Eat + Drink » On the Table

Wine Tasting with Friends, from a Distance



Ah, Monday night, the wine tasting night we've looked forward to since, well, since the previous Monday night. After all these years, we still can't wait for our special evening. Normal times would see us arriving at the venue of the evening with smoke from the grill filling the air and sounds of the game of the week emanating from the house. Inside, we'd pull from our bags wine decanters, cheese, bread, pâté, charcuterie and a selection of something for the grill.

In early March we thought our Monday nights might be coming to a screeching halt. COVID-19 was upon us and, at that point, we didn't know exactly how dangerous the virus was or how far it had spread. Our final tasting saw some of us with masks and some without, and little social distancing. Sadly, after much discussion, we decided to stop the tastings altogether. This could not stand — we needed to find a solution that kept us all safe.

A loose-knit group, we've been meeting and tasting wine for more than 25 years. Early on, the members consisted of some 15 to 20 restaurant owners, winery owners, bartenders, local wine buyers, wine reps and aficionados. We are now down to a relatively constant eight members with the occasional drop-in of friends in the business. We may have dwindled in size but those of us who are left bring wines that truly challenge the senses. Our current makeup consists of two winery owners, one wine rep, two restaurant owners, one retired park ranger, one retired store manager and me, recently retired after 25 years as the wine and spirits buyer at the Arcata Co-op.

Since we rotate between members' homes and the tasting is always blind, the wine has to be transferred into anonymous containers that seal, ideally with either cork or screwcap, for transport. The vessels can be as varied as washed out whiskey or tequila bottles, volumetric flasks and actual wine decanters (securely fastened with plastic wrap and rubber band). The lineup on the host's dining table can be a rather delightful assortment.

The evening is always entertaining, but we do try to be serious about the wine and guess as accurately as possible: the varietal, region and vintage. A wine can be as young as a Beaujolais nouveau, or as old as a 20- to 40-year-old Burgundy or Australian grange. Each of us tries to think about the color, body, smell and flavor. Analyzing tannic structure, acidity and alcohol comes into play as well. We then discuss to see if there is any consensus or swaying of thoughts to be done. More often than not someone (or numerous someones) will "nail it." Sometimes we're all around the general area but don't guess the exact varietal. Sometimes a wine really speaks to what it is and we all nail it. Sometimes none of us guesses correctly. At the end of each evening, we agree that we simply need to keep trying and vow to get together again next week. The work goes on.

When one of my children suggested the family do a Zoom meeting for my wife's birthday at the end of March, a lightbulb went off. Why not make a Zoom virtual meet work for a Monday night? Virtual meetings have actually allowed us to be more focused on the wine without the distraction of a game or the temptations from the grill.

At 5 p.m. on Monday, everyone (masked, of course) brings a Mason jar or a jam jar of wine (three or four ounces each) for each participating member to my house for the rest of the group. If all eight of us are participating that night, then each of us brings seven jars, for example. If there are only five of us for that night everyone would bring four jars. You get the idea. We then pick up a jar of each type of wine and go home to dinner, at which time I send out a Zoom invitation to everyone for 7 p.m.

Once I begin admitting folks to the Zoom chat, the tasting and camaraderie begins again. For two hours on a Monday night, being focused and connected in this otherwise insane time of COVID-19, wildfires, hurricanes and politics is essential. We all do our best.

Robert Stockwell (he/him) is the former wine and spirits buyer at the Arcata Co-op.

Add a comment