Wine Tastings

Several years ago I organized a wine tasting night, hoping to take advantage of my neighbor’s expertise in that area.

Everyone brought a bottle of red wine, each one wrapped in a brown paper bag so we could taste without being influenced by the label or price.

The least expensive bottle on the table, a California Zinfandel, won raves. It surprised those of us who splurged on a $20 bottle – about twice the price of the winner – thinking that more expensive meant better quality.

That’s only one of a few good reasons wine tastings exist.

Milwaukee native Michael Dorf recently opened the posh City Winery in New York, a fully operational winery with two wine bars, a cheese bar, restaurant and performance venue. Dorf thinks the best wine tastings come when the winemaker is available to show off a little bit and let you know exactly how the wine was made.

Barring that, “an expert of some kind, a great sommelier, a collector or someone who can offer some insight into wine can often put into words something that is very difficult to articulate,” said Dorf, who started the Knitting Factory music club in the East Village (he left that in 2002) and opened City Winery on New Year’s Eve.

Wine tastings are one of the best and least expensive ways to learn about wine, said Natalie MacLean, author of the Web site and the book “Red, White, and Drunk All Over.”

“It’s only by comparing wines side by side that their differences in aromas and flavors jump out at you,” MacLean wrote in an e-mail. “Opening this many bottles at home would be expensive, not to mention inebriating.”

Wine tastings can run the gamut from informal – Whole Foods dispenses glasses of wine from what looks like a vending machine – to fancy, such as next month’s benefit at the Milwaukee County Zoo.

Take advantage of all of them, said Gary Vaynerchuk, the man behind the video wine blog at

“This is your absolute low-cost entry to explore,” said Vaynerchuk, who has hosted tastings for the likes of Ellen DeGeneres and Conan O’Brien. If you’re heading to a large wine-tasting event, his No. 1 tip is to walk the room before deciding where to begin. That way you can try something new while your palate is clear.

“Most people go to the most expensive wine first,” Vaynerchuk said. Try unfamiliar varietals instead. For instance, if you always drink Chardonnay, try a Gewurztraminer, or if you’re a fan of Cabernets, sip a Malbec.

He recommends that tasters always spit out excess wine to keep from getting “blitzkrieged.”

If spitting is a problem for you, head to any of the tastings at Balzac Wine Bar, 1716 N. Arlington Place. The bar plans to start them up again when the patio opens, said general manager Pete Brassert.

“We teach people how to spit. That’s one of the first things we teach,” Brassert said.



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