Welcome to the Women's Wine Tasting Club, no men allowed.
It's the brainchild of wine merchant Cecile Giannangeli, who owns finewine.com stores in Maryland and Virginia and has been in the wine business for nearly two decades.
"It's taken me this long to understand that the most underserved group is my peers," Giannangeli told the first meeting of the Maryland club earlier this month (a Virginia group has also met). She rattled off statistics to prove her point: Only 17 percent of the wine purchased in fine wine stores is bought by women. At the same time, of the 80 million wine drinkers in the United States, 60 percent are women.
Visit almost any wine store in the region, especially on weekends, Giannangeli says, and you'll find that most of the shoppers are men, off on what she likens to a safari: the hunt for the big cabernet.
But, she told the noontime gathering in Gaithersburg, women actually have more taste buds than men do. It's her goal to educate women so they will trust their own tastes and to give them basic instruction in how to pair wine with food.
The Gaithersburg crowd was a combination of office workers out for an extended lunch hour ("Don't use my name; I have to go back to work!") and stay-at-home moms who want to move past chardonnays. Kay Knopf, Sybil Masterson and Cathy Magas, friends who live in Germantown and Damascus, said they attended because they wanted to expand their knowledge of wines in a women-only setting.
Giannangeli began with the most basic of information: how to taste wine, which involves a lot more than just gulping it down.
She started with a Sancerre, a French wine from the Loire Valley, cajoling the women who seemed intimidated by the large number of French wine-producing areas. "It's just geography," Giannangeli chided them, adding that the wine's grape is sauvignon blanc, a variety also grown extensively in California.
First they smelled the wine, which had been poured in advance; then they swirled it in their glasses to introduce oxygen -- "See how much bigger the nose is." Then they tasted the wine, swirling it in their mouths while sucking in air to replicate the oxygenation in the glass.
Next they took a bite of Parrano, a rich cheese from Holland. "See how the wine is less acidic after having the cheese," Giannangeli said.
Along the way, she shared other wine-drinking tidbits:
Holding the glass by the stem isn't an affectation; it keeps the wine cool.
When in doubt, go with the wine of the region. That is, if you are serving Italian food, drink Italian wine.
Don't worry too much about vintages of wines from California and Australia; the weather is pretty consistent year after year and so is the quality.
If tasting a wine makes your mouth water, it's a food wine.
At first, members of the group seemed timid about expressing their opinions, but as Giannangeli worked to demystify wine -- "This is farming. It's not rocket science, and it's not art. It's farming" -- the women became more candid. Several complained that they often were overlooked in wine stores and restaurants or scolded by young bartenders when they complained that their red wine was too warm or their white wine was too cold.
"Don't get bullied at restaurants," Giannangeli coached. "Repeat after me: 'I am smart and capable. I am not going to be bullied by a 20-year-old bartender!' "
The women who gathered a few days later for their third meeting in McLean already had begun to exude the confidence that the club is designed to engender. "Now they bring the wine list and the wine to me," one boasted as she arrived for the meeting.
The wine club idea was born among Giannangeli's women customers and the wives of customers at her McLean store, and among her friends, such as Nina Rosen of McLean, who said, "I call her from the restaurant to ask what to order." Joining this meeting were several newcomers who had learned about the club when they stopped by the shop.
This session focused on wines to pair with spicy ethnic foods, which in this setting translated into Indian, Italian, Japanese and Asian takeout foods. Here, Giannangeli paired chardonnay with the Parrano cheese and d'Affoinos, a soft French cheese. Most of the women agreed that the wine was better with the Parrano than with the d'Affoinos, which seemed to smother the taste of the wine.
Next was an Albarino Rias Baixas, a bright, lemony wine from the Galicia region of Spain. "This is great with garlicky dishes, things that need a little bit of lemon," Giannangeli said, pairing it with a spicy chickpea chat, a salad made with yogurt, tomatoes, cilantro, onions, jalapenos, turmeric and c ayenne and tucked into pita bread.
By then, the noise level in the room had begun to rise as the women compared how the Spanish wine went with the chat and how the chardonnay didn't.
As the group proceeded to next taste a pinot gris with tuna and salmon sushi (the spiciness of this wine cuts the sweetness of the accompanying soy), an Italian Notarpanaro with bruschetta and a syrah with soy, ginger and chili-marinated grilled flank steak, Giannangeli offered some advice for ordering wine in a restaurant.
"Experiment with wine and treat it as a spice, which it is," she said.
"If you don't know what to order, pinot noir will save you every time," Giannangeli advised, noting it pairs well with fish, chicken and beef. "But don't let it get too warm. At home, put it in the fridge for 15 minutes. In a restaurant, ask for a bucket with equal amounts of ice and water and chill the bottle for 15 minutes.
"The waiter may look at you and think, 'She is such an idiot; I should have brought her white zin,' " she chortled. "But he will be wrong. I want your dining to be improved. Women must become empowered. Trust your palate. Have a bottle of something you wouldn't normally try."
The Women's Wine Tasting Club meets at 1351 Chain Bridge Rd., McLean, 703-356-6500, and also at 20A Grand Corner Ave., Gaithersburg, 301-987-5933. There is no fee to join, but fees are charged for events. Reservations are required. For more information, see www.finewine.com. The next meeting in McLean, on Nov. 6, will cover Thanksgiving food and wine pairing.