What did the grapes say when an elephant stomped on them?
Nothing. They just gave a little wine.
Everyone has heard a variation of this joke, and it goes to prove one thing about wine: You don’t need to be a stiff and proper cork-sniffing, vintage-charting wine snob to enjoy wine with friends. All you really need is a sense of humor, the enthusiasm to experiment, and the courage and audacity to sample wines with a twist-off cap.
I’ve been a member of a small wine-tasting group since 1985, averaging about 4 – 6 couples, varying as couples move from the area. The only requirement for admission is a recommendation from a current member and a love of the liquid grape stuff. Although we’ve attended tastings at restaurants and liquor stores, we’re more comfortable meeting monthly or every two months at each others’ homes where we can lounge, eat, and spill both wine and gossip with abandon. We start around 7:00 and end at midnight. This is flexible depending on season, but 5 or 6 hours is generally max.
We’re affectionately known as the Winies or Goofy Grapes. After nearly 30 years of wine tasting, here’s our formula:
Rotate hosts. Each hosting couple selects and buys the wine, a combo of whites and reds, usually about 6 – 7 bottles. The host may choose a theme (e.g., regional wines) or a price point (e.g., wines under $12). For fun, we usually start with a “pre-wine” where we all stand around in the host’s kitchen, bake appetizers, sip, and schmooze. We joke about this being a “palate cleanser” for the “good stuff,” but really it’s one of those traditions that we haven’t a clue how it started but it’s etched onto our sacred wine tablets now. Each attending couple brings a hearty appetizer — this counts as dinner — and their latest photos of kids and grandkids. The host provides coffee and dessert.
Gather around. We move to a more comfy area, usually a living room, and arrange appetizers. The first wine is poured, going from whites to reds. The host casually comments on each bottle as it’s poured, perhaps noting the region or why it was chosen. The bottle may be passed around for checking out the hilarious label descriptions (oaky, with a hint of butterscotch and pokeweed) or some unusual aspect of the vintage or producer, not in a studious examination way, but more of a “hey, cool!” way. Winies taste as many or as few wines as they would like. No one is pressured to try all or drain their glass. We don’t rate wines, even on a 1 – 10 scale. But we do rave if a wine is particularly tasty.
Mangia! Since we all skip dinner on wine tasting nights, we’d be foolish — not to mention trooper bait — to drink all evening without eating, even though it dulls the taste buds for judging wine. But this is the whole ambience behind informal wine tasting, to enjoy good food with good friends. The tasting of wine brought us together, but the real benefit of meeting is the close camaraderie with long-time friends. When the last bottle has been served, it’s time to break out the dessert and coffee.
Paying up. The host divvies up the cost of the wine, split equally among couples and hosts, although the host may choose to eat the cost of a particularly expensive bottle. It’s not announced. No big deal is made of it. Host’s prerogative.
Party’s over. Here’s the tricky part: driving home after drinking over a 5-hour period. Some of us carpool. Some have longer drives than others, but no matter the distance, it’s best to have a DD (designated driver) chosen at the outset. We’re all old enough to realize that a DWI or DUI can destroy our jobs, our families, our lives. Sure, it’s fun to party with friends, but someone has to bite the proverbial bullet and ease up on the wine tasting. Lately, hosts have been offering overnights — wine tasting slumber parties — at their homes for those winies who would rather drink and crash — in the host’s guest bedroom instead of on the highway.