Wine parties share the cost and fun in Japan.


Adelaide Hills, Tasting Australia 2007-photo Hiroshi Shoji

Japan’s summers are a good time to stay indoors and chill out by inviting some friends over for a wine party.  As long as you have a refrigerator, air conditioning, a little floor space with floor cushions and some friends the party is good to go! Plus wine parties share the cost and fun!

In order to avoid a bad wine party, set some limitations so no one is dropping off at the corner store for a dusty bottle of ¥498 wine.  First, pick a theme and price range. Unusual wine regions and countries encourages friends to get out of their comfortably boring wine ruts. Tastings arranged by theme of grape, region or vintages are called ‘flights’, and can really hone your taste buds and wine memory bank.
At one wine tasting party in Tokyo we were to bring wine from regions that no one knew made wine.  We had wines from Luxembourg, Thailand, Canada, Mexico, Peru, Slovenia and more.  Ask some friends to bring sparkling, while others bring red, white or dessert wines to make a balanced, and definitely un-boring challenge.
Other themes might be unusual grapes, wines made by women winemakers, wines with wacky labels or even biodynamic wines.
Wine is heavy.  So email friends a list of good wine shops, supermarkets or department stores in your neighborhood. Or send a list of friendly wine importers who deliver by the bottle or mixed case. Japan is the center of the home delivery service, and many shops and importers will ship wine in summer by cool delivery.
Glasses don’t have to be expensive.  From Japan’s ¥100 yen shops, it is easy to have a shop order you a couple of boxes of balloon glasses. (Some hosts give them away after the party, when storage is a problem.)  If a guest is really picky about their brand, have them haul their own to your abode.
Many people drink wine with their eyes, so at any wine tasting, the wines should be blind. That means wine bottles (labels) should be covered with paper bags, long plastic bags, decorative covers or even as some wine pro friends do, use clean and colorful socks.
Tasting mystery reds at The Japan Wine Challenge (photo-Sandra Shoji)
Most wines need some chilling in summer. ( The French even like their fruity reds a bit cool on hot days.) So make some space in your fridge. Whites can go in for an hour, reds about 20 minutes, and light dessert wines can go in the refrigerator door.  Sparkling, because of the pressure equal to a London bus tire, inside the bottle, needs to be very chilled. I put mine in the fridge for an hour, then into a bucket with an ice cube, water and salt mix to keep the temps down.  While the wines are chilling hand around a walk-in wine, and some crackers, olives, bread and nuts. If you don’t have enough seating space, throw cushions on the floor, and let people relax.
You will need a counter or table covered with a white table cloth or white paper.  A wine’s color is judged against white. Also, lots of napkins for soaking up spills. People who know enough to spit when tasting, will need large paper beer cups, and then a large bucket to  pour them into later. Line the bucket with paper towels or sawdust to avoid ‘splash-back’.  Wine stains are inevitable. If you catch them fast, do what fine London hotels do and use white wine to sopping up a red wine stain. The stain supposedly isn’t removed, but the white wine changes the color of the red pigment to clear.
When opening the wines you need a foil cutter and Screwpull corkscrew, which magically opens about every bottle with a cork. For more delicate operations try a sommelier’s corkscrew with a serrated blade. Corkscrews are not something to save money on, and the cheaper ones can be downright dangerous.  If someone gave you a Rabbit opener for Christmas, this is a time to use it. Many fine wines from New and Old World countries are closed with a metal Stelvin capsule. Some take a lot of effort to open, but the key is to grasp the closure, and twist the bottle end of the bottle.

Comparative tasting of matured Austrian White Wines. (photo-Sandra Shoji)

Once the wines are ready to be opened, open them in the kitchen with a trusted friend.  Arrange them by color and style. Place a numbered card around the neck of each wine. Hand out everyone a pencil and sheet with the same numbers as the wines for making notes.  When tasting, a wine glass should be filled one-third full.  However, if the glass is the size of a fishbowl, then only a small portion is needed. Have fun teaching novices to swirl, sniff, sip and spit.
Nearby put a large bowl filled with marbles.   Every time someone really likes a wine, they put a marble in front of the covered bottle. By the time all the wines have been tasted and discussed, count the marbles, then unveil the wines!  Winning wines are often shockers. Will it be the most expensive wine or the cheapest?  Will it be dry as a bone, or have sweet saucy smile? Award the winning wine’s owner with a corny prize. Once the tasting part is over, then serve food to soak up the remaining wine. A variety of polentas, paellas, cheeses, some brownies and a chilled dessert will keep your friends smiling and satisfied.
(Copyright 2010: Sandra Shoji  at Tokyo Wine Matters-サンドラ ショージ)