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Wine at its best


For the members of The Wine Group, wine tastings are as much about the camaraderie as they are about the wine selection.

“You can drink the greatest bottle of wine in the world, but if you’re sitting there by yourself, then I’d say it wasn’t that great a bottle of wine,” said Michael LaValle, general manager of the Des Moines Embassy Club.

That approach has kept The Wine Group operating in Des Moines for approximately 20 years. The members hold monthly gatherings at various locations in Greater Des Moines, tasting wines, sampling cheeses and enjoying one another’s company.

“That’s the way it was meant to be drunk,” said Sam O’Brien, who began collecting wines in the 1960s as a teenager and now has a vast array of vintages, including some that date back to the 1950s.

He co-founded the group in the mid-1980s as a means for tasting fine wines, which tend to be expensive and difficult to obtain. They began by inviting five friends, who were each asked to invite two additional people. The group has grown to 36 members, though tastings are limited to 24.

“Sometimes you don’t want to taste more than a small glass, and it’s also very involved to procure specialized wines from across the country,” O’Brien said.

Jamie Constantine, senior vice president of investment at Smith Barney, became a member of The Wine Group nearly six years ago through a friend’s invitation.

“I had a desire to learn about wine and this is a great avenue because the wine tastings are generally unique,” Constantine said. “And these are wines that you can’t afford to buy really on your own. So it’s an excellent way to get to know wine. We’re not affiliated with any retailer, so it gives us the opportunity to find unique wines from around the world.”

Tami Logsdon joined The Wine Group last year, and like other members has found value in the educational aspect of the group’s tastings. As co-owner of Basil Prosperi, she began to research wine three years ago when the restaurant began offering dinners and she had to develop a wine list.

“It’s just a great opportunity to taste wines that you wouldn’t otherwise get a chance to even try,” Logsdon said. “That’s a valuable learning tool and it’s just really enjoyable as well. The others in The Wine Group know so much more about wine than I do, but it’s great to just sit and chat with them about wine and share information.”

As this year’s program chairman, Constantine selects the wines for each tasting, assisted by a committee. They often select wines for a tasting based on region of origin, vintner or vintage.

At the tastings, which are usually held at the Wakonda Club or at restaurants in Greater Des Moines, the members break up into smaller groups to taste the six selected wines, as well as a “ringer” that differs from the others. They discuss the wines, and then share their observations, as well as their guess as to which wine is the ringer, with the rest of the group. Constantine said even the most experienced wine connoisseurs can’t always guess the ringer.

“It’s like a book club,” LaValle said. “After everybody’s read the same book, they give their interpretation of it.”

LaValle often hosted The Wine Group at his former restaurant, LaVal’s, in the 1980s. As a member himself, he appreciates the diversity of the group.

“The No. 1 reason I enjoy it is the people,” he said. “And secondarily, I can share a taste of a bottle of wine and therefore know whether I might be interested in purchasing it or not. It’s a way to expand your knowledge in an efficient way because you’re sharing the taste with 12 people.”

Constantine said there’s no discrimination when it comes to new members, just that they love wine and want to learn more about it.

“When I joined, I was just starting to explore wine,” he said. “I’d go around town and do different tastings at retailers. That’s a great way to get started – find out what you like and then pick up a few bottles and support the local trade.”

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