Eddie Osterland -- the United States' first master sommelier, and a longtime San Diegan -- was dining at Tapenade. His waiter on this particular visit was one Dustin Jones, the son of a chef, familiar with wine, "able to name the five first growths of Bordeaux" -- a competent young man. Recalls Jones, "He came in with a lady and sat down at Table 14, side-by-side on the banquette. They ordered a 1998 Chateau Pipeau; it was something like $72 on the list at the time. Great vintage, great bottle." Jones fetched the wine, and Osterland surprised him by asking to feel the bottle. "He said, 'Could you put that on ice?' I looked at him like, 'It's red wine.'"
Osterland caught the sentiment and decided to open for school. "He said, 'Okay, I'll tell you what. Grab yourself two glasses, and grab us each another glass. Pour a little bit of the wine, then put it in the ice bucket for five minutes, come back, and pour it in the other glass.'" Jones played along. "I tasted the warm one, and I thought it would be a little better than it was. I tasted the second one, and it was fantastic. I was, like, 'How did you do that?'" Osterland gave Jones his card; Jones gave Osterland a call. "He said, 'I see you as someone who could be a master sommelier.' He's been a mentor to me ever since." Today, Jones is not yet a master, but he does work as the wine director for La Valencia.
He also heads up the nascent wine-education program at the equally nascent VinVillage.com, wine entrepreneur Rob Barnett's social networking platform for the wine world. "It's really focusing on a lifestyle," says Barnett. "It's creating a society for people who want to go beyond their own tightly knit social network -- the online component enhances the local socializing. You go into literally any urban market, and there are wine groups. You can go into any city, any day of the week, except maybe Sunday or Monday, and you'll find something going on with wine. I got an e-mail from a guy this morning. He's in a group back East with 2500 registered members. They don't all participate in everything, but they're registered. Another group in the Midwest has four groups, all connected in a regional thing."
VinVillage would act to "bring them all together on a national level, connect them all. We want to have this grand online platform so that everybody can collaborate and communicate" -- and learn. "I like to explain wine to people," says Jones. "Sommeliers are always kind of doing education" -- and in this context, they could be educating simply by shooting the breeze online and letting visitors in on the show.
Jones envisions interactive maps -- wine is, after all, deeply tied up with place. "You might have a map of France and say, 'I want to know about the Loire Valley.' You click on the Loire, and it shows the breakdown of soil types and what they do to the wine. It shows the climate, what's happened over the last five years. Changes of styles in some of the wines, what they're evolving into. If you wanted more, you could click and find that the Loire is separated into four very distinct regions. Say you decide you want to learn about the Touraine section, and then Cour Cheverney, which is a little AOC within the Touraine. You click, and it tells you that it produces dry whites from the Romorantin grape, and they're generally in this or that style, and here are some good producers. And we'll probably have a lot of these wines available for purchase on the site."
As specific as you wanna be, and with the chance to taste what you've just investigated. If VinVillage hits, it could conceivably act as a direct business-to-consumer link. Jones delights in the possibility of introducing the truly curious to excellent oddities -- wines that he loves but which have yet to receive enough buzz to make them a smart investment for brick-and-mortar shops. "Something like Franciacorta, this subdistrict of Lombardy in Italy. Nobody knows about it, but you've got some great producers making sparkling wines that rival some of the best tête de cuvée Champagne -- and for $40, $50 dollars."
"We've also talked about doing wine parties to go," continues Jones. "Maybe six wines from Chablis in a little kit with tasting notes and an explanation of why they're different. Maybe a Chablis Village, a Premiere Cru, and a Grand Cru." Adds Barnett, "People holding wine events say, 'We always have to go and get all this stuff.' We can bring it all to one place. Nobody's done both the online and the local piece and brought it all together and spawned it out into a national organization."
Jones gets that, however essential the online component, everything depends on "bringing it back down to the social part of the wine life, the small community." As Barnett sees it, those small communities could be gathered into Villages of at least 250 members. A large city like San Diego could handle three easily -- say, North County, downtown, and central San Diego. Small groups within the Village would meet on their own, with larger gatherings organized by a Village leader. Barnett found his man in Chuck Samuelson, the deeply wine-friendly restaurateur who recently sold his two Cuvee restaurants after a ten-year run. "For the last year," says Samuelson, "I've been doing catering and consulting and thinking, 'What's next?' This came along at the perfect time. Wine and food pairing is what I still love to do; that was always the most fun in the restaurant business -- those events, that interaction with the customer."
Samuelson loved the VinVillage concept from the get-go. The Village's three tiers of events, each geared toward a different experience level, matched nicely with his previous work as an ambassador for the grape. "When I had my restaurants, you would see people evolve. They would come as the PB posse; we would call them the 'get drunk and take off your T-shirt' crowd. They just came for the party. But I would talk to them, and they'd start asking, 'How do I learn about wine?' I'd say, 'If you drink it and you like it, then you remember it and look for something similar. That's how you learn.'"
Something as basic as March Merlot Madness would give way to a wine and food pairing: "I'd put out a bunch of cheeses on a buffet and have a bunch of wines. There would be a list of which wines go with which cheeses, but I'd say, 'You need to taste each one and try each one, mix and match and come up with your own choice.'" That, in turn, could lead to sit-down wine dinners, until eventually, you find yourself pulling up a chair at "an exclusive 10- to 15-person wine dinner in someone's home, which is something I still do through my catering company."
His tone is optimistic, but he seems to have earned it. "My experience is that, if it's done right, there are still plenty of customers out there for this sort of thing. What happened was, everybody started doing it, but very few people did it in a way that offered something educational and unique, something other than 'Hey, we've got wine and we've got food, so we're doing a wine-pairing dinner!' The key is to give them something they haven't had before, make sure they learn something, and make sure it's high quality.'"