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Swirls well with others

April 12, 2006|Corie Brown | Times Staff Writer

IT'S Bordeaux night for the clutch of girlfriends who call themselves the Drinkettes. In the back room at 17th Street Cafe in Santa Monica a long table is jammed with wine glasses ready for the women, who arrive for dinner at 7 o'clock, each with a bottle of Bordeaux in hand. In moments, the wine tasting is in full swing.

Not that all of these women are wine geeks. Half of the Drinkettes are there to catch up on the gossip while others, who have brought their own deep-bowl wine glasses, are furiously swirling sniffing, sipping and writing copious tasting notes.

"It's about connecting with each other when our busy lives make it easy to lose touch," says Janel Dreeka, the group's founder and leader. "And it's fun to discover the nuances of wine, to appreciate the seduction and sensuality of wine with friends."

Just as book groups have helped make enjoyment of good books a shared experience, tasting groups remind us that wine is best sipped with friends. It is especially true in California where so many casual wine drinkers have visited winery tasting rooms and where wine shops host tastings for novice drinkers and formal wine classes abound. Learning about wine with a small group of intimates may be the most enjoyable way to improve your wine IQ.

Setting up a wine tasting group is a lot like organizing a book group. Here's how to gather friends together to explore wine, allowing your group's preferences and predilections to guide the structure and the content. The good news is that wine isn't Proust. Tastings are allowed to swerve into pure hedonism without apology.

Tasting and talking

THE Drinkettes' monthly tasting group is the result of a promise among half a dozen schoolmates to stay in close touch. The group doubled in size as other friends gravitated to the wine-centric evenings.

When it's time to discuss the wine, everyone chimes in, offering opinions and voting for her favorite wines. The group does the tasting in a series of flights of three wines each, poured blind, which means the bottles are disguised in numbered paper bags. Appetizers arrive during the first flight, and by the time everyone has had a taste of each of the bottles and discussed her preferences, dessert is on its way.

Getting a wine tasting group going and keep it going when no one knows much about wine is a matter of organization, say the pros. A smart way to start is to decide on the style for your tasting, set a theme for the wines, then agree on a budget.

Is it a couples' tasting, a mixed group, all men or all women? How intent is everyone on learning the details about each wine? Does the group want to have one leader? Or would folks rather trade off host duties?

There are no rules for how to organize a wine tasting group, just as there are no rules for what makes a perfect wine. It's all personal preference. Tasting groups are defined by the members.

A Monday evening tasting is less of a party than a Saturday night tasting. Your group may be so focused on the wines that no one is interested in eating anything more than cheese and bread. Or it could be a group of devoted foodies who delight in preparing elaborate dinners that match the wines for the evening. Some groups like to meet in restaurants, leaving the stemware for someone else to clean.

For novice wine lovers, smaller groups of eight to 10 people are easier to organize than large groups. Once a month meetings are easier to sustain than more frequent gatherings. And there is usually one person who cares more than the others about how things are run.

Make it easy on everyone, says Paul Wasserman, a wine expert who has organized dozens of tasting groups. "Let the pushy one run things." This style works particularly well when the group meets at restaurants and everyone needs to be given an assignment for what wine to bring.

Since the Drinkettes' first tasting a year and a half ago, Dreeka has chosen the theme each month (Spanish, Italian, German) as well as the restaurant location. Everyone brings a bottle that fits the theme and each orders a la carte from the restaurant menu. Although the wines are discussed and notes are sometimes made, there's no formal presentation on each wine. The loose structure allows the group to relax and shift gears to personal conversations.

When a group meets at someone's home, being more tightly structured helps avoid some classic pitfalls, according to Bonnie Graves, a sommelier and wine consultant. With a set budget for the evening, a rotating host can select an intelligent collection of wines for the evening's tasting. Inexpensive bottles of meaningless wines can be avoided. And the risk of having similar wines or missing benchmark styles is eliminated. Those in the group learn more when they take turns doing the research, she says.

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