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The Sipping Point

By Ellen McCarthy
Friday, June 23, 2006

So, are you picking up on the undertones of tar and hoisin sauce in that 2003 Alain Jaume Châteauneuf-du-Pape Domaine Grand Veneur Les Origines yet?

Really? You are? Well, that's just fantastic. We're all very proud of you. Now, if you don't mind, Smarty McSmarts, we think it'd be best if you packed up your stemware and your spittoon and joined the other fancy-pants wine elitists in a dark room somewhere, so you can all sit around one-upping each other with inane adjectives and pretentious fake accents.

The rest of us are fully capable of enjoying our libations without your nattering, vocal dissertation droning in the background.

And enjoy it, we do.

More and more each year, actually, and more so than most. Washington, it turns out, is wine country: This town proudly boasts by far the highest per capita consumption of wine and champagne of any city in the nation, according to Adams Beverage Group, a market research firm. Sip on that, Napa.

Wine is on the rise throughout the United States and, according to a Gallup poll released last summer, is poised to eclipse beer as the beverage of choice among Americans who imbibe.

It's a trend that reflects the dropping prices of production, increasing awareness of the health benefits of moderate wine consumption and the industry's efforts to stress approachability in its marketing strategy -- hence the kangaroos and penguins and whatnot. But more than that, our thirst for wine runs parallel to our growing penchant for all things sophisticated and indulgent, but not likely to send us directly to the poorhouse. (Think Starbucks, Godiva, the monthly massage.)

"It becomes an affordable luxury," said Brian Wansink, a professor of consumer behavior at Cornell University. "Wine is somewhat of an artful beverage, and as it becomes more accessible to different palates, at different price ranges, it can attract people who previously couldn't afford it and prior to that didn't have an appreciation for it."

And for an increasingly large number of people, wine is more than just a means to a buzz, er, end. It's a passion, a pastime, a social outlet.

The proliferation of wine culture, aided by the success of the 2004 indie flick "Sideways," has driven up sales and spawned new ways to experience the fermented grape. There are likely to be a half-dozen wine tastings in Washington on any given night of the week. Some in the corporate world even refer to wine tastings as the new golf, giving colleagues a way to spend time together in a relaxed, chatty atmosphere outside the office.

Now, we don't want to give our pinched-nosed friends too much credit, but there is something to be said for the depth of pleasure wine can afford its hobbyists. The pursuit of good wine is part culture, part science, part geography, all in a framework of merriment and indulgence.

It's also an endeavor that can be enjoyed for decades, your nose growing in refinement at whatever pace feels comfortable. Even the most pretentious wine prigs, after all, won't be found claiming they've maxed out the world's supply of information on their favorite drink.

The wine scene in the Washington area is vast and varied. It'd be almost impossible to give an exhaustive account of all the wine-related events happening regularly around the Beltway. What we can do is offer snapshots of the types of activities and excursions that are tempting palates at all levels of sophistication. Some, like wine-themed house parties, are great for beginners. Others, like "offlines," where Internet wine chums gather in person, are likely to attract more advanced enthusiasts.

The goal for each is the same: good times.

So, who's thirsty?

Join the Club

Let's be honest: Most book clubs are simply a front for wine-inspired gossip fests.

It might be time to ditch the books.

"We're usually here with a rowdier crowd that doesn't listen at all. This is a quiet night," Lynn Dillon, 52, said almost apologetically as her trio pealed into laughter over the last of their Rieslings at a recent meeting of the Women's Wine Tasting Club in McLean. "This is ladies' night out. It's just fun."

Theirs is an organization of generalists. Clubs like the French Wine Society and the German Wine Society, on the other hand, provide fellowship for folks with more specific tastes.

But even at ladies' night, there is lots to learn. As dim sum is served and seven wine samples are poured, the evening's special guest discusses the impact of German wine laws and the lineage of the country's great vineyards.

It's kind of a tough crowd for that type of talk. But no matter, the group's leader, Cecile Giannangeli, who owns wine shops in McLean and Gaithersburg, knows how to keep her congregation laughing.

"When you have a glass of wine and a taste of food, one should make you want to go back to the other," she said, quickly putting alternate hands to her mouth. "Thus, overeating and overdrinking."

Giannangeli is all class and sparkle and vibrancy. She's the older sorority sister who knows how to score fake IDs and apply the perfect amount of eyeliner.

The club's monthly meetings attract women on their own, as well as in pairs and groups. By the end of the evening, it doesn't make much difference anyway -- they all wind up mingling and chatting and promising they'll see one another at the next session.

"I started coming years ago because I wanted to learn about wine, and now it just seems normal to come," said Jacqui Cooper, a regular at the club. "In fact, when we don't have tastings, I kind of miss them."

WOMEN'S WINE TASTING CLUB Monthly meetings in Gaithersburg (301-987-5933) and McLean (703-356-6500). http://www.finewine.com/finewine/wwtcpage.cfm. Meeting fees range from $40 to $65 per session.

Get the Party Started

Manny and Stephanie Holguin are nothing if not inspired hosts. The Leesburg couple's soirees -- legendary in the neighborhood -- have included sushi parties, salsa dancing fetes and chili cook-offs.

But the wine bash they threw this month -- well, let's just say everyone seemed to enjoy themselves.

The Holguins went all out, even hiring a professional wine guy, Mark Phillips, to select the vintages and give his "Wine 101" talk as guests sipped blissfully in the backyard twilight.

"There's no such thing as a good wine, objectively -- good wine is wine you like," Phillips told the 20-person, khaki-clad crowd nodding in agreement.

Phillips was hired after Manny Holguin, 50, happened upon his public television show ("Enjoying Wine With Mark Phillips") the previous month and became taken with the wine expert's decidedly egalitarian approach.

"I think I'm like a heck of a lot of people in that I really enjoy drinking wine, but more often than not, I'm hit or miss," Manny Holguin said. "He really demystifies things."

Over a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and a fizzy Moscato d'Asti that he brought to the party, Phillips chatted breezily about the ba sics of wine -- where to buy it, how to speak the lingo and which ones match best with which foods. (Tip of the night: Butter goes with everything. When in doubt, add more butter.)

Ninety minutes into the talk a chill set in and Phillips began to wrap up, but guests lingered on, with more questions and stories and requests for refills. Finally, the goose bumps got to be too much, but the Holguins' revelers weren't ready for the festivities to end -- there was, after all, more wine to be drunk inside.

"Steph got calls from people several days after, about how wonderful it was and they were going to try this wine or that wine," Manny Holguin said. "I think everyone was absolutely thrilled . . . it was the talk of the neighborhood."

Wine parties certainly don't require a professional, but there are several who are more than willing to make house calls. Mark Phillips, director of the Wine Tasting Association, can be reached at 703-799-1221. Laurie Forster, a self-proclaimed "wine coach," who also gives wine talks at private parties, is based in Easton; phone: 410-820-4212 or e-mail: laurie@thewinecoach.com.

Go 'Offline'

The seven people sharing six bottles of wine at a candlelit table in Cleveland Park were intimates before they introduced themselves.

Everyone knew that Doug Klapec worked in forensics, that Bill Delaney was fiercely patriotic. They knew who was partial to Bordeauxs and who preferred Barolos.

They didn't know that their organizer, the one with an encyclopedic knowledge of Italian wines, would turn out to be a 25-year-old, only in town for a summer internship. And no one guessed that the man they knew as Rajiv was a blond white guy.

Cyberspace, it turns out, has its limits -- not least of which is the inability to capture the teeming bouquet of a '99 Brunello.

And so, to the world beyond flat-screen monitors and half-hearted emoticons. Or, in the parlance of wine geek devotees of Internet bulletin boards, to "offlines," where Zinfandels are slurped in real time and bad jokes are told in person.

For years, the Internet has been the anointed medium for sophisticated oenophiles to debate the merits of their favorite varietals. But increasingly, regular members of online wine communities are moving their conversations to less, uh, pixilated settings.

"Lately I've been a little leery of California wines -- they're a bit over-the-top," Bill Delaney said at his group's inaugural offline, held earlier this month at Dino on Connecticut Avenue. "I hate to make blanket statements, but . . ."

The rules: One person acts as the host. A theme -- usually a year or a style or a region -- is chosen in advance. Everybody brings a bottle to share, and a taste of each wine is offered to the restaurant's owner.

Awkward pauses and pre-dinner jitters are tough to avoid -- it is, after all, basically a big blind date with extra libations. The Cleveland Park offline, for instance, was the culmination of almost two years of near-daily Internet exchanges.

But over gorgonzola appetizers, wild boar entrees and glass after glass of meticulously chosen Italian varietals, the seven, ranging in age from 25 to 41, roll their chatter from choppy pleasantries to dreamy-eyed stories of their first great bottle, before finally, sheepishly, revealing the secrets of their online monikers.

Rajiv, it turns out, just seemed like a cool name at the time.

Offlines often spring from popular Internet bulletin boards, such as http://dat.erobertparker.com/bboard and http://www.wineaccess.com/bboard. A good listing of local events can also be found http://www.localwineevents.com/Washington-DC-Wine/.

Out in the Vineyards

Landon Maddox knows what his public wants. The limo is always freshly polished and fully stocked with champagne and snacks when he arrives to whisk people into wine country.

Not that Nanci Myers and crew needed extra provisions. The five-woman gaggle, friends for more than 20 years, had stocked up on muffins, chicken salad sandwiches and homemade sangria before the 50-minute ride to Pearmund Cellars, the first in a three-stop tour of Virginia's wineries.

The official occasion was Myers's 50th birthday, but that was just an excuse -- and excuse to gather, to drink, to demand the queenly service they deserved.

There are a half-dozen bus and limo companies around town willing to chauffeur patrons to the 108 Virginia wineries or the 22 in Maryland. Wine snobs are often quick to disparage the quality of the wines produced in this region. But there are some gems among them, and you've got to be in a really foul mood not to enjoy the idyllic landscapes and affable service at most local wineries.

Standing among the vines, swirling glasses of a 2004 Viognier, our mid-Atlantic Ya-Yas requested that their guide -- vineyard owner Chris Pearmund -- give a thorough explanation of the wine-making process, but do it "in the briefest possible way."

The women, who met two decades ago when they all worked for a local government contractor, chose an excursion with Virginia Wine Country Tours, a group that often coordinates special meetings with vineyard officials and provides drivers who have some knowledge of the state's wine industry.

After sampling the selection and picking up a few bottles at Pearmund, it was back into the limo and over to Oasis Winery in Hume, where Myers and friends were greeted with a glass of champagne and asked to roll up their pant legs. Turns out this stop included a little "I Love Lucy"-style grape stomping before the tour and tasting. At Oasis, there was much lingering over brie and Cabernet Sauvignon, and even Penny "I'm a beer girl" Price seemed to be having a fine time.

Too soon, afternoon turned to evening and there was still one more stop to be made. Luckily, Rappahannock Cellars is just a few miles down the road, and owner John Delmare, along with four of his 12 kids (12!), were waiting for the group to arrive. The merry band descended into the winery's bowels for a quick lesson on fermentation and then back up into the tasting room, where smiles emerged as the corks were pulled. Biggest hit -- a potent dessert wine named Solera.

The journey was supposed to end at 5, but it was nearly 8 by the time Myers and her friends poured back into the limo, its trunk nearly full from treasures found along the way.

It had been rumored that a polo match was underway nearby -- the only decision left was whether to venture out for more fun or head home to pajamas and pillows. Landon Maddox, of course, promised to take them wherever they wanted to go.

VIRGINIA WINE COUNTRY TOURS 540-622-2505. http://www.virginiawinecountrytours.com. Accommodates groups of two to 48 in its limos and buses. $270-$900-plus. (The cost per person declines as the size of the groups increases.)

More information on local wineries and events can be found at http://www.virginiawines.org and http://www.marylandwine.com.

New World Shops

Let there be no question, the best place to buy wine is the little shop close to your house, where the salesperson knows your preferences, your price range and your dog's nickname. Stores like Calvert Woodley in Van Ness, Schneider's of Capitol Hill and MacArthur Beverages in the Palisades have built legions of loyalists with their focus on deep variety and impeccable customer service.

There is, however, a new breed of wine store cropping up throughout the Washington area that aims to offer an alternative way to choose a bottle, or three. The idea is to target busy consumers by paring down the selection, keeping the inventory affordable and organizing wines by taste and body, rather than by region.

"It's really about making it fun, easy to navigate . . . about taking things down a notch so people can make informed decisions," said Brett Freeman, general manager of Best Cellars, a shop in Dupont Circle where the color-coded wine categories include "fizzy," "fresh," "smooth" and "luscious." The chain store's "juicy" wine section, for instance, contains both a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Pinot Noir.

Best Cellars' daily tastings (happy hour starts at 5:30 here), bring in neighborhood denizens and the business class crowd from nearby office buildings, many of whom linger in the store at length, chatting with Freeman and his staff and with each other as Shakira is piped into the background.

"I like the way it's laid out. It's pretty easy, and they've got a good selection without being overwhelming," said Robert Moore, a District resident who needed a bottle fastened by a screw top so he and his girlfriend wouldn't have to bring a corkscrew to the Elvis Costello concert at Wolf Trap last week. (The Twin Fin Pinot Noir being tasted that day fit the bill.)

One of the first WineStyles stores to open in the Washington area sits alongside a Pizza Hut and a sub shop in a busy Fairfax strip mall. The franchise operation, which focuses on unusual wines for less than $25, seems to take more than a few cues from Starbucks. The small, cozily lit space is all muted sages and smooth wood trims and calming lounge music.

Like Best Cellars, the wines are arranged by attributes and each wine is matched with a color code and suggestions for food pairings.

The owners of each WineStyles store choose from a list of 2,000 approved wines but stock only 150 at a time, thus keeping it manageable for customers. The idea, says Marcie Larkin, who opened the Fairfax store with her husband, James, last Thanksgiving, is to make it so "people really love coming in here."

Best Cellars Dupont Circle, 1643 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202-387-3146. Best Cellars Clarendon, 2855 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington, 703-741-0404. WineStyles, 12717 Shoppes Lane, Fair Lakes Shopping Center, Fairfax, 703-222-9463.

Head of the Class

There were notes taken, glasses swirled and PowerPoint slides projected inside a windowless room at the Pentagon City Ritz-Carlton earlier this month. A button-down crowd paid $65 each for a proper wine class, and that's exactly what they got.

That evening's lesson: "Great Whites of the World." The folks at the Washington Wine Academy weren't sure how this one would be received, what with reds being so much more in vogue and all.

But a respectable 15 people showed up for the two-hour class to hear Robert Cavanaugh, the academy's vice president, announce that "there are a couple different styles of white wines, and we're going to try all of them -- actually, we have 11 wines tonight."

Nice. It's really too bad all postgraduate classes don't start with similar proclamations.

As the students moved from Sauvignon Blanc to Gewurztraminer to Sauterne, Cavanaugh polled his audience for thoughtful reflections.

"Someone tell me something about the taste of this wine," he prompted after a Riesling Kabinett was poured.

"Honeydew," one student piped up.

"Citrus," countered another.

"It's sweet," said a third.

More serious and structured than some events around town, wine classes and seminars -- offered by several culinary schools and wine groups around town -- are often tailored to consumers looking to build on a base of knowledge.

"I have a lot of wine books and I have been reading a lot, but pretentious people are always like, 'What do you know about wine?' " said Lily Buerkle, 27, of Cleveland Park. "When I went to that class I was like, 'Hey, I really do know some things.' "

For each wine, Cavanaugh offered a bit of history and a bit of science. But mostly he made his students do the work, forcing them to voice their own reactions, rather than blindly accepting the judgments of professional wine critcs.

"It's wine geeks like myself that have made things so complicated," he concedes. "If I served five different kinds of pizza, you would have no problem talking about it."

WASHINGTON WINE ACADEMY 703-971-1525. http://www.washingtonwineacademy.org. The academy offers ongoing classes at various locations. Prices are $40 to $65 per class.

The GREATER WASHINGTON WINE SCHOOL 301-657-0220. http://www.gwwsllc.com. Ongoing classes, offered at various locations, cost $40 to $50.

Ellen McCarthy is a Weekend section staff writer.

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