Wine clubs can be love at first sip

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In a shot-and-a-beer town like Pittsburgh, wine might, at first sip, seem like a drink for sissies and snoots. But turnout at local wine festivals grows each year, restaurants are adding new varietals and vintages, and many Pittsburgh residents are exploring the region's homegrown wineries, from the North Hills to western New York.

If you still feel intimidated by the idea of trying and learning about wines in public, though, there is an easier, more private, and potentially more fun way to drink up wine knowledge: Start a monthly wine club.

The idea, which is explained in "The Wine Club: A Month-by-Month Guide to Learning About Wine with Friends" by certified sommelier and food writer Maureen Christian Petrosky (Meredith Books; $17.95), is based on the belief that drinking wine can and should be fun, not frightening.

Instead of meandering through wine shop aisles in a fog, or trying to memorize vintages, Ms. Petrosky writes that "Learning about wine with friends removes the fear factor. It doesn't matter what you smell or whether you like the wines the critics rave about. It just matters that you're having fun."

The book picks a different, season-appropriate wine each month to concentrate on, from Champagne and sparkling wines in January, to pinot noir in November. After forming a club of 10 to 15 friends -- small groups are better for learning about the wines and each other -- members take turns hosting the meeting/party each month, with the host researching and then assigning wines to the other members, purchasing a secret "ringer" to challenge their tasting skills, camouflaging the bottles, keeping track of what wines are being tasted, and preparing some food to pair with the wines.

For their parts, guests are responsible for bringing one bottle of wine each, with the cost averaging about $20 a bottle. One pricier bottle is required each month, but members can choose to split the cost, or can rotate who must spend a bit more.

Each month's chapter recommends a good but inexpensive wine for the budget-minded, a "Mona Lisa" or splurge wine that represents the ideal form of that month's pick, and a funky, esoteric "Salvador Dali." The book also identifies wine trends, fun tricks for remembering important wine lessons, technical terms, and tips for selecting glassware to help members fully enjoy each kind of wine.

Without using obscure terms or complicated procedures, the book describes how to taste wine using basic guidelines, then make notes to help members identify and remember the wines they like best. The book includes a wine-tasting sheet that can be photocopied, but Ms. Petrosky suggests keeping a small, portable notebook for tasting notes, so you can refer to it later in wine shops and restaurants.

Getting started

To begin the tasting, first hold the wineglass against a white sheet of paper or a white tablecloth and look at the color and consistency of the wine.

"Is it a sunset or a velvet robe? Murky or bright? The appearance is the first clue to what's in the glass. Is it red, white, rose colored, or shades therein? Does it look watery or thick? Do you see bubbles? Is there something floating in your glass or something dark settling to the bottom?" Ms. Petrosky writes.

Sniff the wine and make a mental note, she writes, then aerate the wine by placing the base of the glass flat on the table and moving it gently in a circular motion, swirling the wine just enough so that it works its way up the sides of the glass.

Then sniff the wine again, paying close attention to whether you smell citrus aromas such as lemon, lime or grapefruit; floral aromas such as orange blossom or honeysuckle; spice flavors such as cinnamon, nutmeg or clove; mineral odors such as stone or moist earth; or something completely different. Every nose is different, so trust what you smell -- what you smell is real to you, even if it's something unexpected like green peppers.

Then taste the wine, filling your mouth with the liquid, letting it roll across your tongue and taking note of flavors you might normally associate with food, such as blueberry jam or mint or butter. After you swallow, pay attention to how your mouth feels -- watering or puckering, maybe -- and how long the flavor lasts in your mouth. If the taste remains for three seconds or less, it's considered a short finish. Past 10 seconds is considered a long finish.

None of these characteristics -- whether the wine has pronounced legs or has a short finish, for example -- speaks to the quality of the wine; they're more a matter of preference for the taster.

Another attribute to consider is the body of the wine: Light-bodied is watery, like skim milk, she says.

"If it's heavier, like whole milk, it's fuller-bodied. Is full-bodied better than light-bodied? That's up to you. Only you know what your mouth prefers."

In October, Ms. Petrosky recommends tasting red zinfandel for its full-bodied, fruity flavor. Try picks from various regions of California, the wine's main producer: Somona County -- Dry Creek Valley, an old-vine zinfandel; Sonoma County -- Russian River Valley or Alexander Valley; Central Valley -- Lodi; Napa Valley -- Any of the moderately priced zins; and the Central Coast -- Paso Robles.

Round out these selections with a ringer made of Primitivo grapes from Italy.

While the styles will vary in color, aroma, taste, body and finish, red zinfandel's general fruitiness and spiciness make it a good match for tailgating foods such as burgers, barbecue and subs (just in case you want a change from beer and rum-and-coke).

"Not for the faint of heart, these zins are known for their backbone," Ms. Petrosky writes, "coming on strong with intense fruit flavors [think of the richness of a juicy plum at the peak of ripeness] and often hitting you with a punch of pepper."

3-CHEESE BABY BURGERS WITH PAPRIKA-LEMON AIOLI

  • 1 pound ground round
  • 2 tablespoons minced onion
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 teaspoon dried Italian seasoning
  •   1/2 teaspoon salt
  •   1/4 teaspoon teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2  1/2 to 3 ounces brie
  • 4 slices cheddar cheese, quartered
  • 4 slices smoked gruyere cheese, quartered
  • 4 mini-pita bread rounds, quartered
  • 1 recipe Paprika-Lemon Aioli (see below)

In a bowl, combine ground round, onion, Worcestershire sauce, Italian seasoning, salt and pepper. Shape beef mixture into 16 patties. Make a thumbprint in the center of each patty. Set aside.

Roll  1/4 teaspoon brie into ball; repeat with remaining brie, making a total of 16 balls.

Preheat grill to medium-high heat. Grill patties thumbprint sides down for 2 to 3 minutes. Flip patties and place brie balls in imprints. Top each with a slice of cheddar and a slice of gruyere. Cover and grill 1 to 2 minutes more or until cheese melts and burgers are cooked through (160 degrees). Place each burger in a pita quarter. Serve with Paprika-Lemon Aioli.

Makes 16 mini-burgers.

For Paprika-Lemon Aioli: In a food processor, combine 1 cup mayonnaise, 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, 3 cloves smashed garlic, 1 teaspoon sweet or smoked paprika, and 1/8 teaspoon salt. Cover and process until smooth.

Makes about 1 cup.

-- "The Wine Club: A Month-by-Month Guide to Learning About Wine with Friends,"
Maureen Christian Petrosky

ROASTED RED PEPPER DIP

  • 1 8-ounce package cream cheese, cut up
  • 6 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
  • 6 roasted red sweet peppers, drained
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  •   1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons fresh mint
  • Pita chips, crackers, or toast points

In a food processor or blender, combine cream cheese, feta cheese, roasted peppers, salt and black pepper. Cover and process until combined. Stir in mint. Serve with pita chips, crackers or toast points.

Makes 2 1/2 cups.

-- "The Wine Club"

MUFFULETTA SUBS

  •   1/4 cup red wine vinegar
  •   1/4 cup loosely packed fresh Italian (flat-leaf) parsley
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano, crushed
  •   1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  •   1/2 cup olive oil
  •   1/2 cup pimiento-stuffed green olives
  •   1/2 cup kalamata olives, pitted
  •   1/2 cup marinated artichoke hearts, drained and coarsely chopped
  •   1/2 cup roasted red peppers, drained and coarsely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon capers, drained
  • 2 12-inch sub rolls or soft Italian hoagie rolls
  •   1/4 pound Genoa salami, thinly sliced
  •   1/4 pound smoked Virginia ham, thinly sliced
  •   1/4 pound prosciutto, thinly sliced
  •   1/4 pound provolone cheese, thinly sliced

For the olive salad, in a food processor or blender combine red wine vinegar, parsley, oregano, black pepper and garlic. With the processor running slowly, drizzle in oil, processing until combined. Add green olives, kalamata olives and artichoke hearts and pulse 3 or 4 times -- don't overprocess or this will be mush! Scrape down the sides. Add the red peppers and capers; pulse 3 or 4 more times.

To make the sandwiches, cut rolls in half horizontally. Spread about  1/4 of the olive salad on each roll half. Evenly top the roll bottoms with the salami, ham, prosciutto and cheese. Put tops back on each sandwich. Cut each sandwich into 12 1-inch pieces and secure with fancy toothpicks.

Makes 24 pieces.

-- "The Wine Club"

Anita Dufalla, Post-Gazette

Click illustration for larger image.

Related story:

Well-trod Chautauqua-Lake Erie Wine Trail features explosion of wineries



Food editor Amy McConnell Schaarsmith can be reached at aschaarsmith@post-gazette.com or 412-731-1162.


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