Editors' pick

Wine Tasting

Beer/spirits tasting
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Editorial Review

A twist on wine tastings that's easy to swallow
By Lavanya Ramanathan
Friday, Jan. 6, 2012

Wine tastings, practically by definition, rarely entail much more than sipping a few splashes of wine and, if you're truly lucky, scoring a wedge of cheese and some crackers to pair with your pinot.

For those tired of that drill, what sommelier Alison Christ and the chefs at Arlington's Northside Social regularly whip up under the name of "tastings" is like a little gift: Neither wine classes nor stuffy formal meals, these events are convivial winemaker mini-dinners, perfect date nights where the pours of wine are generous and the food pairings, though small, can be downright stunning.

"They made their own cheese! Duck prosciutto? Who does that?" marveled Elizabeth Schaefer, who attended a recent tasting starring Reislings by German winemaker Manfred Breit. "This was a great find."

The tip-off that we had stumbled onto something different? The arrival of the first course, a soft, pungent mountain of goat cheese piled atop slivers of beet and capped with a hazelnut crostino. That dainty plate was served along with a more-than-hearty pour of a dry Reisling and was followed by several more plates, delivered by careful servers who explained each course as if we were VIPs.

Between sips, the winery's rosy-cheeked owner, Holger Breit of Germany, shared insights about each of the five wines being poured. The family business, active since the 1600s, once produced red wines, Breit said, but he and his father helped the winery move toward the white varieties that now make up most of Manfred Breit's wines.

You can listen to the winemakers or simply enjoy your glasses and private conversation: The event doesn't demand the attention that a class might. After a few glasses, everyone was rapt as Breit proudly announced that the conditions in Europe had yielded a stellar 2011 vintage.

"I rarely do events unless I have the winemaker or the owner of the winery," said Christ, the sommelier. "You could come talk to me about wine any day; there's nothing special about that." Northside Social hosts various other events, too, such as a pig roast, cooking classes and a holiday cookie decorating party.

Priced at not much more than a dinner elsewhere, the tastings typically feature four or five wines. Sometimes, Christ said, the dishes are devised first, and she picks wines to pair with them. Other times, the wine is already chosen, and the chef picks dishes to pair with those flavor profiles.

"It said 'small plates.' We really weren't expecting this," said Michelle Knight, of Arlington, who raved about a smoked trout and pickled beet dish matched with a sweet Reisling. (Winemaker Breit agreed that it was the standout pairing of the night.) And, Knight added, lowering her voice slightly, "I thought it was a bargain, too."

"We're really not trying to make a profit on these events," Christ explained. "I'm trying to build the community, to get people coming and experimenting with new wines. Bringing the winemakers is really important."

Just when I didn't think I could take another bite, the final course arrived: a teeeny, utterly European, jam-filled tart topped with a whimsical pastry heart. I couldn't resist. It was a pitch-perfect end to our little jaunt through Germany.