by Christina Kelly & r & Wine can be intimidating. With wine producers all over the world, it is a daunting task to walk into a wine shop and knowledgably select a bottle from France, South Africa, Spain or Argentina.

Many people start out the New Year with an armload of resolutions, destined to change old habits and start new ones. Learning more about wines is one of those new resolutions that stick with you longer than a two-week diet with mixed results. The challenge is getting started, selecting the right group of people to explore what's in the glass, and sustaining a group with the right mix of tasting, food and wine pairing, guest speakers and field trips.

A new book, The Wine Club, written by Maureen Christian Petrosky, offers a step-by-step, monthly guide to forming a wine-tasting and learning group. Petrosky admits she originally joined a women's book club -- but the group spent more time talking about the wine served at the gatherings, so it made more sense to change the focus.

Petrosky graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and is a master sommelier. The New York resident says her participation in a wine club helped to fuel her initial spark and love of wine.

Wine clubs are not new. Spokane has a handful of longstanding clubs, including one formed by Maureen Berndt nearly six years ago. Berndt, who lived in Paris for a short time, wanted to know more about the nuances of wine.

"I wanted to be more adventurous and more knowledgeable," Berndt says. "I had a number of friends who drank wine, and none of us knew that much. All of us felt like there was so much more out there to explore."

In January 2001, Berndt asked 12 women to form a wine club. She says the very first meeting was about learning how to taste.

"We had to learn how to look at a glass of wine -- the color, the smell -- and how to taste it," Berndt says. "Everyone needs a starting point, and learning the basics is the best way to start."

Debbie Austin was one of the first members of Berndt's wine club. She knew she liked wine, but had little experience tasting different varietals. "The best part of the club is that I've learned what I don't like, in addition to learning what I do like," Austin says. "I've learned about regions where wine is produced. I've learned about flavor changes in the glass. I've learned what wines to pair with certain dishes. This has been a tremendous learning experience."

Over the years, Berndt added a couple more members, so the total is now about 15. She advises keeping the group small, if the goal is to have an intimate, casual group. However, a wine club can also be a social, networking activity and several Eastern Washington groups have much larger wine clubs for wine appreciation and social activities.

David Anderson started his "garage" wine club last year in Coeur d'Alene. Anderson is a home winemaker who makes small amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay. But the retired teacher says he wanted to know more about wines in order to make his homemade product better.

"I always had willing tasters of my wine," Anderson says, laughing. "I've mostly given it away. But when I suggested to a couple of friends that we should meet to learn more about wine, everyone seemed willing."

So far, the group, consisting of about five couples, has met a handful of times. Anderson says he has already decided to drop the Merlot and make Syrah next year, after tasting a handful of Walla Walla Syrah in one of the club gatherings.

How To Form a Wine Club & r & Petrosky recommends including no more than 10 to 15 people to start a club. Smaller gatherings are better for learning and making conversation and answering questions.

"My number-one tip for a successful wine club is to drink only with people you like," Petrosky says. "If you have disruptive people who tend to dominate a group situation, you may lose club members."

Rather than taking on the wine industry in one big chunk, Petrosky suggests taking baby steps, or baby "sips." Decide how often to meet (once a month is a common frequency). Then start with basic tasting steps. The Internet is a great resource for looking up basic wine-tasting tips. Start with or use a search engine to find a basic wine-tasting guide.

After the wine club members understand the basic rules, pick themes each month. To get started, pick a varietal that people are familiar with, such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay and select a time of the year when it makes sense to experiment with that particular kind of wine. You wouldn't want to pick a Cabernet Sauvignon to taste in the hottest month of summer.

After years of tasting wine, I suggest tasting your wines blind -- that is, put the wines in bags so that the labels cannot be seen and let people taste without knowing which wineries are represented. This can be a great equalizer for the less expensive wines -- and quite surprising. Frequently, wines thought of as a cheap wine will score big during a blind tasting.

Hold special events once in a while, such as inviting a guest speaker or going on a field trip. This keeps the club active and provides additional knowledge; it's also much more fun. Visit a vineyard and learn about terroir (the French term for micro-climate and soil). Brendt says her group actually learned how to blend wine when winemaker Kristina Mielke van Loben Sels from Spokane's Arbor Crest Winery brought wine samples to the club meeting.

Make a point to focus on food and wine pairings during some of your club meetings. This enhances both the food and the wine and highlights the synergy between them.

But the bottom line is to have fun. Debbie Austin says her family and friends now call her up for wine advice and recommendations. Six years ago, she says, she probably wouldn't have known the answers and would have felt self-conscious if asked.

"It is a lot of fun being able to answer some questions based on my experience," Austin says. "I'm not an expert, but I'm getting pickier about what I drink and serve at dinner."

And the kicker is that you don't have to spend a lot of money. Wine club members I spoke with says part of the joy is to discover the "gem" or diamond in the rough that hasn't been the subject of wine critic scores -- yet.

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