How to Buy Unlabeled Wine Bottles and Host Your Own Mystery Wine Tasting Party

host a mystery wine tasting party

A mystery wine tasting party uses wines that no longer have labels. Photo Credit: Flickr CC user Hanzell Vineyards

A collector on the Wine Berserkers forum recently attended a “wine archeology” tasting party. His friend frequently buys wine from a shop in Belgium, and one day decided to invest in a handful of unlabeled mystery bottles that the store sold him for next to nothing. Some of the wines were so terrible that they had to be poured down the drain, but some were absolutely superb. They even found a $1,500 bottle of 1934 Dow’s vintage Port in the mix.

Unlike a traditional blind tasting, in which the wines’ labels are intentionally covered, a true mystery wine tasting party uses bottles whose labels have been destroyed over time. Hosting a party like this of your own can hone your palate and increase your chances of investing in incredible bottles for less than a quarter of their usual market price. It’s also just plain fun.

A Blind Tasting Vs. Mystery Wine Tasting Party

In a blind tasting, you have to guess the wine’s origins based on taste alone–it’s a serious workout for your palate. However, you usually already know the identity of at least one of the wines (the bottle you brought). In a mystery wine tasting party, no one knows the identity of any of the bottles, and it takes teamwork to unravel the mystery. You might get a bottle with a stained label that only lists the region clearly. In some cases, a label might be ripped off entirely, leaving you with just the liquid inside for data.

There are pros and cons to both types of tastings. In a blind tasting, the downside is that you’ll likely pay more for the bottles. Because unlabeled wines cost much less than their intact label peers, you can easily host a mystery wine tasting party for less than $10 or $20 per bottle. Some retailers even specialize in selling mystery wines that no longer have visible labels. However, the downside of a mystery tasting is that many of the wines could be of poor quality, and you will have no way to research the wines ahead of time to determine whether they’re worthwhile to drink.

How to Buy Unlabeled Wine Bottles

Before you host your own mystery wine tasting party, you need to know how to buy unlabeled wines that have a decent chance of good quality. First, give yourself a firm budget. I recommend buying at least 12 bottles for a large tasting party (and six for a smaller event). Since lacking a label is a serious flaw on the market, you shouldn’t pay more than $20 for any single bottle of wine, preferably less. If the retailer has a good idea of which producer made the wine, you can spend a bit more on the bottle.

However, if the label is entirely destroyed and the retailer has no idea who made the wine, sticking with a budget of less than $10 per bottle is a reasonable request. Always negotiate with your retailer to get the best price. In addition, I recommend only buying damaged label bottles from retailers who frequently deal in high-end wines. This improves your chances of getting an incredible bottle at a fraction of the usual price, and lowers the risk of ending up with only duds.

How to Identify Your Wine

The Wine Berserkers collector says that he and his friends “resembled a group of archeologists digging out a newly-discovered historical site from the Bronze age, rather than a wine tasting dinner.” To successfully host one of these events, you need to spend time closely looking at the label and corks, in addition to serving and tasting the wine itself. In the end, you might not be able to identify any of the bottles you try, so be prepared for some degree of failure.  

Get Ready to Serve

After you buy your mystery bottles, cool them to serving temperature, then carefully remove the cork from your first, lightest-looking bottle. You should serve your white wines first, followed by light reds, then dark reds, then possible dessert wines like Port. You may not end up opening your wines in the right order, since it can be hard to tell what type of wine is in each bottle, but most wines will do fine resting, opened, until you get to them. I recommend using a two-pronged corkscrew to open every bottle, regardless of varietal, since these can remove fragile corks without damage. You don’t know how old the wine is, so it’s better to be safe than end up with cork bits in your wine. In addition, the cork almost always has an engraving that can tell you who the producer is, so you will want to keep this in one piece whenever possible.

The Taste Test

Next, open and taste the first wine to decide whether it’s corked or too tight to serve. If it’s corked or has another serious flaw, pour it down the drain and move on to your next bottle. If it’s a little too tight, try decanting it first. Once the wine is deemed drinkable, serve your guests a glass and make observations about overall quality. Then, start to identify the varietal, followed by the possible region, and the wine’s loose age. Try to find these qualities based on taste alone so that you can hone your palate.

Dig Around the Bottle

After you and your friends have jotted down some tasting notes and made some guesses about producer and varietal, look closely at the bottle itself and its cork. If there isn’t a label at all, you can sometimes identify the wine’s region based on the shape of the bottle. Bottles that have damaged labels might have enough information leftover to help you fill in the gaps. You can look at this website for a detailed list of wine labels to help you identify producers. Repeat this for every wine in your lineup.

By the end of the mystery wine tasting party, you should have at least had the chance to exercise your palate, even if you can’t definitively identify any of the wines. This type of tasting isn’t about solving a mystery as much as it is about reminding you how invaluable your sense of smell and taste are, and letting you taste some wines without any preconceptions.

Whether you are starting your high-end wine collection or adding to an established portfolio, Vinfolio is your partner in buying, selling, and professional storage. Contact us today to get access to the world’s best wine.

Ryan has worked in every restaurant capacity from bartender to management, and in wine distribution as a consultant and advisor to Chicago’s most elite restaurants and retailers. As a new member of Vinfolio's Executive Fine Wine Specialists, he is thrilled to share his expertise and passion for wine. Outside of the office, he can be found learning to cultivate vines in the garden, with a glass of White Burgundy in hand, or hiking with his wife and dogs.