SAN DIEGO — Every week, 15 people sit down in a red-carpeted room in Allied Gardens and sip 12 glass of wine--12 glasses each --provided free by Nick Ponomareff.
Ponomareff doesn't believe in pouring cheap stuff, either. On the contrary, he often passes around vintages from the finest wineries and chateaux in California and France. Some would sell for as much as $85 a bottle--if you could find them.
His guests are always the same, and so are the rules Ponomareff lays down for them. Each must bring his own glasses--Ponomareff doesn't want anything to do with all that dirty glassware.
The guests must also savor the wines, concentrating fully on the complex aromas and flavors. Afterward, everyone must rate the wines and comment on what they have tasted.
Ponomareff is editor and publisher of California Grapevine, a bimonthly wine newsletter. The results of the weekly wine tastings fill the pages of his publication.
The way Ponomareff describes it, the Grapevine is not only for connoisseurs of fine wines but also for less-sophisticated wine drinkers who are stupefied at the vast array of wines on the market or who are simply wondering whether the bottle of zinfandel they received as a gift is rotgut or something worth saving.
"The average consumer doesn't have enough money to taste 1,000 wines a year, the way we do," Ponomareff points out. "The Grapevine gives him a preliminary reading on whether a wine is good or bad. It gives him a chance to see what a panel of expert tasters thought of a given wine, rather than taking a chance on something that may not be that good."
Dan Berger, a former San Diego journalist who writes a semimonthly wine column syndicated by the New York Times, said the Grapevine "is one of the most respected wine newsletters in the country. And to my knowledge, it's the only one that uses an expert panel that has no prior information whatsoever about what winery the wines are from or how much they cost."
Ponomareff doesn't reveal that information until after panel members have rated and commented on the wines.
"The panel is one of the best I've ever tasted with," Berger said, "and they're consistent. The faces on it haven't changed much over the last 10 years."
The Grapevine's panel of experts is an eclectic group of 20 people (only about 15 show up on any given night). One of the few things they have in common is that Ponomareff originally invited them to the tastings. But most of them are longtime connoisseurs, too.
Tom Wotruba, a professor of marketing at San Diego State University, once owned a wine store. Ron Ridgway, a North Park veterinarian, owns the Silas St. John restaurant in Kensington and has been a judge at several wine competitions. John Majda is a medical student who has been tasting wine for 10 years and was a judge at the San Diego National Wine Competition earlier this year.
"I've been coming to the Grapevine tastings for about three years," Majda said. "It's a good group--there's a lot of camaraderie. And you learn things that enhance your own knowledge of wines."
Some of the regulars are directly involved in the wine business. Jeff Slankard is the wine buyer for Liquor Land, a retail chain with five stores in San Diego County. The Grapevine's weekly tastings are "a very good mechanism for discovering new wines because when I taste them here, I don't know what winery they're from," Slankard said. "If I find something that I really like, I'll buy it for the stores."
Ponomareff is a soft-spoken, 41-year-old engineering specialist at General Dynamics. He started the Grapevine in San Diego 13 years ago.
"It originally started as a group of people who simply got together to taste wines," he said, but as the group's interest and knowledge of wine expanded, "we proceeded with the bodacious assumption that other people might be interested in our opinions."
That bodacious assumption apparently turned out to be correct. About 5,000 people--half of them from out of state--pay a yearly subscription price of $24 to receive the Grapevine, according to Ponomareff. Some of the subscribers are wine store owners and buyers, but most are simply private individuals interested in wine.
Ponomareff personally selects all of the wines to be tasted, buying them during one-day whirlwind tours of Northern California stores and wineries that he makes every six or seven weeks.
"We're interested primarily in newly released California wines, and they get into distribution sooner up there than they do down here," he said.
About 20% of the wines are supplied as free samples from wineries, but even so, Ponomareff spends $15,000 a year on the wines (an expense that is covered by the Grapevine). At a recent tasting of French Bordeaux, the cheapest bottle had a retail price of $16; the most expensive cost $85.