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Wine tastings are the new card party; the new game night. These events -- held in restaurants -- were once the privilege of gourmands and oenophiles.
Now there are wine tastings for charity, wine-tasting parties among friends, wine tastings at work, wine tastings at church events and wine tastings for nearly any occasion you can think of.
If you're thinking of hosting one -- or maybe you've already sent out the invites and now you're wondering what you're going to do -- we've got some expert advice for you.
"Select varietal wines -- Cabernet, Merlot, Shiraz, Chardonnay," suggests Mark Nord, owner of Downer Wine & Spirits. "Stay away from blends at the beginning. Try to learn what each varietal tastes like. Taste the wine blind, put the bottles in bags. Sometimes it works well to have a list of five or six wines you will be tasting with brief descriptions, taste them blind and try to match the wine to the description."
Meanwhile, Kamryn K. Boelk, Tasting Room Director at Mequon's Grapes & Grain has three key bits of advice:
"Go to a store where the employees are knowledgeable and can help you with your selections," says Boelk. "There are many places in Milwaukee that have knowledgeable staff -- use them, that's what they are there for. While you are talking with the sales person -- or favorite bartender -- take some notes on what they are saying then go home and do a bit of research. If you have a globe or an atlas keep them handy during the tasting so you can locate where the wines are from -- you'd be surprised how many people don't know their geography.
"Secondly, pick a theme," Boelk continues. "This doesn't have to be an amazing expulsion of creativity, keep it simple -- single varietal or all from one region, wines under $10, --and there are many more suggestions on the Internet. Having a theme narrows the overwhelming possibilities down to something a bit more manageable and comprehensive.
"Most importantly, wine is about personal taste. I cannot emphasize this enough! So many times I come across people who are intimidated by wine or worry about being embarrassed by their opinions or selections. Pishposh!! It's all a learning experience and a continual development. The best way to learn about wine is to taste-talk-take notes."
Nord agrees that one of the biggest mistakes people make at wine tastings is thinking that they're "getting it wrong."
"Have fun with it, this is not serious stuff," he says. "Remember that everyone tastes and smells different things, there are no right or wrong answers."
But practically speaking, there are a few things you can do to make your tasting a better experience.
"Do not brush your teeth, chew gum or have a mint right before a wine tasting," says Boelk. "It certainly will screw it up from the start."
Everyone at wine tastings talks about cleansing one's palate after tasting a wine, and Boelk agrees that it's extremely important, but ideas about the best way to do it vary widely.
"My personal preference is water and table water crackers or a plain baguette," says Boelk. "This is one situation where plainer is better. Like, don't pick a rosemary cracker or a cracked black pepper cracker; all of those things are going to alter how you taste your wine. Cookies and chocolates and cheese are all great when you are trying to see how the wine reacts to them but not when you are trying to define what is inherent in the wine. Also, try to move either the cracker or water or whatever you are using around in your mouth a bit -- you're trying to rinse the previous wine out of your mouth."
While Nord agrees on the crackers, he differs on the H20 and even on the need to cleanse.
"Plain crackers with no salt work well," he says. "Plain French bread is OK. Nothing is pretty good, too. Avoid water; especially do not rinse your glass with water. If you must rinse your glass use wine. The water will dilute the next wine much more than the little bit of wine left over in your glass."
While the basics for tasting spirits and beer are similar to tasting wines, there are some key differences.
"Be careful about sticking your nose in the glass like you would with wine," warns Nord. "With spirits hold the glass near the bottom of your chin to get the aroma."
"(Don't) swirl spirits," adds Boelk. "They are a lot higher in alcohol than wine, swirling it will only release more of the alcohol aroma so you will smell that over the inherent characteristics of the liquor. Also, you don't want to wash it all over and around in your mouth like you would wine, that will end your evening pretty quickly. With spirits you want to swallow them right over the tongue and down the hatch. It's the after flavor that you are assessing.
"Beer is judged similar to wine - color, aroma, taste, finish, body -- and foamy head. I find it very interesting and exciting that there is a growing number of beer connoisseurs and there is an amazing assortment of artisanal beers out there to try. Some of which can be aged as much as 10 years! With all of these options one should never be bored."
While spitting during tastings means you won't get toasted - especially important at the those work- and chuch-related events - Boelk and Nord agree that you can wear out your palate.
"I do not like to taste more than 10 wines at any given tasting," says the latter.
"The average tasting is 6-10 wines. You could taste and spit with a palate cleanser easily," says Boelk. "Wine buyers go to tastings of 100-plus bottles spitting the whole way and at a certain point even the trained connoisseur experiences fatigue. But, the average person isn't going to experience that many bottles all at once.
"If for some reason you do get the opportunity to try that many bottles of wine choose the ones you find most interesting or the ones that are suggested to you to try first."
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.