Build Your Own Tasting Group

David Ramsey, a Palo Alto engineer, figured out long ago that classes and tasting groups were the best route for exploring his favorite beverage.  “I have my old trieds and trues that I drink all the time but I’m always looking for new, interesting wineries and winemakers that offer something unique.”

 (This article appeared in the San Jose Mercury and its affiliates on September 20, 2012. See previous post on wine education.)  

Thousands of other local wine lovers feel likewise, flooding wine events and, in particular, wine tasting groups.  Many participate in thriving public wine clubs like the Palo Alto Wine Group, which is swarming with Silicon Valley professionals who come to sip, learn, network and sometimes find dates.  Others — like Facebook, which is launching its own wine club — go in a do-it-yourself direction.  If this is the goal, some how-to instruction is helpful, says Laurie Lindrup, director of special events at the International Culinary Center, who presented a seminar at Facebook as the kick-off to its new “wine school.”

She has some tips for would-be tasters to ease the transition from idea to happy sipping:

  • Establish a format up front.  Frequency, ground rules, budget, location should be defined “so that you use everyone’s time wisely,” says Lindrup.  Setting a regular day and time for the tastings is encouraged, as well as arriving promptly.
  • Buy a set of tasting glasses.  Sure, these can be purchased at Target or BevMo but Lindrup recommends Riedel’s Sangiovese glass, which is the standard at the culinary center.
  • Think about group size. A regular bottle of wine equates to a dozen 2-ounce pours, so going much beyond 16 people might require more than a bottle of each wine.  Also, “The more people you have, the more time it will take to go around the table and talk about the wines,” notes Lindrup.
  • Include blind tastings. While Lindrup suggests launching the group with what she calls “a little tour du monde” like pinot noirs from around the world, “blind” tastings in which similar wines are compared while the labels are hidden are great for learning — and deciding what to buy.
  • Masking bottles. Various solutions are available for hiding bottles for blind tastings, but a cheap approach, says Lindrup, is inexpensive tube socks.  Cheaper still is paper bags.
  • Use a standard score sheet. Most tasters end up ranking wines in some fashion.  But they should use the same metric — perhaps one of the many score sheets available online.
  • Research the wines being tasted beforehand.  Many pros use wine tomes from Oz Clark and Hugh Johnson. Also, tech sheets and other background are plentiful online.  For example, the Constellation Academy of Wine site has free podcasts, videos and webinars.
  • Journal. Back in the day, many wine geeks would make notes about the wines they drank. “I carried a spiral notebook in my purse,” says Lindrup.  Today, there are endless mobile apps and other electronic resources for capturing this information.  Just be careful not to spill wine on the devices.
  • Build a relationship with a good retailer. They obviously want the business but can help with useful advice and procuring hard-to-find bottles.
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