The wines that people bring to parties

Reflections on the SWS kickoff blind tasting event

 

Foreword

The act of bringing a bottle of wine to a party is a perfect example of how wine is more than just another beverage. For starters, there’s the fact that “a bottle of wine” seems to be the default thing-you-bring-to-someone-else’s-house-when-you-go-there-to-eat (with beer as an alternative to serve the same purpose, depending on the event). Really, I think one could easily as appropriately bring a bottle of lemonade or a box of chocolates or a loaf of bread, and have equal (or higher) probability of pleasing one’s hosts*-- and yet for some reason, the alcoholic beverage is most often the go-to—at least, in my circles.

Of course, there are a few practical considerations that contribute to this behavior—for instance, the long shelf life of wine places less pressure on the host to make sure it gets consumed right away, and as a beverage it’s less likely to interfere with the planned menu.

But there is also something about the social and economic history of wine that makes it special in another way: a bottle of wine can double as a gift. That is, you can bring a bottle with the intention of conveying the message “this is my contribution to the meal,” but if it turns out that there’s already too much wine, or yours doesn’t pair well with the food, or there was never any intention of serving alcohol at this event, then without the least bit of embarrassment at your misjudging of the situation, you can easily take the very same bottle and instead present it with the intention “this is my housewarming gift for you to keep and enjoy at your leisure.” Pretty convenient, no?

And finally, the variety of wines easily available on the market provides yet another boost to wine’s appropriateness as a party contribution: your choice of what bottle to bring to a party is a personal statement about you. (And about your relationship to the host, and your interpretation of the social situation of the party.) For instance, you might choose to bring a wine from an exotic locale that you’ve just visited, to facilitate the telling of a vacation story; you might knowingly bring a wine that is perfectly paired with the meal; or a wine that caters to the idiosyncratic tastes of the host if you know the host well; or something unusual just for the sake of not being like everyone else; or a super-expensive bottle to generate ooh’s and aah’s if you know the crowd will recognize it; or if you know the crowd couldn’t care less you might simply grab whatever was leftover from your own previous party, just to have a bottle to hand over upon coming in the door. I could go on and on.

The party we (the Stanford Wine Society) threw on Thursday provided yet a different set of circumstances for wine choice. Because it was a blind wine tasting and we never publicly revealed who brought which bottle, I think most of the complicated motives described in the above paragraph didn’t apply; instead, I interpret the range of wines that appeared to say something about what people actually like to drink or are curious about drinking. Tempered, of course, by the practicalities of 1) price, 2) availability, and 3) the fact that it was 6:30pm and many people were probably coming straight from class or lab or some other place where they didn’t have the facilities to chill a white wine.

 

The data

For a full description of the format of our BYOB blind wine exchange, see the event description on our website. In short, all the wines were contributed by the attendees; they were served blind in no particular order and with no particular requirement to try or to rate every wine; and attendees filled out small review forms to rate the wines and describe them, if they felt like it. We had well over 50 attendees (51 signed in, but I’m sure we missed many); and at least 35 wines (I have a feeling I missed writing some down, though). With so many wines, we were forced to serve in several flights rather than all at once.

The purpose of this blog post is mainly just to provide a summary of what was contributed that evening— because we love gathering and plotting data just for the fun of it.

For the full story, here is a spreadsheet containing the full list of wines contributed to the party (well, as many as I was able to record); and here is a spreadsheet with all there anonymous reviews submitted.

Below, some general observations about group wine purchasing choices and wine tasting behavior. You may also want to contrast this summary with my blog post on the first, much smaller iteration of this party, last spring. It’s quite different!

 

  • Far more reviews were submitted for the wines in the first 2 flights (which were served simultaneously): Of a total of 75 reviews submitted, 65 were for flights 1 and 2; 8 were for flight 3; and 2 were for flight 4. I believe this is a clear sign of the effects of the consumption of alcohol on the human capacity for discrimination. By the time we got around to serving the second two flights, most people were done being analytical for the evening. 13 wines were not reviewed at all.


     
  • Red table wines were the clear favorite. 17% of the wines brought were white table wines, 83% were red table wines, and that was it-- No sparkling, dessert, aperitif, or other unusual categories were represented.


     
  • Merlot and Pinot Noir tied for most popular varietal (there were 5 of each), with Zinfandel (4), Cabernet Sauvignon (4), and Syrah/Shiraz (3) following closely behind. As might be expected.
    A few of the more unusual varietals that turned up included Dornfelder (a red bred in Germany in 1955), Traminette (a cross between a American-French hybrid and the German Gewurtzraminer, it’s the signature wine grape of Indiana), and Vernaccia di San Gimignano (an ancient variety, native to Tuscany).


     
  • No two wines were the same!

     
  • As one might expect, the distribution of wine ratings was approximately normal, and centered around the middle rating (3). [These are all the ratings given that evening, not the means of ratings for each wine.]
  • As one might also expect, the distribution of wine prices was skewed normal, with the $10-15 price range being the most popular.

     
  • We saw absolutely no correlation between the price of a wine and how highly it was rated, which does not surprise me.
    Nor did we see a correlation between the number of reviews a wine received and how highly it was rated, which differs from what we saw at our first event. I should say that our first event offered everyone a more-equal chance to taste and rate all the wines, whereas this time around I believe that even if there were the potential for a relationship, the chaotic nature of the reviewing process would have obscured it. (The reason there are no error bars on these plots is that they’re just so very enormous—take my word for it that these plots don’t mean much.)

We fully understand that we may not have revealed any great truths about the nature of wine preference or consumption through this exercise, but it was an awfully good party.

 

*I actually spent some time online looking for statistics to back up this statement—that is, I think that the percentage of Americans who readily drink wine is lower than the percentage who readily eat chocolate or drink lemonade-- but couldn’t find much. Don’t you think it should be true, though? I know many people who prefer beer to wine, or are allergic to wine, or don’t drink any alcohol at all... and far fewer who don’t eat chocolate. Unfortunately, per-capita consumption, which is the easiest information to find, doesn’t say much about the distribution of individual preferences. If you have any data, please let me know!