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John JuergensThe Importance of Gathering Around Wine


As social beings, we have a genetic tendency to congregate. So fundamental is this urge to gather, we have codified it as a right in our Constitution. We gather along religious and political lines, by profession, gender, the types of cars we drive, the kinds of computers we use, and even by what we drink.

With more than 100,000 different wines on the worldwide market, gathering to discuss wine is one of the best ways to learn about wine. As with so many other human endeavors, joining others with a common interest in wine to share perspectives and experiences, greatly enhances one's understanding and enjoyment of it. Plus, it's a hell of a lot cheaper and you can afford to try a far greater range of wines than if you go it alone.

That's how I got my start more than 30 years ago, and I still find it one of the best ways to stay current with major trends in wines. Not to mention, it is just plain fun to share wine with others who enjoy it.

If you really want to learn more about wine, your best option is to get together with on a regular basis with others who enjoy wine for the express purpose of tasting and discussing wine.

And when you get together, the key is to approach wine in a systematic way. It is amazing how quickly the pieces of the puzzle fall into place when you focus on wine characteristics using a particular theme. Although it would be nice to have one big club to service all the inquiring palates in town, such an endeavor can quickly run into diminishing returns because the administrative and logistic considerations become overwhelming. It is best to stay small and flexible.

Here are some fundamental tips for starting your own wine group. First, find one or two other people who are as interested in wine as you are and then make a commitment to devote time regularly to wine tasting and education. You have to have at least one person who is passionate enough about wine to act as the catalyst for the group.

Second, find additional people who are interested in learning about wine, but who also can commit to regular attendance at meetings. Unreliable members will kill a tasting group in very short order. I'm not sure there is a minimum number, but shoot for six to ten people. A single bottle will serve as many as ten people with an adequate amount of wine.

Third, set a schedule to meet regularly at least monthly, but whatever you do, don't combine this with a dinner club type of activity because those events usually are more social in nature and the wine will get lost in the shuffle. Remember, your goal is to focus on the wine.

There are other practical things you can do to make a wine group work better. Get a subscription to one of the major wine magazines such as Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast and use it to guide your tastings. Invest in a dedicated set of inexpensive but proper wine glasses so that each person will have a glass for each wine you taste, that is, six to eight glasses per person.

Select themes that will be educational and take turns coordinating each tasting by putting together background information about the wines to be evaluated. By all means, do not assign people to bring specific wines; this is inviting disaster. Have just one person responsible for buying the wines and then figure out how to split up the cost later.

When starting out, select wines that have been reviewed in magazines and use those notes to guide the group in what to look for in the wines. Take notes on the group's impressions as compared to those of the "experts", and keep a file on the wines tasted.

Depending on the number of people in the group, try to keep the number of wines evaluated at one sitting to between 4 and 8 wines. Set a price range for the wines you want to taste, and consider occasionally including a wine in one of the higher price tiers to learn how those wines compare to lower priced wines.

There is an unlimited number of themes for tastings. Compare Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon wines from different countries to learn about stylistic differences. Compare several brands of a single type of wine but at different prices to examine the effect of price on quality. Compare wines from the same country or state, but which come from different regions within the area to learn how climate and soil affect the flavor of the wine. Explore the different wine producing countries of the world and taste wines that best represent the general characteristics of a country or a region. The staff at most of the larger wine shops should be able to give you good advice on other themes and which wines to buy, but there is no substitute for doing your own background research.

You should be able to come up with a years worth of tasting themes with little trouble. But the beauty of wine tasting is that at the end of the year there is a new vintage so you will have to start all over. As you can see, this can become a life-long quest; at least that's the story I'm sticking with.

I will make an offer to anyone who is really serious about starting their own wine tasting club. I will give you a year's worth of tasting themes that we have used in the wine club I belong to, and (for readers in the Oxford, Miss., area) I will attend a couple of your initial meetings to guide you on your way. I guarantee that you will quickly gain the confidence to plan and conduct successful tastings on your own. Just remember, you can usually drink your mistakes.

The presence of wine at human gatherings goes back more than 8,000 years, and I would be willing to bet that our ancestors began to debate its qualities shortly after they discovered its capacity for enhancing the quality of life. We must carry on the tradition.

My wine picks for the week are the several blends produced by Rosemount from Australia. These combine things like Shiraz, Grenache, Merlot, and Riesling in some delightfully light and fruity wines ideal for summer. Look for the crooked labels in the Australian wine section of your favorite wine shop. Cheers.

Aug. 11, 2000

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