The very notion of a wine tasting can conjure images of humorless gray-haired gentlemen sitting around a linen-covered table swirling expensive vintages and saying things like, "It's smooth and rich with melon-like fruit and a firm acidity."
It's enough to drive the uninitiated to a life of Budweiser. But wine tastings are getting a new look as more young professionals begin hosting.
"It's extremely popular right now," says Stacie Hunt, a wine educator and partner at Du Vin, a wine shop near the Beverly Center. "It's part of the whole economic downturn, part of the nesting trend. People are interested in entertaining at home again. They are also interested in hugging their friends and spending time with people they care about."
Angie Rubin, a 38-year-old independent feature film music editor, tries to host a tasting at her Miracle Mile home about once a month.
"Number one, it's a great social event," she says. "It's wonderful to have people over and have great wines, great cheese, great wine glasses. And not to sound corny, but it also seems to inspire rich cultural conversation. You end up talking about foods that you like, restaurants, cities that you want to travel to."
Unlike planning a dinner party, it's not a lot of work to put together a tasting.
"Usually it's pretty spontaneous," says Rubin. "Maybe at the end of the week, Friday night, I'll leave word and say, 'Who has some hidden bottles they want to try?' Let's meet at my place at 8." Other times Rubin will pull bottles from her own wine cabinet, "pick up some strange cheese and it will be more like that."
Of course, it's possible to get a lot fancier. Lorri L. Jean, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and her partner recently hosted a tasting for about a dozen friends of several 1997 California Cabernets, mostly so-called cult wines that can fetch several hundred dollars at auction.
"We have friends with a stunning mansion in the Hollywood Hills," says Jean, 46. "We asked them if they will host us. The deal is we provide the wine and food. We tell everyone you must bring six Riedel or Spiegelau glasses, or if you don't have them, we will buy six for you and you can pay us back."
Bottles were bagged to hide the labels, and everyone took notes. "We rate on a very unsophisticated scale, 1 to 6, and what's your favorite," Jean says. "Then we reveal [the wines' identities] and we talk about it."
Tasting wines at home, Jean says, is "a very different experience" from tasting wines at a restaurant or wine bar. "It's a lot more fun and a lot more intimate. Also, people are less nervous once the ice gets broken to show their ignorance about wine."
Before traveling to Napa last fall with several friends in the industry, 34-year-old casting director Ross Lacy invited the group to his home in the Pacific Palisades for a preview tasting. J.B. Severin, general manager at the Wine House in West Los Angeles, helped select the wines and led the tasting.
"Wine is such a vast body of knowledge," he says. "To really learn something, you need a guide to take you through it. J.B. guides you through in a non-condescending way."
"Certainly people can do home wine tastings themselves," says Hunt, and for very little money. "We have, for example, incredible wines from Italy and France that are under $6, and I'm not talking about Charles Shaw," wines that Trader Joe's sells for $1.99.
"The benefit of having an educator come," she says, "is you get the history of the wines.... Every glass ... contains geology, geography, religion, politics and passion. No glass of wine is just juice in a glass." One relatively new development in home tastings, says Hunt, is that many revolve around a theme.
Not long ago, for example, Hunt facilitated a tasting of "surfer wines": wine to drink when eating surfer food such as fish tacos. "Everyone came in Tommy Bahama stuff and all the people were real surfers," she said. Just last week she ran a "peace wine tasting" with wines from countries including Lebanon, Israel and Morocco.
"People were pretty stunned because they didn't know there was such a thing as wine from Morocco [or Lebanon or Israel]," says Hunt. "It was a flavor and taste they had never had before, because the grape is expressed differently.
"As Americans we are not very aware of what's going in the world," Hunt says. "If we can become enlightened about the food and wine from different cultures, then we will have a better understanding of the people and cultures around the world. And how nice that it can come through something as wonderful as eating and drinking wine."
Independent wine consultant Chris Sandin offers these four tips for home wine tasting:
* Choose eight to 10 wines. With fewer than eight, you don't have enough to learn anything; with many more, it gets really confusing.
* Have a light meal within a few hours of the tasting. It's important to have something in your stomach.
* During the tasting, serve bread and a very mild cheese. Don't get fancy with the cheese because it can destroy the ability to taste the wine. The same is true of the bread. Opt for a simple French bread or lightly sour sourdough, eat it in small pieces and drink a lot of water to wash that taste out.
* I recommend that people spit. If you start drinking from the beginning, your palate is going to get fatigued and your brain is going to get fuzzy from the alcohol.