Getting To Know You

By Posted on Aug 05 2011 | By

Creating a Wine Society Gathers People Together You May Rarely See—Your Neighbors

In 2000, Robert Putnam penned a bestseller titled, Bowling Alone.  The book explored how Americans have become increasingly disconnected with one another.  Today his findings are still valid, notwithstanding the avalanche of social media.

Putnam’s tome—all 544 pages—centers on the deterioration of ways people have come to interact with one another over the past two generations. One small example is the number of Americans attending public meetings of any kind declined 40% over the last thirty-five years.

The book is packed with voluminous data showing how Americans have grown increasingly isolated, less empathetic toward their fellow citizens, angrier and less willing to unite in communities or as a Nation.

Sounds like a press release emanating from Capitol Hill.

To buck the trend, Putnam called for more educational programs, work-based initiatives and community service programs.  But there’s another easy and enjoyable way to link with the locals.  Share a bottle of wine.

Today in the United States, there are over 40 million wine drinkers.  And in 2011, the United States assumed the title of the largest wine consuming nation on earth.  So if you are looking for something you might have in common with folks in your neighborhood, reach for a corkscrew, a wine glass and a bottle of Cabernet.

This writer founded a community wine society back in 2005 and has held over thirty-three tastings since first sampling South African wines in a group setting.  Since then, our posse has pursued the world of fine wine, evaluating bottles from almost every producing region in the world.  Uh, we haven’t gotten to Chinese wines yet.

It’s been a rewarding experience.  And while it’s been fun tasting all those great wines, deepening existing friendships and creating new ones has been even more satisfying.

Think you might not be up to hosting a wine tasting party?  It’s easier than you might imagine. Here are some thoughts on establishing a local wine association; and dismiss any preconceived notions of its difficulty. Simply assume the mantle of its chairperson and success will follow.  It’s a given your disciples will enjoy the experience because the social magic is in the wine.  Your job is simply the facilitator.

No need to be an expert
Wine provides an endless opportunity to learn something new, so starting from a position of unfamiliarity can actually be an asset.  It will be rare to find folks in your neighborhood who think they are experts.  And if they aren’t pros, you needn’t be either.  A love of wine, coupled with friendly people to drink it with, fulfills the basic requirements for forming a group.  A wine society enables everyone to learn together.

Start Small
Your first meetings should be limited in size; eight to ten people makes for a good starter group.  A bottle of wine holds 25.6 ounces, so five bottles will provide ten participants over two ounces of each selection, or about 13 ounces.  You can provide the wines yourself or each couple can bring a bottle of their choice.  The tasting can be a stand alone event or it can be the lead-in to a group dinner or bar-b-que.  With the focus on wine, initial meetings might best be limited to just tasting.  Expanding the format can come later.  A selection of gourmet cheeses and crackers makes a nice accompaniment to the wine itself.

Our local wine society typically has twenty to twenty-two people at each meeting tasting some thirteen wines, or somewhat over half a bottle per person.  As a group grows in size, two bottles per each selection will offer tasters the opportunity to sample more of each wine although less variety.

Levy a fee that reflects the cost of all the wine and food.  You do not want to go broke.  Avoid inexpensive wines readily available at the nearby grocery store.  You’re goal is to expand everyone’s palate by tasting quality.

Rely on the pros
To select your wines, trust the guidance of a wine merchant.  Describe your goals and ask for suggestions. Over time, your relationship with these pros may result in occasional discounts.  A merchant who knows you will be buying quality wines on a regular basis will want to keep you as a customer.

Each session should have a focus—such as France, Italy, Chile or Virginia—and include both whites and reds, unless the group requests otherwise.  Or, you could have a selection of wines from around the world.  Large wine retailers often will be able to provide printouts on each bottle purchased describing the aroma, palate flavors and scores awarded by nationally known experts.  Such information is helpful in sussing out the tastes of each wine.

Encourage discussion
As each wine is poured, elicit reactions from the attendees.  Not everyone will feel comfortable commenting, especially if they think they know little about wine.  But listening to the opinion of even the novice can provide insight.  Initially, don’t be concerned with generating a host of detailed comments like, “A touch of pineapple with melon notes and a veil of citrus.”  Such language can intimidate wine newbies.  Descriptors like, “Smells great…is fruity…has a bite…smooth finish,” or simply, “I’d buy this one,” are easier to understand and can generate profitable discussion.

Your responsibility
As chairman of your society you will need some basic materials.  Here’s a starter list.

Good quality wine glasses.  These need not be expensive but an all purpose glass capable of bringing out the best in both white and red wines is important.

Sufficient seating.  As your society expands, word will spread and you’ll receive additional requests to join, so extra seating will be needed.  Choose a room large enough to place everyone in a circle.  Lawn chairs and bar stools will do just fine as a group expands.  Your members are not expecting to be seated in King Louis XIV chairs.  Once the tasting begins, any concerns about the seating arrangements will evaporate along with the disappearing wine.

Decant the reds.  About three hours prior to the event, open each red and pour it into a pitcher and repour it back into the bottle using a small funnel.  This will enable the wines to open up and offer maximum aromas and flavors.  The whites should be chilled but do not have to be opened till the tasting begins.

Scoring sheets for evaluating the wines.  You will likely find some of the members may not want to score the wines.  But at least two or three guests should make some attempt at rating each wine so you can select the “favorites” at the end of the evening.  An excellent scoring format is the UC Davis 20 point system that awards points for appearance, aroma, palate, finish and overall impression.  While this can get a bit techie, it is a valuable way to rate the total impact of each bottle.

Bowling alone may represent today’s isolated society but there is no need to drink alone.  Many of your friends and neighbors will be pleased to receive a call or email announcing the formation of a neighborhood wine society.

Ben Franklin once said, “The discovery of a wine is of greater moment than the discovery of a constellation.  The universe is full of stars.”  Begin your personal discovery of wine stars and experience how it can enrich the lives of you and your companions.


Published in the 2011 winter edition of the Virginia Wine Gazette.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES