Starting a Wine Tasting Group
One of the best ways to learn about wine is to taste it with a group. Many beginners are often intimidated by wine tasting groups, but being in a group where everyone is a willing learner can really forge a path to understanding. If you currently aren’t part of a wine tasting group, this chapter will give you some ideas about forming your own (or helping a friend start one).
The group that I taste wine with starts with eighteen people and eight bottles of wine. Getting enough people to help share the cost. It allows the group to purchase wine that’s more expensive than you’d normally buy on your own. However, the size of the group isn’t as important as the consistency of its meeting. The group I taste with visits once a month. Find people who show an interest in tasting wine, starting with friends, family, and co-workers. Pretty soon you’ll be turning folks away.
Although my group uses a form to score wines, you don’t have to be. You’ll need to pay attention to the wine characteristics in detail, take in notes and describe what you’re tasting, but you can it accomplish more tasting rather than just talking about it.
Blind Wine Tests
I conducted a blind tasting of San Diego and Temecula wines with my monthly wine tasting group in 2002. I wanted group members to sample varieties that are a little different from your standard Chardonnay and Merlot. Thus, I chose the white variety Viognier and the red variety Nebbiolo. We tasted four of each variety. In my prior research I had discovered that the San Diego and Temecula areas are similar in climate and soil to the Rhone region in France as well as parts of Italy. Nebbiolo is from the Northwest Piedmont area of Italy and Viognier is from the Rhone Valley.
Nebbiolo produces a dry red and also a sweet pink wine. The Essential Wine Book by Oz Clarke describes the grape as having memorable tastes, but not necessarily enjoyable ones. According to the author, toughness and tannin are the hallmarks of this grape, and these traits often overshadow the finer points. Some words used to describe the wine produced by Nebbiolo grapes are “tarry,” “inky,” “smoky,” and “spicy.”
Viognier is often described as an alternative to Chardonnay and is noted for having tastes of peaches and apricots. Other words used to describe the variety include “pear,” “melon,” “light butter,” “vanilla,” and “toast.”
I looked for local wines in our area stores such as Cost Plus, Trader Joes, Kiel’s, Costco, and Beverages & more. Unfortunately, the supply of wines is limited; most of the stores carried local wines only from Callaway, and Thornton. In the instance where I found a local wine, it was most likely a type of Cab or White. I did find Callaway and Thornton Wine Growers at Cost Plus (these were part of the tasting).
Another wine I purchased from a San Diego winery was a Witch Creek Nehbiolo. Although the grapes were grown in Mexico’s in their Guadalupe Valley, the wine is made in San Diego.
This winery is known by local winemakers for its Nebbiolo. The Other San Diego winery choice was Shadow Mountain Winery’s both wineries shipped the wines to me at a reasonable cost.
I In- remaining supply came from a visit to wineries in Escondido and in Temecula. I wanted to purchase a few wines that were notable and had won some awards for quality. I found an Orfila Estate Lotus that has won numerous awards including a gold medal in the 2002 Florida State Fair International Wine and Grape Competition. Although it’s non-vintage and not entirely made up of Viognier (Marsannee and Roussanne grapes were mixed in, although the majority of the grapes used are Viognier), the wine is notable for its brilliant light gold color and nose of ripe apricot and honeysuckle.
The remaining five bottles came directly from local wineries-a Thornton Nebbiolo, a Filsinger Nebbiolo, and a Callaway Nebbiolo. The most expensive wines were the notable ones from San Diego: the Orfila Estate Lotus Viognier and the Witch Creek Nebbiolo.
Not surprisingly, the members of my wine tasting group voted a tie for first and second place of the Orfila Estate Lotus and the Witch Creek Nebbiolo. The third choice was the Thornton Viognier purchased at Cost Plus. The label describes the grape-growing area as “South Coast”; most likely this means the grapes came from the coastal appellations of Paso Robles or Santa Barbara. Both Thornton and Callaway seem to be following a trend that Mondavi, BV, Kendall-Jackson, and Beringer started: purchasing grapes from this region in order to sell reduce-priced wines.
The Temecula wines may have suffered in the tasting due to the area having problems with Pierces disease, a vine-choking bacteria that hinders the vines’ ability to absorb water, and thus at the time of the tasting, Temecula had lost thousands of acres of vines. San Diego vintners seem to have learned a lesson from Temecula grape growers and have thus far mostly avoided the disease by planting varieties that thrive in the climate, rather than planting grapes in response to market demands.
Because of the Pierces disease problem in Temecula, however, the wineries there have been experimenting with planting other varieties and have updated their growing techniques. Some wineries are planting their vineyards in small blocks instead of the old, large-block format and they’re modifying with a diverse mixture of grape varieties. The wine tasting group’s overall consensus was that although the top two wine choices showed promise, they were overpriced. The rumblings in the group seemed to indicate that the perception of local wines is not very good. In order to compensate for this mind-set, local wineries might need to try harder to produce consistently good wines that are competitively priced.