon mustard and fresh tarragon.

Recipe: Mustard-Tarragon Shrimp Toasts

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Chilled Corn Soup with Seared Scallops and Crisp Onions

Chardonnay

Fresh summer corn is one of slightly buttery Chardonnay’s dear friends. We’ve stacked the deck here with two others—
tender scallops and caramelized onions, which echo the sweet toastiness in the wine.

Recipe: Chilled Corn Soup with Seared Scallops and Crisp Onions

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Moroccan-Spiced Lamb Chops with Charmoula

For the red Burgundy

An earthy Burgundian Pinot Noir is likely to have both warm and savory spices. We paired this one with a sauce that includes cinnamon and smoked paprika, as a bridge to the entire spectrum.

Recipe: Moroccan-Spiced Lamb Chops with Charmoula

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Asian Duck Wraps with Hoisin Dipping Sauce

For the California Pinot Noir

Duck is always a good starting point with the bright red fruit of Pinot. But with the riper, sweeter-seeming California version, we’ve matched a sweeter sauce and the warm range of spices included in Chinese five spice.

Recipe: Asian Duck Wraps with Hoisin Dipping Sauce

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Shortcut option: Buy, don’t cook

If time is short, or your interest leans more to wine than cooking, substitute purchased appetizers for one (or all) of the pairings. Look to gourmet markets or creative ethnic restaurants for these picks.

  • Seafood sausages with a Dijon–crème fraîche dipping sauce for the white Burgundy (just mix a little mustard into crème fraîche)
  • Chicken empanadas with mango salsa for the California Chardonnay
  • Duck-liver pâté or duck carnitas tacos for the red Burgundy
  • A mix of charcuterie and sausages or, alternatively, Latin-style pulled, slow-roasted-pork tacos for the California Pinot Noir
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Create the mood

One thing a wine party shouldn’t be is formal. Precious linens and china only make guests more intimidated. Exuberant flowers, though, say, Celebrate! Just choose varieties that are fragrance-free, so the wines’ aromas won’t have any competition (such as the dahlias, ranunculus, and scabiosa in our arrangement pictured here). Arrange all four appetizers on one plate for each guest, in the order you’ll be tasting them. And arrange four wineglasses in the same order at each place setting. Ours are wide-bowled—the shape that’s best for enjoying the aromas and flavors of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. For napkins, go with a multicolored casual fabric that won’t show wine spills. Finally, provide tasting-note cards for recording impressions of the wines and pairings.

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What’s on our table

Williams-Sonoma for Estate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wineglasses. Jered’s Pottery for plates and bowls. CB2 for flatware. Moonshadow Goods for Shibori napkins. Melanie Abrantes Designs for cork bowl. Bevara for The Reunion Narrow concrete table. Palecek for San Martin and Jordan chairs. Serena & Lily for Camille Diamond Medallion chair pillow. Floral arrangements by Eleanor Gerber-Siff. Garden designed by Heather Fletcher.

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Start the conversation

Start tasting and writing notes on those cards! The most effective process is sip of wine, bite of food, another sip. First try our suggested pairings, then mix and match to see if you agree, or whether you like other combos better.

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The talk at our party

By way of a conversation starter, here are some general similarities and contrasts to look for between the Old World and New World wines.

The Chardonnays

No matter where it’s grown, this variety typically carries flavors of apple, pear, and citrus. White Burgundies tend to have an
underlying minerality (limestone, concrete, wet stones); think earth versus fruit. The fruit flavors in California Chards, on the other hand, tend to be riper and seem sweeter (even if the wine is dry). Many versions are more buttery than their French counterparts, and show the effect of oak aging, with butterscotch, toast, vanilla, and spice.

The Pinot Noirs

Markers for this variety are cherry and berry fruit (ranging from dark to bright red, even to cranberry); warm spices (cloves,
coriander, cinnamon, cumin); and often a loamy forest-floor quality (look for mushrooms). The same Old World–New World split is true here: It’s earth versus fruit. In red Burgundies, you can almost taste the dirt. In California—speaking in broad strokes—cherry and red berries tend to tell the story.

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