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Wednesday, October 24, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Food

Wine Brats, with a growing membership in Seattle, toast the demise of elitist tastings

Seattle Times staff reporter

They sniffed, they swirled, they sipped. They also sampled appetizers prepared by Seattle chefs at four of the city's best restaurants, all for $35 apiece.

It was a lesson in food-and-wine pairing, a taste-for-yourself evening to experience how a slightly sweet vintage can quell a spiced chicken-induced inferno, how a perfectly good viognier can turn acidic with poached peach soufflé.

Taking notes were the Wine Brats, a group of mostly GenX professionals who get together monthly for themed tastings, winery-get-a-ways and other events exalting the diverse manifestations of the fermented grape.

Born in California's Sonoma County back in '93 and launched nationally in '96, Wine Brats now has chapters in 32 cities with an e-mail list 40,000 strong. What began in Seattle as a small group of friends, meeting in living rooms and on back decks, has exploded — largely through word-of-mouth — into a membership pushing upward of 500.

The goal: to offer a younger generation affordable access to the world of wine without the oft-intimidating elitism of old school gastronomes.

"It's not the raised pinky finger, snooty kind of wine group," said Lynne Reynolds, 35, an IT specialist with Weyerhaeuser. "We're all learning at the same time so it's not so sophisticated that you're made to feel outclassed."

Sitting at a linen-covered table in the back dining room at 96 Union, the first stop on the Brats' recent four-restaurant progressive dinner, Reynolds and friend Robin Daily, 34, ticked off the reasons they keep coming back: First, there's no joining fee or membership dues — you pay only for the events you attend (cost: $15 to $35 a person), provided of course you sign-up in time since most affairs can only accommodate 30 to 70 people. Learning and socializing go hand-in-hand. Being a Wine Brat means you get to try all kinds of wine: "It's a way to explore without buying an entire bottle, which can be great or can be crap if you buy sight-unseen" said Reynolds. Then there's the thrill of discovering a great vintage — whether "it's the wine you drink just-because-it's-Thursday or the wine you hold back for special occasions," said Daily, who works in bakery sales.

From 96 Union, the group split in two, half heading to Fleming's Steakhouse for seared scallops, the others going to Sazerac for Creole shrimp cakes.

A chance to connect

At Fleming's, Jack and Kay Nuen, both in their late 50s, sat at a window table with Catherine Gwilliam, 32, who came alone because her friends didn't register in time, Nicole Good, 25, and Tim Kearns, 28 — she's from Arkansas and he's from Oregon — who realized the Brats' event coincided with their business trips to Seattle. For the rest of the night, the group was inseparable.

"This is the first one we've been to and we kind of knew we'd be the senior citizens here," joked Jack Nuen. "But we're having a ball. We just met these fun people and for the two of us, we get to try four restaurants and eight wines for $70. How in the world could you do that by yourself?"

Gwilliam is the Wine Brats veteran at the table with three or four events under her belt. She grew up with wine — in California and Oregon, and later, living in Europe and visiting South Africa.

"It's more than wine — it's the culture, the architecture, the setting. It's like art or going to a museum," said the project manager. "I know what makes a good syrah or merlot but I'm always looking for new labels or varietals I like."

Knowing what you like and wanting to experiment is about all you need to get into wine, said Joel Quigley, the Wine Brats' national executive director.

"Starbucks was the greatest thing to ever happen to the wine industry," said Quigley, drawing parallels between coffee's flavors and appellations to those of wine. "I grew up with Folgers but now, there's a whole generation that's grown up knowing all the things that make coffee taste different."

Overcoming obstacles

But American attitudes about alcohol coupled with the perception that wine appreciation is the mysterious past-time of the rich 'n' famous are the cultural obstacles Wine Brats tries to scale.

"In Europe, wine is demystified — it's an every day beverage, it's what you drink with lunch," Quigley said from the Brats' headquarters in Santa Rosa, Calif. "There's no cultural foundation here and American teenagers aren't taught to drink responsibly at the dinner table. Here, alcohol is seen as a right of passage — when you turn 21, it's all about getting drunk, doing shots and kegger parties."

The Brats' Seattle chapter has a huge advantage since the Emerald City is considered the gateway to Washington wine country, Quigley said. But the industry overall needs to do more to counter the "closed culture" its created, especially if its going to attract new wine drinkers, he said.

Getting over the intimidation factor is the best way to learn to love wine, according to local Wine Brats.

"This is the opposite end of the spectrum compared to when we went to a sangria party in Kirkland and ate Mexican food," said Andy Commons, who was with Erin Moreland.

"Some events are very formal, others are very informative," said Moreland, 26. In the Georgian Room at the Four Seasons Hotel, the two groups reconvened for the last stop of the night.

There, they were treated to poached peach soufflé — and probably the best example of how the wrong wine can destroy while the right wine, in this case a 1999 California Muscat, can enhance the flavor of food. As waiters drizzled cream over the fluffy desserts, the Brats fell silent in a moment of sweet appreciation.

Getting involved

The next Wine Brats event is the group's second annual Halloween Merlot Masquerade on Oct. 31 at The Big Picture, 2505 First Ave., Seattle. Participants are asked to bring a disguised bottle of merlot for a blind taste test: there'll be pizza and scary movies in the main theater and in a separate room, the World Series will be on TV.

Tickets are $27 in advance and $30 at the door. You can order online, or contact Lori Randall at 206-326-5466 or Kate Mitchell at kate-mitchell65@hotmail.com for more information.

To join Wine Brats, fill out the online survey at www.winebrats.org.

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