Last night, I drove through Hillier in the dark, onto the crackling gravel drive at a familiar County winery and walked into the tasting room. There were eight of us in all and nine bottles of wine, double-wrapped in grocery bags on the bar. Ten minutes later, we were on barstools at a little table swirling, sniffing, and tasting. We scratched our observations and predictions into purple-stained notebooks, debated whether certain vitis vinifera were hybrids or crossbreeds, and laughed together about wine-things that were mostly over my head. Eight of the group were winemakers and somms, and then there was me—trying very hard to be sober and cool enough to get invited back to the next meeting of the very awesome, off-the-books, unofficial Prince Edward County Secret Wine Club. – Lonelle Selbo
These types of “secret” wine clubs or tasting groups are probably taking place all around you, though winemakers and sommeliers really consider them to be educational experiences or opportunities for professional development. But these types of meetings aren’t just reserved for the pros. Maybe you know a ‘wine geek’—someone who has all kinds of esoteric knowledge about noble grapes. Someone who can pull ten different flavours out of any glass of wine while pinpointing its varietal, year and region. And do you know what the biggest difference between the average wine lover and a wine geek? The wine geek is probably part of a secret wine club or tasting group.
So, if you know a wine geek, ask them about it. There’s a chance they’ll either be part of a tasting group that they can bring you into or have an interest in starting one. Or if you want to start your own secret wine club, all you need are some like-minded friends, a few bottles of wine, and this handy 5-step guide:
1. Gather a group of about 6-10 people
No experience necessary, although it helps if everyone is as enthusiastic about learning as you are. If none of your friends are wine drinkers, head to a wine bar and see if they host tasting events. You can meet like-minded people and get a sense of how to do a formal tasting.
2. Agree on a budget
Wines can be purchased by one person and everyone contributes, or everyone can bring a bottle to share. BYOB is great for accommodating individual budgets, and sometimes people have access to wines that you normally wouldn’t be able to find in a store—maybe something purchased directly from a local winery, or brought back from a vacation overseas.
3. Pick a theme
A great starting point is choosing a bottle from each category of wine style (check out Wine Folly’s guide here). After you figure out the likes and dislikes of your group, focus in on grape varietals or countries that spark your interest.
4. Do some research
Learn a bit about where each wine comes from, and what makes it stand out. Knowing which bottles were produced where, and how much alcohol or sugar is in each one will help you correlate regions and styles with what you’re tasting in the glass.
5. Drink and discuss
The fun part! If you have enough glassware to do it, pour about 3 oz. of each wine into a glass so you can go back and forth between them and compare. If not, pour each wine one after the other, but try to save some in the bottle so you can revisit a wine later. It can be helpful to write some notes down, so you can remember what you liked and why.
Doing a comparative tasting like this for the first time can be eye opening. It’s almost impossible to learn the nuances of wine without tasting them side by side to understand the subtle differences. Try to think about a few things when you’re tasting and talking. What do you like and dislike? What do you smell in each glass, and do you taste those same flavours in your mouth? Which wines linger after you’ve swallowed, which ones seem to disappear quickly? What food would you serve with each wine?
If you’re having trouble getting started, check out your local wine bar and ask if they do any wine education. The Lark in Belleville has put together an awesome series of Wine School nights with instructor-led tastings of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and more. Sip, learn, and meet other future wine geeks. Check out a full listing of upcoming dates on their website.