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D.I.Y. Wine Tasting

There's nothing wrong with a little at-home experimentation

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It starts with the spark of an idea and involves 10 willing friends. Invent a theme, grab some cocktail food, and establish a price limit. Voila -- the makings of an in-home wine tasting.

Here's the pitch: Jaded by the bar scene? Insulted by hoity-toity food and wine events? Looking just to bond with friends? Then an in-home wine tasting might be your ticket outta boredom. It's a way to expand your wine experience, introduce amusement, and probably generate some embarrassing drinking stories.

Some guidelines to follow: 1. Invite at least six to 10 people so you can try plenty of wines. 2. Serve food or your guests' drunk-driving busts could really ruin the evening. 3. Make sure everyone follows the theme and price guide -- it helps the education angle.

Theme suggestions

Varietal Comparison Pinot Noir. Make sure no one brings the same brand. Designate people to bring Pinots from Oregon, California, Burgundy (France), and Australia/New Zealand (or Tasmania). The point is to try a wide variety, comparing and contrasting the styles of different regions. You might also sample Cabernet Sauvignons from Bordeaux, Chile, California, Washington and Australia. Good Pinot examples: Elk Cove, Ponzi, King Estate from Oregon; David Bruce, La Crema, Byron from California; Jadot, Bouchard Pere et Fils from Burgundy; Yarra Burn, Ninth Island, Hill of Content from Down Under.

Under $15 Challenge everyone to find the best and brightest under $15. Doesn't matter the varietal, but make sure no one brings the same bottle or on-sale-at-the-grocery-store labels. Force people out of their dark comfort zone and into the light.

Variations on the Price Con a guest into buying a big name, expensive Napa Cabernet (Opus One, Dominus, Silver Oak, etc.) and pit it against a less expensive yet tasty California brand (BR Cohn, Liberty School, Beaulieu Vineyards). Hide the labels. Wine geeks (a.k.a. critics) love this game ... and rarely come away unscathed by embarrassment. You might also try this with wineries featuring several levels of wine, ranging from a generic "California" appellation to the most expensive "single vineyards" level.

Visit an Unknown Country Chile, Argentina or South Africa. South Africa is especially interesting these days, with its reds blended with Pinotage, a funky, earthy-tasting indigenous South African grape. Argentina should include Malbecs and other Bordeaux-original varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon. Be sure to throw in a Chilean Carmenere. Suggested wineries: Santa Ema, Graffigna, Zuccardi, Fairview, Calina.

Pretty labels and bottles Rumor has it wineries put fancy, artistic labels on wines to bait you into the store. Same goes for the blue, red and purple bottles. Test whether these desperate measures disguise sucky wine.

Blind Tasting Wrap 'em, uncork 'em and let "em speak. Paper bags or aluminum foil work just dandy for wrapping up bottles. Marketing definitely affects our juice impressions, so hiding the labels reduces judging to only the wine. Play "guess the varietal," or try 10 different wineries of the same varietal, or introduce a mish-mash of everything. Pay attention to the bottle shapes, as savvy wine nerds know that certain varietals come in certain shaped bottles. Wouldn't want to encourage cheating, would we?

In fact, all of these in-home wine-tasting themes could benefit from a wrap job. It's best to keep people in the dark, since that's when the mind is most open.

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