Techno v. Old School
After reading the recent article about wine and technology in REALIZE Magazine, my first thought was: I must be getting old. On second thought I realized that when it comes to wine, I am simply “old school.” I much prefer direct experiences and firsthand discoveries to the indirect and vicarious ones available through the Internet. I would rather gather with real people than connect online through a Wine App or social platform. The Internet is a wonderful research tool and a good way to purchase wine, but it falls woefully short when it comes to learning about your own tastes and preferences. That can only be done through the swirl, sniff, sip and finish of a true tasting. Plus, it is an experience that can be shared with friends, family and even strangers. How can an app, post, or tweet capture the clink of a glass, the pop of a cork or the camaraderie of a toast? How does a cell phone capture the moment after your first sip? AT&T had a slogan: "long distance, the next best thing to being there.” Well, why settle? With wine, there’s nothing like “being there.”
Wine Apps and Online Wine Clubs
There are so many wine apps and virtual wine clubs—too many for me. Ultimately, I find them impersonal and dull. The only wine-inspired app I subscribe to is Wine Spectator, from the company that brings us Wine Spectator. It is a free and quick reference tool with vintage charts for wines from around the world. For a deeper dive, you can pay a fee and subscribe to the “premium” app with its own expert wine reviews. But Wine Spectator isn’t the only digital resource; there are multiple high-quality websites where specialists and enthusiasts post reviews. High-profile experts like Robert Parker of Robert Parker's Wine Advocate and Stephen Tanzer of International Wine Cellar share their knowledge by posting reviews and tasting scores for wines from around the world. There are others who specialize in wines from a particular country or region (too many to mention here). Finally, many high quality wine merchants publish one or more of these expert reviews for a large number of the wines listed on their web-site. But let’s face it; you can’t discover your personal taste on Google. With a book or movie, you have to read or watch it. With a wine, you have to taste it. By sampling a wide array of countries, regions, varietals and vintages you can discover your own preferences, and if you do it with friends, you gain valuable insight into their tastes for future reference (e.g., entertaining or gifts).
I tend to take it really “old school,” I read up on my favorite regions and varietals. Favorite books include: Hugh Johnson’s "World Atlas of Wine", Parker’s "Bordeaux," and Jasper Morris’ "Inside Burgundy." In addition to the previously mentioned periodicals, I check out Decanter Magazine and The Burghound, and each week, I flip through the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal for their wine-inspired articles and stories. But my favorite "quick" reference tool is Johnson’s "Pocket Guide to Wine," a remarkable resource and valuable companion. It contains a ton of current information, and with a price tag under $15, it is accessible and affordable. For techno vino folks, it may be hard copy, but it actually is like carrying a "sommelier in your pocket." I'll bet some sommeliers keep it handy or secretly carry it too.
I’ll admit that I’ve dabbled with digital platforms before. My first online experience was through Facebook. At a weak moment, I acquiesced to joining a wine group with some people I know. Should be safe, right? Wrong! What a mistake.
Ultimately, I didn’t know most of the people commenting and the number of participants and commentary grew exponentially. Most posts weren’t spontaneous to the tasting event, which usually leads to inaccuracies. Before long the conversation became repetitive, circular and unreliable, and was laced with unintelligible comments, irrelevant anecdotes, feigned or second-hand knowledge, or contrived opinions. Worst of all, the constant email alerts were downright invasive and annoying.
But don’t get me wrong, not all virtual wine clubs are bad per se. Some serve a useful purpose.
For example, some people join online wine clubs to try a wide variety of wine at a discount. This makes sense if you (a) are beginning your wine journey, (b) want someone else to select your wine, (c) prefer to have it delivered to you and (d) would like to sample different wines. Two caveats are that many of these clubs require you to order a full case with an assortment, and that each bottle is priced approximately the same or falls within a narrow price range. The downside is that if the wines are virtually at the same quality level, it is difficult to ascertain “value.” Like any other consumer item, you may determine that something outside your normal price range is a “good value.” Think about coffee, cosmetics, appliances, sportswear, cars, hotels, and restaurants, to name a few categories. The most affordable is not always the best value. “Value” is in the eyes (or palate) of the beholder. There is a wide range of style, cost and value within each country, region and wine varietal. It is a far richer learning experience to gather and taste all types of wine at various price points. For me, it is the best way to learn your preferences. I prefer to explore and discover whether the “good stuff” is really worth the money. Really, would you consider it travel if all you did was read a travel book or magazine? Your wine experience is a journey. You need to leave the nest. Get out there and taste.
In Person Wine Clubs and Tastings
So what is a good way to join a wine club or start your own? My two best suggestions are: (1) don’t make the group too large and (2) don’t join too many. As volume grows, enjoyment shrinks. That’s true of a lot of things. Over doing it starts to dilute the impact and enjoyment of the events. In this case, less is more. I recommend limiting yourself to:
(a) A small number of wine clubs (2 or less)
(b) A manageable number of members (7-10 people each)
(c) A reasonable number of tasting events (once a month or every other month)
(d) A group of people who enjoy each other. (This facilitates a shared vision, attendance and a positive vibe. Moreover, spontaneous opinions are more genuine and have a lasting impact, precisely
because it’s among friends).
Why start a group? Because not all wine tastings are “fun.”
There will always be “wine geeks” (reasonably knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and basically harmless). You can mark me as Exhibit A. But don’t confuse them with the “wine snobs” or outright “jerks.” In a public setting (e.g., wine merchants, tasting events and wineries), you have less control and can often encounter some real doozies that can sink to the occasion. They are the self-indulgent “know-it-alls” who are rude, overly negative, condescending and constantly spewing wine speak.” The experience becomes all about them. But eventually, just like kids on a playground, the bullies, whiners, jerks and snobs are shunned.
That said, not all public tastings are bad. Those hosted in wine shops and vineyards range from highly enjoyable to highly disappointing. In my experience, most merchants try to push their high inventory items or serve only their low-end merchandise. But a few do a marvelous job of generously sharing fine wine and educating people in the process. The best retail store wine tasting experience I know occurs at Knightsbridge Wine Shoppe in Northbrook, IL. Every Saturday afternoon, regular patrons bring a bottle from their own cellar to share, while the shop donates one of their higher-end wines. Even though there are always a few “characters” in attendance, there is a good spirit in the room, because everyone there is a wine lover. Usually we do a blind tasting where we have to guess the wine’s origin, varietal and vintage. It sounds haughty, but it is perfect for “wine geeks" and novices alike.
But my favorite wine group consists of a close circle of good friends. We meet monthly and rotate the hosting duties. For January through November, each member picks a month and a specific date to host. Each month the designated host picks the wine theme and provides food for people to nibble as they taste. Each member attending brings a bottle consistent with the theme for the evening. In December, our host in recent years has been Knightsbridge Wine Shoppe. This December we will be celebrating our 9th anniversary. We’ve had a ball and tasted some truly outstanding high profile wines from around the world.
Occasionally, someone gets the urge to be generous and bring an extraordinary bottle, which is above and beyond the call, but instead of over-thinking it, we simply drink it and thank the donor profusely. What amazes me is the sensibility and creativity that the group has exhibited over time to make each theme and event fresh and enjoyable. With 108 events, and 1000 bottles under our belts, here are just a few of my favorites:
- 30 Something (a wine nobody would believe you acquired for less than $30)
- The Killer B’s (Barolo, Barbaresco and Brunello) or the “Italian Stallions” (wines of Piemonte)
- Sideways (Merlots from around the world) — based on Paul Giamatti’s famous line from the movie: “if anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving.”
- The Bordeaux Five and Dime (Vintages ending in a multiple of 5 or 10 (i.e., 1970, ’75 ‘80,’85,’90, ‘95’, 2000, 2005)
- “BTB” Night (Bring That Bottle-one you have been saving for a special occasion)
- Rising Stars of California (up and coming producers generally unknown but destined for greatness)
- Bordeaux v. California (blind tasting--guess country of origin)
- French Red Burgundy v. U.S. Pinot Noir (blind tasting--guess country of origin)
The most important thing for any wine club is to find people with a shared vision, especially if this is your maiden voyage.
In any event, start with a group of manageable size (5-10 people). The rules of engagement should fit the group to facilitate enthusiasm and maximum participation. It is most helpful to settle on a specific day and week in each month to facilitate regular attendance.
Above all remember that you don’t have to be an expert, you only need to have a desire to learn and discover what you like. In the end, you will trust your palate and not rely on pontificators. The fun is in the discovery process and the connection with friends along the way. Everybody is on his or her own wine odyssey, but why travel alone? It is always a journey, never a destination. Tastes and preferences continue to evolve. So do the online thing if you wish, but as the song says: “Ain’t nothin’ like the real thing baby, Ain't nothin' like the real thing.”