Welcome to Part 3 of Casual Kitchen's series on wines. Please be sure to look at the prior articles: Open That Bottle Night (Part 1) and How to Enjoy Wine on a Budget (Part 2)!
If you've always wanted to learn about wines but you are put off by the expense, starting a wine tasting group with a small group of friends is a great way to try lots of wines at a significant savings.
Not only will you be able to share the burden of wine purchases with others, but as we'll see shortly, starting your own wine tasting club is possibly the most cost-effective and time-efficient way to learn about wines.
But best of all, your wine tasting group will give you the opportunity to try new wines in the company of friends. Wine has always been a more intimidating subject than it should be, and there's nothing that cancels out wine intimidation quite like enjoying it with a small, comfortable group of like-minded people. I can't think of a better way to enjoy wine.
Today's post will cover the basic details of starting a wine group. Our next (and final) post on wines will include a list of possible wine tasting themes and ideas you can try once you get your wine tasting group up and running.
Pick the Right People
One of the most important elements of a successful wine tasting club is finding other members who are not only interested in learning about wine, but who are also reliable enough to attend monthly or twice-monthly meetings.
You may also want to look for members who are all at a similar level of wine expertise. While having one member who knows a lot more about wine than the rest of the group can, in theory, present an opportunity for the rest of the members to learn, I don't recommend pursuing this option. It's too easy for this member to dominate both the agenda and the conversation of each meeting.
And of course it goes without saying that you should try and limit blowhards and know-it-alls from joining your group.
A few thoughts on the optimal size for a wine tasting club. Initially, I would recommend staying small and nimble. It's a lot easier to coordinate a wine-tasting date with four, five or six people than with fifteen or twenty. You can always add members if you want to grow your group in the future.
Starting with five or six members will still offer you scale in the sense that you'll be able to try many kinds of wines and distribute the cost of those wines over a reasonably large group of people. Also, if one or two members can't make a particular meeting, you'll still have enough other members attending to make the meeting worthwhile.
There are certainly successful large wine clubs out there--some with 20 or 30 or even more members--but in my opinion the logistics of managing and organizing a group of that kind of size, not to mention hosting the event itself, tend to overwhelm the scale benefits of group wine buying.
You should dedicate a good portion of your first meeting to setting ground rules for the club. Have the group decide what kinds of wine spending limits to set, how much wine each member should bring to each meeting, what the meeting schedule will be, whether you want the group to meet at the same person's home each time or rotate meetings through each member's home, etc. Establishing some of these rules up front will save you from confusion down the road. However, be sure to keep the ground rules flexible, just in case a change to the rules meets the group's needs at some point in the future.
How to Start
What should you drink at your first meeting? I suggest you start out as casually as possible, perhaps by requesting that each member bring to the first meeting a bottle of any kind of wine for under $20. It doesn't matter whether it's white or red, sweet or dry. At the first meeting, open and enjoy them all, and spend the time working out your agenda and ground rules for the club.
You'll have months, if not years, of meetings in the future to get as specific as you like with the wines you try. The purpose of the first meeting is simply to get comfortable, get to know everyone and set a few ground rules.
Remember, this entire process is supposed to be fun. Take things slow at first. Later, when your members start to discover wines they like or don't like, and as everyone's collective expertise on wine begins to grow, you can be much more specific about the wines your group tastes.
Taking Notes and Grading Your Wines
I strongly encourage you and everyone in your group to keep brief notes on the wines you try, even if you're at a stage where you have no idea what you're doing and know next to nothing about wine. Just keep a small notebook and a pen and jot down the date, the type of wine you've tasted, the winery and its location and the vintage year. And last but certainly not least, jot down a few words on what the wine tastes like and why you liked it or not.
If you or members in your wine tasting club want to get more formal with your evaluations and note-taking, try using these wine scoring forms, which are free for the taking.
Why take notes at all? You certainly don't have to. But taking notes on the wines you drink can make the process of exploring wines even more fun. You'll better remember the wines you've tried, you'll accelerate your learning process, and in future years you'll have a blast looking back at your early note-taking attempts!
Rotate Hosting, And Don't Get Carried Away
Just as it's important to share the burden of buying the wine by having each member bring a bottle of wine to each meeting, it's also important to share the burden of hosting wine club meetings. Consider a routine for rotating hosting responsibilities, and also set a few ground rules for what the host should do.
Once again, simpler is usually better. You don't need to do anything fancy when you are the host. Just setting out some cheese, crackers and water will suffice. Remember, the whole point of establishing a winetasting club in the first place is to make it easy and affordable for group members to try lots of different wines. There's no need to make hosting the meeting into a complicated or expensive venture.
Set Up A Wine Queue
One of the more difficult aspects of wine tasting clubs is deciding how to choose what wines to try. You don't want one person dictating the agenda; everyone should have input into what the group drinks. However, it can be time-consuming to be too democratic when choosing what wines to taste. If you take too much time to listen to each member make their suggestion for next month's tasting idea, and then take still more time to vote on which idea is best, before you know it, your meeting's half over and you still haven't tried any wine yet!
With that in mind, here's an idea that I learned a few years ago (in a book club, ironically) that I think translates perfectly to a wine tasting club: Set up a queue of tasting themes for the next several meetings.
Decide The Next Five Meetings Up Front
Our book group used to spend as much as 15-25% of our time at each meeting trying to decide what book to read next, as each person made an impassioned case for their choice for the next book. Finally, one member suggested using one meeting to choose books for the next five or six meetings, so we could get those decisions out of the way all at once.
When we chose five or so books at once, everybody could see that, eventually, they would get a turn for their book idea--it might be two or three months from now, but their book choice was still on the list to be read. Suddenly, the decision-making process for the group became a lot easier. Instead of taking fifteen minutes to decide on one book, we were choosing five books in fifteen minutes. People are a lot more willing to defer if it's clear up front that everyone will get their turn.
Try this approach with your wine club and see how much time it saves. And if you're looking for suggestions of potential themes for your group to consider for your wine club, stay tuned: I'll run a list of ideas for winetasting themes in my next post.
The Wines Really Add Up
Let me wrap up this post by going over the math of why wine tasting clubs are so cost effective. Let's say you start a simple wine group with five members that meets monthly, and each member brings one bottle of wine per meeting.
After just one year, you will have sampled a staggering 60 wines at a cost to you of only one bottle of wine per month. Depending on the price constraints your group chooses, this could be as little as $15-$25 per month, or just a fraction of the cost of a single dinner out at a nice restaurant. And that laughable $15-$25 monthly cost is just for a small, simple group. With a few extra members, the number of wines you'll get to try will be even larger, yet the cost per member will stay roughly the same.
You would be hard-pressed to find a better or less expensive way to try that many wines. Why should enjoying wine hurt you in the wallet?
Readers, what experiences have you had tasting wines in a wine club setting? What advice would you share with the rest of us?
Stay tuned for the next installment of Casual Kitchen's series on wine: 27 Themes and Ideas for Wine Tasting Club Meetings.
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