Gathering at the Lake Washington shore home of one of its nine members, the Seattle Tasting Group settled in for the evening's hard work. To warm up, they sampled three vintage champagnes. Then they moved on to the main event: tasting and comparing notes on a dozen 1994 California North Coast cabernet sauvignons. Host Michael Gordon chose that program because the "fantastic vintage" should be reaching its peak about now. The group tasted six before dinner and six after downing their grilled ribeye steaks. With the fruit tart, the tasting concluded with four dessert wines, including a vintage port.
The next day, member Eric LeVine posted the tasting notes on an Internet bulletin board. Several of the cabernets were surprising disappointments, including one that was "way too sweet." O.K., so every tasting has a few clunkers. But so what? "It was a fun evening," LeVine wrote, "and there were a few standout wines."
There's no good count of such wine groups or their membership, but people in the industry believe these gatherings -- akin to book clubs -- are on the rise. "Wine has never been as good as it is today," says Lisa Airey, interim executive director of the Society of Wine Educators in Washington, a professional association that certifies wine experts. "That inspires consumers who are just getting into wine to go further."
Each wine-tasting group has its own format and guidelines, but there are common practices. Most rotate meetings among members' homes and conduct blind tastings (the labels are concealed until after the tasting and discussion). They keep records of which wines they've tasted and what members thought of them. Most groups also decide in advance the price range of the wines they'll taste.
Many of those coming together in these clubs have long pursued their interest in wine beyond the dinner table. Don Thomas, a physician, and Gary O'Connor, a government lawyer, kicked off a recent event in Silver Spring, Md., with a slide show of their trip to Argentina's wine country. That set the scene for the evening's tasting -- Malbec wines from Argentina.
Over a potluck dinner, the nine members worked through a tasting and discussion of 14 bottles, mostly red malbecs, but also including three Argentine whites made from Torrontes grapes. Each member brought one or two bottles. Armed with a list of the wines to be tasted -- in no special order -- and space to note comments on each one, the diners raised their glasses to assess each wine's quality and color, swirl it in the glass, then sniff, sip, and finally taste, while searching for the best words to describe its qualities: "fruity" or "a hint of caramel." At the end, participants voted for their favorites. When the labels were revealed, the group's members were surprised that the top choice was a malbec from California rather than one from Argentina.
The Silver Spring group is a newbie, but some wine-tasting groups have been meeting for years. New York City lawyer Marty Miner is a member of a group of a dozen men who started out 15 years ago tasting only German wines. Now they bring whatever they want -- often from their own cellars -- to their biweekly sessions. "Everybody brings at least one bottle," says Miner. "You can bring bottles at whatever price you want."
In contrast, the Seattle Tasting Group meets monthly and chooses a theme -- a particular vintage, grape, or region -- in advance of the next meeting, giving members who don't have a bottle in their cellars time to purchase one, explains organizer Roy Hersh, a food and beverage consultant in Sammamish, Wash. The bottles, usually ranging in price from about $50 to $200 each, are presented for tasting in brown bags and scored according to a 100-point system.
In some groups, the food is almost as important as the wine. Stuart Angowitz, a headhunter, belongs to a tasting group of four couples in Chappaqua, N.Y. "In addition to liking wine, we all like to cook," he says, so they take care in pairing the wines with the food. At a recent tasting they quaffed a viognier with a tuna tartare appetizer, a cabernet sauvignon with an osso bucco main course, and a dessert wine made from muscat grapes with chocolate mousse.
Whether the group is highly structured or free form, most members will tell you that it's tough to imagine a more pleasant way to spend an afternoon or evening. For members of these groups, fine wines and conversations about them are essential ingredients of the good life.
By Ellen Hoffman