Love wine, but have little time? Our amateur sommeliers report on local wine tastings you shouldn't miss.
Listen carefully. That slurping sound you hear is from all the wine tastings -- a score or more -- happening at shops, restaurants and hotels around South Florida each week.
They're pleasant affairs. For fees that range from nothing to $60 per person, sponsors pour small samples of various wines and provide munchies from simple chunks of cheese to grilled octopus, usually along with a little edification on the evening's pours.
A wine tasting makes a great date. Classier than a movie, more respectful than drinks in some bar -- and yet alcohol, the universal social lubricant, is still there to break the ice.
Here, from north to south, is a sampling of the possibilities.
-- FRED TASKER
TOTAL WINE & MORE
Seven bottles of wine are arranged on a small counter in the middle of the store in the recommended tasting order: a chardonnay, two merlots, two cabernet sauvignons and two syrahs -- bolder than the cabs, says the winemaker, and therefore better to drink last.
Harry Alhadeff, the gregarious president of Apex Cellars in Washingtons Yakima Valley, is on hand at the Total Wine & More in Fort Lauderdale to walk us through thimble-sized sips of his wares.
The store has tastings every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with most hosted in-house. (The North Miami outlet has a similar schedule.) They might feature a flight of six to eight wines -- perhaps pinot noirs from different wineries or Italian wines from various grapes, says wine associate Bryan Ippel.
They're free and pretty stripped-down -- standing-room only and no nibbles.
-- MARJIE LAMBERT
* Total Wine & More, 1906 Cordova Rd., Fort Lauderdale; 954-828-9463. Also 14750 Biscayne Blvd., North Miami; 305-354-3270 (snacks served). Weekly tastings 2-5 p.m. Friday, noon-6 p.m. Saturday, 1-5 p.m. Sunday; free; totalwine.com.
Dozens of people regularly float into Hollywood Vine's free Tuesday-night tastings, and the crowd is as diverse as South Broward itself: snowbirds and young couples, oenophiles and newbies and, on one recent evening, a healthy contingent of Coast Guard officers.
Tastings are themed -- Italian, perhaps, or Bordeaux and the Rhône. Light fare (Italian meat, bread, cheese) is sold deli-style, charged by weight, with $10 covering enough for two.
The vibe is relaxed -- grab yourself a glass, linger over the tasting and join the chatty and welcoming cast of regulars who stick around to buy and drink from the shop's boutique selections.
-- MATTHEW I. PINZUR
More than 30 people pack a recent tasting at Sandra Stefani's Casa Toscana wine shop in Miami Shores, gather around tables and getting to know each other over sips and nibbles -- cheese, toast and spread, olives and prosciutto.
Rosalinde Rosado, a sales manager for La Cantina Italiana distributors, led the group through five wines from small vintners, explaining everything from the story behind a particular label to the no-outsourcing philosophy at one vineyard.
"Wine should be talking to you, " Rosado said, "whether you want to be serenaded or you want to be slapped."
-- SUSANNAH NESMITH
* Casa Toscana, 7001 Biscayne Boulevard; Miami Upper East Side, FL- 33138: Tastings every other week on Wednesdays; from $15-35 plus a 10 percent discount on featured wines; 305-758-3353, casatoscanamiami.com.
If you've got $10, you've got a fine Thursday night ahead of you at Wine 69, a genial Biscayne Boulevard wine bar, shop and café.
Weeknight tastings generally highlight a single winemaker or varietal and feature three to eight wines plus light snacks. Booked Thursdays? Conduct a tasting on your own time with themed wine flights priced at $16 and up.
Wine finds good company on the eclectic menu of well-sourced charcuterie and house-made bites, including a remarkable four-cheese soufflé just right for sharing along with a big old Cabernet and priced to move at $9.95.
-- NIKKI WALLER
* Wine 69, 6909 Biscayne Blvd., Miami: Weekly tastings 7:30-9 p.m. Thursdays; $10; 305-759-0122, wine69miami.com.
Led by wine consultant Barry Alberts and held at Jaguar Ceviche Spoon Bar & Latam Grill, this casual, Latin American-themed tasting offers six wines each week. A recent, mostly Chilean night included Secreto and Viu Manent viognier, sauvignon blanc and malbec plus a cabernet sauvignon from Argentina's Antis.
For less than the price of an entree and glass of wine at the restaurant, tasters enjoy chips and dip before the sampling and spoonfuls of spicy ceviche and skewers of swordfish and hanger steak with their wines.
There's no formal presentation, but Alberts happily answers questions from attendees, who typically number about 20.
-- JAWEED KALEEM
FRIDAY NIGHT SERIES
A crowd of about 50 isn't unusual at Alberts' second weekly Coconut Grove tasting, just relocated from the Doubletree Hotel to Christabelle's Quarter.
More than half the attendees one recent Friday night were repeat customers, including Hal Lobree of Pinecrest, who says he's missed only a few sessions in eight years.
"I like to watch him, " Lobree says of Alberts. "He's a one-man oenological band."
Tasters get a glass and a sheet with the names of the wines in the suggested drinking order.
"Expect to taste black cherry in this one, " Alberts says of the Mano Amano-Tempranillo. As the oenophiles find their favorites, however, commentary gives way to pouring.
-- FRED TASKER
* The Friday Night Wine Series, Christabelle's Quarter, 3157, Commodore Plaza, Coconut Grove: 7-9:30 p.m. Fridays; $15 includes appetizers; 305-793-3120.
Cefalo's Cave Club offers weekly tastings of wine and food pairings, with wine director Henry Barrow shepherding beginners and oenophiles alike through about a half-dozen bottles, sharing his encyclopedic knowledge along the way.
A recent session focused on riesling and gewürztraminer, served with figs, brie and cured meats from Cefalo's gourmet shop next door. (The theme this Saturday is rosé.)
Participants aren't offered discount on purchases, but Barrow often sends them home with unfinished bottles opened for the tasting.
--TERE FIGUERAS NEGRETE
In the large, elegant Country Club Ballroom at the Biltmore, a crowd of more than 300 samples wines, nibbles pasta, pork and pizza and dances to a DJ's tunes at a Tuesday night "Bold Reds" tasting.
Guests receive cards describing the aroma, flavor and suggested food matches for each of the eight featured wines -- six from California, one from New Zealand and one from Australia. No one leads the tasting or addresses the crowd -- but everyone seems to be having a good time.
-- GEORGIA TASKER
* Cellar Club, Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables: Monthly themed tastings free for club members, $20 for others; 305-913-3203, thecellarclub.com.
WOLFE'S WINE SHOPPE
"Hi! You guys had the pinot noir yet?" calls out Beth Adams, a sales rep for August Briggs, a small California winery.
Colleen Perdue ponders the zin.
"This is nice -- spicy, " she says. "I like these tastings. They're chatty. People talk to strangers."
-- FRED TASKER
* Wolfe's Wine Shoppe, 124 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables. Weekly tasting 7 p.m. Friday; $20 includes Riedel wine glass. Also occasional singles and themed tastings; 305-445-4567, wolfeswines.com.
Tastings are relaxed and casual at Sunset Corners Fine Wines & Spirits, where an agreeable pair from the export-support group Wines of Chile pours samples on a recent Saturday.
Most weeks, co-owner Michael Bittel leads the free sessions, held in a cozy back corner and complemented by tasty morsels.
Bittel happily shares his fascination for wines, in person and via an e-mail newsletter that outlines what will be tasted each week and adds background about the region or type of wine represented.
-- JOHN HOPKINS
* Sunset Corners Fine Wines & Spirits, 8701 Sunset Dr., South Miami. Tastings noon-4 p.m. Saturdays; free. 305-271-8492, sunsetcorners.com.
CROWN WINE & SPIRITS
There's no way to try everything at a 90-wine tasting -- at least if you want to have any recollection of what you liked. On the other hand, no matter your preference -- red or white, sweet or dry, steel or oak -- you're bound to find plenty of choices.
At the Pinecrest Crown, one of the local chain's 15 Miami-Dade and Broward stores, a recent tasting divided 90 wines among 10 stations by categories such as Incredibly Italian, South American Splendor and California Dreamin'.
Prices were equally diverse, from a hair under $10 for a Guigal Côtes du Rhône Blanc to $140 for a 1988 Chateau Leoville Las Cases. That's after the 20 percent discount that came with the $30 price of admission, as did a wide selection of finger foods and a take-home Riedel wine glass.
There was a range of expertise, too. Bill Hebrank told about his visit to the Italian winery as he poured a Bellavista Brut at the Champagne Plus station, but across the way at Clearly Divine Cali, our hostess had to read from the label when asked where the grapes for a particular chardonnay were grown.
-- HEIDI CARR
* Crown Wine & Spirits, 13611 S. Dixie Hwy., Pinecrest; occasional Friday and Saturday evening tastings every two months; 786-249-9463. Customers may register at crownwineandspirits.com for invitations to tastings at various stores.
Schnebly is not your ordinary winery. Instead of grapes, tropical fruits including mango, lychee, passion fruit, carambola and guava are used in the winemaking.
"We sell T-shirts at our store with the letters PETG: People for the Ethical Treatment of Grapes, " joked Sterling T. Royston, one of a handful of staffers who conduct daily tours and tastings.
Our group was given six wines to taste, with the lychee the favorite. Comparable to a riesling, "it's our best selling wine, " Royston said.
-- ANGEL L. DOVAL
So much wine, so little time. Here are yet more places to taste:
* Seventh Street Wine Company, 701 S. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale: Tastings 6:30-8:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; free for Enomatic cardholders, $10 for others; periodic mid-week wine tasting; 954-522-5560, seventhstreetwine.com.
* D'Vine Cyber Lounge, 910 Collins Ave., Miami Beach: Occasional tastings, call for schedule; 305-534-1414.
* W Wine Bistro, 3622 NE Second Ave., Miami: Twice-monthly tastings 6:30-8:30 p.m. usually $15 (includes Riedel glass); 305-576-7775.
Copas y Tapas, 98 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables: Spanish wine tasting 4-6 p.m. Fridays; wine free, tapas $6.95 and up; 305-774-0927.
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