Wine Societies Welcome You
Corkmasters and newbies alike are joining these international associations. Which one is most appropriate for you?
Corkmasters and newbies alike are joining these international associations. Which one is most appropriate for you?
When you can get all the information and advice about wine you could ever want from magazines like this one, Internet chat boards, books—even your retailer—why would you want to join a snooty club whose members just sit around and talk about wine? That's what wine societies do, right? They elect Corkmasters, and hold blind-tasting contests for their members…right?
Don't let reruns of Frasier ruin your impressions of what joining a wine society might be like. Why join? The answer is simple: because they are pleasurable. Judging by posts on Web chat boards, there are many wine lovers out there who want to talk about their vinous experiences. They want help in finding good wines, and learning about new ones. Others just prefer to have these same conversations in person, in the company of like-minded wine lovers. Really, wine societies are no different from any clubs: quite unnecessary, but certainly enjoyable.
Wine enthusiasts get together in a variety of venues all around the world to taste, discuss, and above all, enjoy wine. Some are run by committees, some by dedicated (some might say "obsessed") individuals.
A few societies are entirely self-contained, and host visiting speakers from the trade, press and wine education sectors. Philanthropy, in addition to education, plays a key role in other organizations (this is particularly true for wine societies in European wine regions, which often support ancient charities in the regions—or just good works in general). Some clubs are concerned only with expensive and fine wines, others are only interested in inexpensive wines for everyday drinking, but most are groups of enthusiasts who get together to enjoy wine and each other's company and interests, and talk about a variety of wines.
It's easy to dismiss some of the societies as meeting places for wine snobs or wine geeks. As in any club, there will always be people like that. But what seems to be more important to most of these societies is having a good time around a theme of wine. For example, in one wine association in Penedès, Spain, you have to drink a yard of water during your initiation, and then swear never to touch the stuff again.
At the archetypal Chevaliers de Tastevin in Burgundy, dinners are held in Burgundy's historic Clos de Vougeot, and the celebrations resemble elaborate medieval banquets. But watch these grown men singing a Burgundian drinking song, waving their hands in the air, and all notions of stuffy, snobby societies will go right out the window.
While it is relatively easy to join most of the American wine societies that I list here, the European wine societies, or confreries, generally operate by invitation only. They regularly invite celebrities to join at intronization ceremonies presided over by men in heavy gowns. But it is also possible to join if you are a good enough client of a specialist importer, in which case the importer might be able to introduce you to the right people (you just have to show your great appreciation for the region when you finally get the invite). The Musée du Vin in Paris has a Web site that lists most of these kinds of societies. (www.museeduvinparis.com)
Though there are too many of these to mention below, some wine retailers also run their own societies or clubs. They often have great programs, but remember, their main aim is to get you to buy the wines they sell.
Ready to don funny caps and sing drinking songs in French (or just dust off that tux)? Here's a rundown of some of the major wine societies in the United States and Europe that can get you started.
European Wine Societies
Most of the best-known European wine societies are in France. French wine societies and confreries tend to have great dinners, which can go on for hours, and typically involve entirely too much good wine. If you want to misbehave, you have to do it discreetly (hey, no jumping on the tables), and by the time you go home you'll be feeling a big, warm glow. Better yet, you'll go home knowing that you've associated with some of the gods of French wine.
Every Bordeaux region has its own wine confrerie. The most famous is the Jurade of Saint-Emilion (www.vins-saint-emilion. com), which dates back to the 13th century, when King John of England (the king who signed the Magna Carta) granted Saint-Emilion the right to run its own affairs through a Jurade of local nobles. Both the Jurade and the Chevaliers du Tastevin put on exquisite dinners.
The Commanderie du Bontemps de Médoc, des Graves, de Sauternes et Barsac Maison du Vin
33250 Pauillac, France
Tel: +33 556 59 01 91
The Commanderie is the other main wine confrerie, which invites major and minor celebrities to join its ranks (contact your local Bordeaux importer—he or she may have the clout to get you in). The Commanderie hosts a big banquet every June in Bordeaux called The Fete de la Fleur, to celebrate the flowering of the vines.
Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne
39 Rue de Talleyrand
51100 Reims, France
Tel: +33 03 26 40 16 68
Champagne, the world's most celebratory beverage, is an obvious candidate for a Bacchic wine society. And the Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne fits that bill perfectly. From its emphasis on such spectacular events as the sabreing of a bottles of Champagne (topping a bottle with the sword) to dinners around the world, the Ordre both celebrates Champagne, and acts as the liaison for the official Champagne body, the Comité Interprofessionel des Vins de Champagne.
Confrérie Saint-Etienne d'Alsace
Château de Kientzheim
68 240 Kientzheim, France
Tel: +33 03 89 78 23 84
Based in the medieval chateau of Kientzheim, this is the main Alsace wine society. Membership is by invitation (talk to your wine retailer). Dinners in the castle are very memorable.
Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin
2, rue de Chaux-BP12
Founded in 1934, the Chevaliers du Tastevin is the godfather of all wine societies. Based at the spectacular Clos du Vougeot in Burgundy, it is a charitable foundation that's home to some of the best wine dinners around. The Chevaliers also taste/review new vintages of Burgundy; as such, wines with the seal of the Chevalier du Tastevin always have a good quality level. Membership is by invitation, but if your wine retailer is a big Burgundy lover, he may well have the right contacts.
La Confrérie des Compagnons du Beaujolais
Tel : 04 74 02 22 85
BP 317 69661, Villefranche- sur-Saone, France
In keeping with the easygoing nature of Beaujolais wine, the Compagnons du Beaujolais are a jolly bunch, dedicated to having a good time and to celebrating the food of this generous region.
Ordine dei Cavalieri del Tartufo e dei Vini di Alba
Via Bricco, 14
12060 Grinzane Cavour, Italy
A wonderful name for an organization dedicated to the gastronomic delights of Italy's most gourmandizing zone: Piedmont. While Barolo and Barbaresco reign on the wine side, truffles are the culinary kings of Alba and the Langhe. This order celebrates them all.
La Confraria del Cava Sant Sadurní
Raval 5, Apartat, 79
08770 Sant Sadurní d'Anoia (Barcelona), Spain
Tel: +34 93 891 28 03
Celebrating the sparkling Cava wines from Penedès, Spain, this society elects a wine queen, and generally promotes and celebrates everything Cava (and encourages younger producers to do so, too). One of its more arcane ceremonies is its induction, in which candidates are encouraged to drink a yard of water before foreswearing that dangerous liquid forever.
U.S. Wine Societies
American Institute of Wine and Food
1303 Jefferson Street, Suite 100B
Napa, CA 94559
Founded in 1981 by Julia Child, Robert Mondavi and other gastronomic luminaries, the American Institute of Food and Wine is the embodiment of Mondavi's belief that food and wine enhance the quality of our lives. With 29 chapters, and 6,000 members, the Institute is open to everyone. The organization emphasizes both education and pleasure. Culinary and wine students are encouraged to join, and are even eligible for scholarships. The Institute maintains libraries of rare books and manuscripts on food and drink in the University of California at San Diego and Harvard University's Radcliffe Institute.
Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, Bailliage des Etats-Unis Chaîne
House at Fairleigh Dickinson University
285 Madison Avenue
Madison, NJ 07940
Though it's often seen as a glorified dining society, the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs is also committed to promoting culinary arts, enology and hospitality. Black-tie dinners are its specialty; the majority of its members are of the starched-shirt variety, if you know what I mean. The good thing about this society is that it has branches all over the United States, and is therefore fairly accessible. Diners amicals—less formal meals, such as picnics and barbecues—also play an important role in each chapter's schedule. Members have the added perk of being made especially welcome at Chaîne member restaurants.
The American Wine Society
PO Box 3330
Durham, NC 27702
A consumer-oriented group for wine lovers, amateur and professional, at all levels of knowledge and interest. With 100 branches, this is one of the most easily accessed wine societies. Tastings and meetings are organized at the branch level. Overall, has a welcoming feel—it is particularly well suited to beginners.
African-American Wine Society
P. O. Box 681
Powder Springs, GA 30127
Nine branches, right across the nation, have made this an increasingly interesting forum for African-American wine lovers. Like other wine societies, the AAWS organizes tastings (tutored or otherwise).
The Tasters Guild
1451 West Cypress Creek Road Suite 300
Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33309
The Tasters Guild aims to bring together consumers and the wine and food service industry. There are about 55 active chapters nationwide, organizing wine and food events for members and guests. In support of these local chapters, there is a network of retail wine and specialty food shops, restaurants, hotels, wineries, wholesalers and importers to provide access to wines and food often with discounts for members. Overall, a more trade-oriented society, one that relies on its connections with retailers.
Society of Medical Friends of Wine
511 Jones Place
Walnut Creek, CA 94597
This Society's goals are to stimulate scientific research on wine, develop an understanding of its beneficial effects, and encourage the good fellowship that is a part of the relaxed and deliberate manner of living that follows its proper use. Based in San Francisco, the organization is open to doctors, dentists, the nursing professions, psychologists and other medical professionals. Membership activities include four educational dinners a year, wine region tours, and a biennial wine tasting.
The German Wine Society
5607 Huntington Parkway
Bethesda, MD 20814
The German Wine Society is dedicated to improving knowledge of German wines and conducting events at which such wines are shared and appreciated. It organizes tastings of German wines, and operates as an alumni association, of sorts, for graduates of the German Wine Academy.
Italian Wine Society
302 5th Avenue, 9th Floor
New York, NY 10001
Lovers of Italian wine and food will flock to the 3-year-old Compagnia di Bacco. It is associated with the Italian Culinary Institute, which sponsors Italian events around the country.
photos jon wyand; vincent monnie/cephas; claes lofgen; mick rock/cephas