All it takes is a few dollars and a membership card, and your life can include:
A reception at the German Embassy where you taste a selection of rieslings from the famed Schloss Reinhartshausen estate while the ambassador looks in, and importer Peter M. F. Sichel looks up from his glass to correct the speaker on the differences between wild and natural yeasts.
A lazy Saturday afternoon in the vineyards where an expert viticulturalist teaches you how to prune new growth, should you decide to grow your own vines in the back yard after you've ripped out the rose bushes.
At the Sheraton Carlton Wine Bar, 10 te te de cuve'e champagnes -- the foam de la foam of the bubbly world -- are offered to you and your date. You have decided on wearing the optional black tie in celebration.
It's all yours, if you want it, and you don't have to mortgage the condo.
The common denominator in all these scenes -- and dozens like them that occur annually in the Washington area -- is the presence of wine and food societies. Through common purchasing and drawing power, these groups put the best wine and foods of the world, as See WINE, G2 Col. 2 WINE, From G1 well as famous authorities, within the grasp of nonprofessional wine and food lovers of moderate, even modest, means.
Although some of the wine clubs emphasize food by showing the bottles at opulent dinners, there are few food societies as such that are not extensions of cooking classes or limited to trade and professional membership.
Beyond the common emphasis on wine and food, the societies that are open to the public vary in nature considerably. Some are barely open at all, having long waiting lists and the hint of blackballs looming overhead. Some have high initiation fees and annual dues, while others charge just enough to cover costs.
One of the most active, successful and accessible groups is Les Amis du Vin, an international wine society with headquarters in Silver Spring. Although there is a local chapter affiliated with Calvert-Woodley Wine and Liquor (most LADV chapters have trade ties), most of the action takes place in the Washington Metropolitan Chapter under the auspices of national president Ron Fonte.
"We believe that since Washington is our own back yard, it should be the class of the chapters," says executive director Jonathan Lesser. "We're doing some exciting things here."
Among some of the more recent "exciting things" have been a tasting by California winemaker David Bruce of seven of his sometimes controversial, and expensive, wines; a flight of nine rho nes; a showing of Loire wines by Robert, Marquis de Goulaine, a famous winegrower and shipper; an exploration of '79 red bordeaux, including Cheval Blanc and Mouton, by English writer and tradesman Harry Waugh; and the champagne tasting mentioned earlier.
Membership in Les Amis du Vin is $25 annually, which includes subscription to the bimonthly "The Friends of Wine," an interesting if increasingly commercial wine magazine. As with most other societies, members also pay a fee for individual tastings, from $15 for the Loire and Bruce outings to $35 for the clarets and $50 for the sparklers. Nonmembers pay an additional charge, generally $5. (Further information on Les Amis can be obtained from Lila Mensch at 588-0980.)
While Les Amis claims the world as its wine cellar, the German Wine Society keeps its watch on the Rhine, as well as the Mosel and other German growing regions. Under the current leadership of lawyer William Bullinger (lawyers seem to dominate the local amateur wine scene), the society holds eight major events yearly, generally tastings on Capitol Hill or at the German Embassy. The fees are low -- $25 initiation, $10 annual dues -- partly because the German wine industry helps support the national office in New York and helps make speakers available.
Anyone who has not attended a public tasting because of fears of being intimidated by solemn, critical atmospheres should start with the German Wine Society. The programs are invariably good, with qualified speakers and well-chosen wines, but after the second or third bottle, the scene is reminiscent of a cross between a debate in Parliament and a midnight closing session of a backwoods legislature.
The speaker who has not made his points early is likely to be drowned out by the din from tables where lawyers, journalists and tradespeople debate the qualities of a particular wine -- generally without regard for what the speaker says -- while annoyed backbenchers loudly rap their glasses for attention.
Still, the wine is given full attention, even if the speaker isn't.
In its third year, the German Wine Society has about 60 members with another 120 on the mailing list who pay a few dollars more than the normal $10 to $15 for most tastings. Society members also receive an annual review of German wines and can look forward to a growing cellar "worth in excess of $3,000," according to Bullinger, which officers have been laying down so that the wines can be tasted at their peaks in a few years. (For more information on the German Wine Society, call Chris Baker at 723-6389.)
An even simpler approach to wine is provided by the Washington Wine and Cheese Seminar, which started more than a dozen years ago by a cheese shop owner as part of the Washington Free University. "It was later turned over to a group of five of us who were habitual attendees and lovers of wines," says Stuart Meister.
Each Tuesday, except between the Fourth of July and early September, 60 to 90 people show up without reservation at an area church to pay $6 for five wines, two cheeses, bread and a short lecture. There are no dues or other activities.
Recent tastings have included wines from the Pacific Northwest, the East Coast and lesser regions of France. The seven directors rotate responsibilities for the weekly seminars. (For more information, write: P.O. Box 16171, Washington, D.C. 20023.)
The American Wine Society has five chapters in Maryland, including the "D.C. Chapter," and four in Virginia, according to D.C. president M. J. Miller. "We're devoted to fostering appreciation of wine. We take a family approach -- we have about 50 households -- and we're very lively, very active."
Unlike Les Amis' restaurant and hotel tastings or the German Wine Society's venture into embassies, most AWS meetings are in members' homes. On the third Sunday of each month, individuals take turns in supplying wine and food for the tastings.
Additionally, each April the society has a tasting of homemade wines -- fruits of a common hobby of many members -- and there is a Christmas party with sparkling wine each year at Provenza Winery in suburban Maryland. The organization also has practical seminars on such topics as pruning.
"We try to get wines that are commercially available to our members," Miller says. "One month we may have a tasting of the reds of Tuscany and the next month a tasting of Italian wines with related foods."
Membership dues for the AWS are $5 local and $18 national, which includes a low-keyed educational quarterly, the "American Wine Society Journal." (For more information, contact Jean Hessmann at 593-1638.)
If your heart is completely in the vineyards and you can't make it to California, then the Vinifera Wine Growers Association is the organization for you. Headquartered in The Plains, Va., VWGA is devoted to the concept that anyone with a back yard can become a winegrower, although the emphasis is definitely on the classic or vinifera vine and not the native American or hybrid varieties often grown on the East Coast.
A chief activity of the society, headed by Robert de Treville Lawrence Sr., is the "Vinifera Wine Growers Journal," a quarterly that offers such practical articles as "Benlate Effective for Eutypa," "The Cost of Growing Grapes in Virginia," and "Why Idaho?"
The society also holds a yearly festival and grape stomp, generally on the estate of Piedmont Vineyard in Middleburg, where technical papers, vineyard tours and tastings of Virginia wines are provided.
Dues for the VWGA are $12, which includes the journal. (For more information, write Vinifera Wine Growers Association, The Plains, Va. 22171.)
Perhaps the oldest of the local wine groups is the World of Wine Society, run by Ed Sands of Calvert-Woodley Liquors. New members can sign up for $15 a year per family to attend tastings that Sands modestly calls "the best in town at a low price."
A recent tasting with a $10 tab may bear him out -- the '75s of Lafite, Latour and Margaux paired against a barbaresco, barolo and brunello, "plus two or three whites."
The tastings are held in The Washington Post building. (For further information, call Sands at 966-4400.)
Woodley is not the only wine shop that has organized activities.
One of the most elaborate programs is run by Michael Lavenson at Wide World of Wines. Lavenson, former manager of the Sheraton-Carlton Wine Bar, has created a wine-of the-month club with annual dues of $105.
"For this money, each member gets 12 unique and exciting wine discoveries," Lavenson says. The "discoveries" for the first four months were a brut sparkling wine from a new California winery called Shadow Creek, a Monsanto riserva chianti, a Dr. Fischer Ockfener Bockstein kabinett, and a Georges Duboeuf moulin-a-vent.
Each wine is accompanied by a set of notes and maps. Membership also provides discounts on wines not on sale, classes and seminars. The seminars are popular theme tastings hosted by industry experts and wine writers. (Call 737-9453.)
Some wine shops do not have clubs but do have classes, including popular ones at Harry's and Mayflower. Those at Harry's are perhaps the best known -- nine three-hour lectures every other Monday evening during the fall at the Capitol Hill Club. A tasting of wines and international cheeses follows each lecture. The tab? Twenty dollars a session or $160 for all nine. (Call 783-4200.)
The societies mentioned pose few restrictions to anyone joining, save a few dollars in dues and tastings fees. However, there are local wine and food groups that place a premium on exclusivity--and often on being male -- so you may not be able to get there from where you are.
Two of these -- the men-only Commanderie de Bordeaux (the Bordeaux chapter includes women, but not the Washington one) and the coed Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin -- are well-known (if seldom seen) by wine lovers of bordeaux and burgundy, respectively. Although both seem to hold the promise of antiquity, they were founded in this century in France chiefly for promotional purposes by local growers and shippers.
"You have to be recommended by an existing member to join the Commanderie," says David Taylor, who heads the local chapter, "which is not unlike the policy of most clubs. We are a new group -- since last year -- and we are still in our birth stage, trying to decide what our policies will be. We are an amateur, nonprofessional society. We don't want to become a vehicle for people in the trade to promote their businesses. We are looking for a cross-section of the community."
Should you have the opportunity to join, it will cost you $300 up front -- $200 initiation, $100 annual dues. The Commanderie holds quarterly dinners with fine wines at such places as The George Town Club and the International Club. Dinner costs are extra.
The Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin is a society whose interest is in burgundian wines with its headquarters at Clos Vougeot. There is a waiting list, says Washington sous commander William H.G. Fitzgerald, noting that the 50 members "all have an active, not passive interest in wine." Like the Commanderie, the Confrerie marries its wines with foods at regular luncheons and dinners.
Another group with a waiting list is the male-only International Wine and Food Society, although president Henry Greenwald warns that acceptance is not on a first-queued, first-accepted basis. "We are looking for members with a knowledge of cuisine and wine who can make a contribution to the society."
The IWFS' monthly dinners are meticulously planned by two committees, one interested in food and one in wine, with the former making the initial choices.
Greenwald is also cofounder and past president of Les Cents Chevaliers du Vin, which, as the name says, is limited to 100 men. It has five events yearly, generally tastings of wines from a particular estate or a certain vintage. "We wanted to have something more closely knit than Les Amis du Vin," Greenwald says.
The society that gets the award for oldest roots is the Confrerie de la Chaine des Rotisseurs, which was chartered in Paris in 1248 and waited until 1950 to be "restricted." Robert McDaniel heads the Washington chapter, or, to be correct, is the "bailli," an archaic word for leader.
"We have about 70 members, equally divided between professionals and nonprofessionals," McDaniel says. "We have 10 black-tie dinners annually." As prominent chefs often show off their skills at these dinners, it is not surprising that members are willing to pay $125 initiation and $120 annual dues, costs of dinners not included.
Alas, there is a waiting list. And to get on it, you have to apply through a member.
Finally, there are two professional organizations closed to "amateurs" but whose activities are of ultimate benefit to eater and drinker alike.
"Les Dames d'Escoffier," says Carol Cutler, "is for women working in wine, food and the hospitality industry. This is not an eating society. Our programs are all educational."
Just a year old, Les Dames has 32 members with a planned ceiling of 50, which it is not anxious to reach. Initiation is $50, and annual dues $40. There is a membership committee to pass, and two members have to sponsor potential joiners.
Recent programs have included a lecture by food historian Michelle Berriedale-Johnson, a session on how to write cookbooks, a presentation before the National Press Club and several wine tastings.
"Perhaps the best thing is that we call on each other for advice and suggestions in our professional work," Cutler says. (Write Les Dames for information and an application at 2735 P St. NW, Washington 20007.)
The Sommelier Society of America, Washington Chapter, is also oriented to the hospitality industry, says president Norm Larsen, and its 182 members include "restaurant owners, managers, wine stewards, wine captains, maitres d' and waiters."
"We have 10 monthly tastings led by informed pros -- these aren't dilettantes," Larsen says. "Our thrust is to teach members how to appreciate wines and how to share this appreciation with customers."
A key in gaining that appreciation is a 14-week wine-captains course given annually. Membership dues for individuals are $30, more for industry representatives and corporations. (Call Larsen at 333-8194 or 333-3108 or write The Sommelier Society at The George Town Club, 1530 Wisconsin Ave., Washington 20007.)
If none of these organizations meets your interests, needs or pocketbooks, you can start your own. There's always room for another wine or food society.