The Decanter Club is not a snobby clique with a roster of society bigwigs. Rather, it is a small informal group of regular folks who get together to taste wine, taking advantage of each other's knowledge and group buying power. They are not unique. There is also Ye Olde Claret Club, the Onetrians, Washington Wine & Cheese Seminar, the Enophiliacs, the Sybarites, the Bacchus Society and the Winos, to name a few.
Every city has dozens of these groups. Each group is organized differently, but all are dedicated to the concept that it is cheaper and cheerier to learn with a bunch of friends.
Members say the best way to learn the taste sensations of wine and discern the fine from the finer is to taste comparatively. It's also true that buying eight cabernet sauvignons for one person takes a toll on the pocketbook, and an even greater toll on the liver.
Because most tasting groups are limited to living-room size, joining one is difficult. It is easier to start your own.
First, gather a gaggle of gourmet friends or ask the manager of a wine shop to give you the names of a few of the store's best customers in your neighborhood who might be interested in starting a tasting group. Get about 15 names and invite them to your house. Make the first tasting BYOB (bring your own bottle). Unless you have a lot of glassware, ask them to BYOG (glasses), and BYOD (a dish to pass of fruits, cheeses, breads, nuts, or hors d'oeuvres).
Keep membership to 15 or fewer, which is about as far as you can stretch a bottle. Some groups keep membership to 12 or 13 so there is always room for a guest or two. To avoid conflict, it is a good idea to establish a guest policy in advance. Each member should take his or her turn as sommelier, selecting the wines and hosting the group; that should be the person with the first shot at the guest slot. Other members who cannot attend a meeting can send a proxy or throw the empty seat to the sommelier. Other members wishing to bring a guest should check with the sommelier.
There should also be a policy controlling the replacement of members who move out of town. Most groups use a one-person blackball system to guarantee that old members are not made uncomfortable by a newcomer.
Come up with a name, elect a treasurer, decide on dues and open a checking account. Some groups just divvy up the cost of each tasting among the members present, but most use a flat rate, paid twice a year. This way, any surplus can be used for an all-out annual dinner. With 15 members, the group will be able to afford some $50 bottles that you always read about but have been too sensible to buy. By tasting them occasionally you will be able to set standards by which to judge other wines.
Most of the groups charge $10 per meeting, paid in advance in two $60 chunks, starting with the second gathering. That gives the 15-member group a budget of $150 per session. This means that you will be able to afford eight bottles that average $18.75. More often than not, however, you will want to taste wines that are more affordable for daily use. A tasting of eight German wines can cost as little as $50, leaving a $100 surplus for a dinner or a tasting of eight biggies. (Most groups do not refund dues to members for meetings they've missed, but if a paid member drops out, they refund dues for the remaining events.)
Pick a regular night each month (so members can plan ahead) and elect a secretary to send out a post card each month as a reminder. Some secretaries even mail out a list of wines after each tasting. Members with a contact might line up a permanent home at a restaurant in the area. Better still, invite a local restaurateur and a local wine merchant to join the group. Make it clear in advance, however, that wines will come from more than one store and there will be no sales pitches at the tastings.
It is a good idea for each member to take turns as sommelier, but there are always a few members whose homes will not accommodate 15 people, so they should take two turns at selecting the wines while somebody else hosts two tastings.
Keep the number of wines to 6-8. That is about the normal taste tolerance level, and 6-8 sips is not likely to get anyone drunk, especially if food is served. When selecting the wines, keep the theme narrow: all zinfandels; all burgundies; all jug whites, etc. The most educational tastings are vertical tastings, horizontals, or parallels. A vertical tasting would be eight vintages of Cha~teau Lynch-Bages. A horizontal tasting would be eight zinfandels from the 1984 vintage. A parallel tasting would be four vintages of Mondavi cabernet sauvignon and the same four vintages of Chateau Palmer.
Most groups insist on tasting the wines "blind," with the bottles in paper bags and identified only by a letter so they can taste the wines without being influenced by the brand name (called label drinking). If you taste blind, you will usually uncover a Cha~teau Cheapeau that would have gone undiscovered if people knew they were drinking Cha~teau Brouhaha in the same tasting. Other groups prefer to see the labels so they can learn the characteristic of each producer. The best method is both. Serve the wines blind, spend half an hour tasting in relative silence, taking notes without discussion, register your preferences, then unveil the wines and talk about them together.
It is futile to attempt a definitive group judgment, but if the group believes it is necessary, a polling of preferences can be taken. The temptation to come to a group judgment is strong. It should be resisted until after the group has learned to communicate likes, dislikes and sensations in the same language about wines to which members have become acquainted, and about which the group is in close agreement.
The best reason to get a small tasting club started is so that you won't rely on people like me to tell you what is good. You'll be able to find out for yourself. Remember the old Talmudic saying: "Let not your learning exceed your deeds lest you become like a tree with many branches and few roots." Sauvignon Blanc Country Here's an idea for your group's first comparison tasting: Try some of the world's best sauvignon blancs.
Two weeks ago Ben Giliberti wrote in this space about sauvignon blanc, a rising star among white wine lovers. Recently a group of some of the nation's most respected wine merchants, restaurateurs and critics convened to review 155 sauvignon blancs from around the world. The results are very encouraging: You don't need to spend much money for the best wines in the world from the sauvignon blanc grape, and the best in the world come from a little-known wine region in California north of Napa and Sonoma, called Lake County.
Konocti 1986 fume' blanc at $6.75 per bottle (in the D.C. market), from Lake County, was crowned the "World's Best Sauvignon Blanc" in the judging, called the Sauvignon Blanc Shootout. The Konocti was the only wine to win a platinum medal in the judging, scoring an average of 96 points in three rounds of judgings by 12 judges.
The wines came from five states and seven countries, and included virtually all of the best known and most highly regarded producers. Four of the top 10 wines in the judging cost less than $6 a bottle at the winery (prices may vary in different states). Nine of the top 10 come from California, and five were made in Lake County.
The first vineyards in Lake County were planted in the 1870s, swelling to more than 5,000 acres supplying 36 wineries by the early 1900s. Prohibition closed every one of them down. In 1965 there were fewer than 100 acres of vineyards in the county. Today the county has more than 3,000 acres of vines, including 600 planted with sauvignon blanc.
Lake County is mountainous with many vineyards planted between 1,400 and 2,100 feet above sea level. It is not uncommon for temperatures to swing 50-55 degrees between midafternoon and early morning. Daytime heat and sunshine bring grape sugar levels up, while cold nights slow the respiration of acids, a key to exceptional balance in the fruit and wines. The sauvignons typically show both delicacy and intensity. Wine Find Konocti 1986 Fume' Blanc, Lake County, Calif.: The judges' tasting notes from the recent shootout describe this as very pale, almost colorless. Enchanting scents of melon, figs, flowers and citrus fruits mingle in the nose.
Although it is labeled fume', this wine shows little of the smoky, woody character one might expect. Its charms all revolve around clean, fresh fruit that just keeps on expanding across the palate and on into a very long finish. Beautiful balance. Crisp, lemony-grapefruit acidity works perfectly with concentration of fruit. Herbal and grassy sauvignon qualities are there but as supporting players. Residual sweetness of 0.67 percent is marginally perceptible as an accent to the fruit.
The winery is an interesting story in itself. In the late 1970s, 26 grape growers formed Lake County Vintners Inc. and built the county's first winery since Prohibition, named after nearby Konocti Mountain. Accolades for Konocti wines soon attracted the attention and support of John Parducci of Parducci winery in neighboring Mendocino County, who joined forces with the growers and other investors to build up the operation to a production level approaching 50,000 cases.
The Lake County vineyard primarily responsible for Konocti 1986 Fume' Blanc was planted in 1984; it was only three years old and in its first harvest when the grapes for this wine were picked. Winemaker William Pease calls Lake County "the last frontier of California's North Coast, and we are pioneers of sorts, developing a new regional style."
Serving: Not quite sweet enough to work well as a cocktail by itself, this wine is best with food. It works especially well with baked chicken and simple fish preparations.
Price: Suggested retail of about $6.75 per bottle. Actual price may vary significantly. Wholesale supplier is Forman Brothers, (202) 398-3300. Wholesale suppliers cannot sell directly to consumers, but your wine merchant can buy from wholesalers.
The Top 20 Following is a list of the top 20 wines in the Sauvignon Blanc Shootout. For a complete list of all the medal winners and nonwinners send $2 for printing and handling to Sauvignon Blanc Shootout, P.O. Box 285, Ithaca, N.Y. 14851.
96 points, platinum medal, best buy: Konocti 1986 Fume' Blanc, Lake County, Calif.
95, gold medal, best buy: Mariposa 1986 Sauvignon Blanc, Lake County, California.
94, gold medal, best buy: Crystal Creek 1986 Sauvignon Blanc, Proprietor's Reserve, Mendocino County, California.
94, gold medal: Kendall-Jackson 1985 Chevriot, Lake County, California.
93, gold medal, best buy: Arcadia 1985 Sauvignon Blanc, Lake County, California.
93, gold medal: Kendall-Jackson 1986 Sauvignon Blanc, Estate Bottled, Clear Lake, Lake County, California.
92, gold medal: Byron Vineyard & Winery 1986 Sauvignon Blanc, Santa Barbara County, California.
92, gold medal: Cha~teau La Louvie`re 1985 Graves, France.
92, gold medal: Dry Creek Vineyards 1986 Fume' Blanc, Sonoma County, California.
92, gold medal: Hidden Cellars 1985 Sauvignon Blanc, Mendocino County, California.
92, gold medal: Kendall-Jackson 1985 Sauvignon Blanc, Clear Lake, Lake County, California.
92, gold medal: Preston Vineyards & Winery 1985 Sauvignon Blanc, Reserve, Dry Creek Valley, California.
92, gold medal: St. Vrain 1986 Sauvignon Blanc, Alexander Valley, California.
91, gold medal: Clos du Bois 1985 Sauvignon Blanc, Barrel Fermented, Alexander Valley, California.
91, gold medal: Haywood 1986 Fume' Blanc, Sonoma Valley, California.
91, gold medal: Ventana Vineyards 1985 Sauvignon Blanc, Monterey, California.
90, gold medal: Cain Cellars 1985 Sauvignon Blanc, Napa-Sonoma Counties, California.
90, gold medal: Chalk Hill Winery 1985 Sauvignon Blanc, Sonoma County, California.
90, gold medal: Preston Vineyards & Winery 1986 Sauvignon Blanc, Cuve'e de Fume', Dry Creek Valley, California.
90, gold medal: V. Sattui Winery 1986 Sauvignon Blanc, Suzanne's Vineyard, Napa Valley, Calif.
1987, Craig Goldwyn International Wine Review magazine