Photo Credit: sftours.com.au
So you’ve caught the bug, you’re a wine aficionado, and you want to advance your palate, gain broader knowledge of wine and have some fun pursuing those endeavors. Whether you are just interested as a consumer, or an aspiring or veteran wine professional, there are various avenues available in these pursuits. After many years and experiences in said pursuits, I can tell you that being in a tasting group has yielded some fulfilling, exciting, educational and occasionally wonderfully hedonistic results.
Currently, myself and nine other individuals comprise our group. This is not my first foray into tasting group activity, but for virtually everyone else it is their first dive off the dock. The composition of the group is three full-time wine professionals (including me) two industry part-timers and another five individuals who have a substantial history as avid consumers and followers of all things wine. From humble beginnings 18 months ago, the group has evolved and grown in size - we started with six members and are at the point where we are struggling to squeeze in interested new members – we are in the Bay Area, and most of us live in rather spartan abodes. Of greater import is the growth in focus, diversity of wine experiences and collective and individual palate enhancement that is paramount to enjoyment and accomplishment in the world of wine.
To Join a Group or Create One | What Wine or Region Focus Should You Have
So, you ask, how do I put a group together, or join an existing group? What should the priorities be in either effort? Do I/we need to have a common focus/specific area(s) of interest in wine? Is it more desirable to have a group made up of folks who have a similar level of knowledge and experience with wine? What should we do about foods/gnoshes to pair with the wines?
I will attempt to answer these questions and give insight while engaging in full disclosure – when we started the group, these considerations were nothing more than a constant work in progress. The issue of diversity in wine experience was easy, as we had industry insiders and folks who just plain liked wine a lot. We have five males, five females, I guess we are fortunate with that balance. The original six members were/still are very Euro-centric in our wine preferences, but from the outset we did not want to limit ourselves in our activities – we have staged tastings of Old Vine California Zinfandel, wines of Mendocino County and New Zealand. Even the geekiest of the Europhiles in the group have occasionally insisted on orbiting back to Earth and covering more conventional and “classic” regions and themes.
Initially, because of the European wine preferences in tastes shared by the original members, we in unison decided to focus on regional themes, pinpointing specific regions and/or appellations of interest to all or some of the group members. This has perpetuated, not exclusively but more often than not, and has proved useful in that understanding, appreciating and evaluating wines of the Old World is inextricably tied to the decades, often centuries of winemaking craft in these regions, how it relates to the native foods and culture of those locales. It helps in forming a picture and profile that relates to your palate memory and familiarity. And yet, there are always curveballs thrown which totally cast doubt on one’s perceptions and preconceived notions. As an example, during one particularly geeky tasting of wines from France’s mountainous regions – Jura, Arbois, Savoie, etc., I identified the aroma from an oxidized chardonnay (actually a prevailing style and approach in these regions) as that of a vacuum cleaner belt burning out. Sounds promising and appetizing, right? Well, we were able to get past that and put the wine in our mouths, and the unitary gasp that ensued was one of amazement, and the wine revealed itself as a silky, complex, layered burst of joy, with lovely savory notes and a memorable, long finish. It was everyone’s favorite wine of the evening!
Other groups I have participated in preferred themes centered around varietal comparison and composition, winemaking styles, etc. It is at the discretion of any group to come up with a format that works for them, and this often has to do with who the group members are and what/where their experiences with wine have revolved around. I don’t subscribe to the idea that there is a one-size-fits-all formula for a successful tasting group. Which brings us to . . .
…. Putting a group together, or which one to join. If you are into wine, you likely know other people who share that interest, unless you have just moved into a new area where you don’t know anyone, or happen (do these places exist anymore?) to live in a place where no one cares about wine. If you are acquainted with someone who works in the wine industry, that person may be interested and/or know other folks who are interested. It is not imperative or necessary to have industry people involved in any group, but it can’t hurt to have access to and be able to work with individuals who at least have that experience and a sense of direction perhaps relevant to what you want to accomplish. Additionally, while it is great to start with a group of folks that have a common knowledge and experience level when it comes to wine, remember that enthusiasm and an open mind and sense of adventure are equally desirable traits in that respect. Often people with wildly disparate palates and levels of experience will complement each other and the group collectively, and this will result in more enriching educational tasting experiences. As for desired or ultimate group size, I’ve seen successful groups with as few as three or four members. Once the memberships grows beyond 10-12 people, it potentially gets a little unwieldy in terms of managing and focusing in an orderly fashion.
Food pairing options
- Cheeses – there are few and far between which don’t go with wine. It’s best to select a variety of cheeses, ranging from aromatic/veined to creamy to harder texture, and to serve with bread and water crackers. Use less aromatic cheeses when tasting delicate white wines.
- Nuts – try not to use heavily salted or spiced options
- Charcuterie/sliced or grilled meats
- Gluten/Lactose intolerant options – you can usually find a bakery which has gluten-free bread. If you can, utilize it with caramelized onions, sautéed mushrooms, tomatoes with basil on the bread/toast points. Sauteed sweet peppers – don’t use spicy peppers, as they will definitely tamp down your palate, unless you are tasting sweeter/late harvest/dessert wines.
Photo Credit: Publix.com
Other Useful Resources
I mention the books and apps out of pragmatic experience. There always seems to be something that comes up in a tasting session that no one present has an answer for, or can shed any light on. Finding those answers and the relevant info is always an added bonus to the evening’s festivities.
- Wine Informational Books – There are boatloads of them out there these days, and you and your tasting mates may have already settled on a few favorites. I like the Encyclopedia of Wine and The Oxford Companion to Wine, there are others in our group who love The Wine Bible. Don’t be limited to these, check out a really fun bookstore or go online to pursue other options!
- Smart Phone Apps – I use Vinous constantly, for this and other purposes, and share a subscription with a couple of group members. Also useful are apps from The Wine Advocate and The Wine Spectator, and Delectable is a favorite as well. And, Wikipedia has come through for me in a pinch more than once.
- Decanters - Especially helpful if you are tasting older wines, or red wines of the big and bold variety. Wine chillers are also useful if you are tasting whites/roses. We rotate the responsibility of hosting in our group, check with the host and various group members as to who has these items available for use.
Regardless of how your group tasting experiences come together or unfold, remember that you are involved in a process that has a unique and timeless combination of fun, discovery, communication and education. Salud!
Photo Credit: SlowTourTuscany.it
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
In his third decade in the wine industry, Jim has enjoyed a career which has seen him involved in many facets of the industry, including wholesale importation and distribution, retail wine management and purchasing, consulting, communication and recently a foray into on-premise wine bar activity. Currently, he is focusing on writing, with an emphasis on chronicling the up-and-coming wine regions of Europe, while continuing to advance the cause of the classic Old World wine traditions of the European locales he has been passionate about for nearly a quarter century. Jim is currently sharing his wine expertise and insights as Wine Steward at Draeger's Market Black Hawk in Danville, CA. Highlights of his wine adventures include stints as a wine manager at Woodland Hills Wine Company in Los Angeles, Wine Buyer and Newsletter Editor for The Spanish Table in San Francisco, Wine Club and Events Coordinator for Wine on Piedmont in Oakland, CA and owner/operator of the Cascade Wine Co. in Yakima, WA.