A multi-glass drinking session that begins 11 a.m. on a Sunday usually marks the beginning of some kind of debauchery-filled "Funday." But for a select group of restaurant professionals, Sunday-morning drinking can be serious business.
That business involves tasting, evaluating and identifying at least six wines — all tasted blind.
"I've been hosting these every Sunday for nearly eight years," says John Wabeck, Spoon's beverage director.
Wabeck started the tastings while he lived in Washington, D.C.; he brought the concept with him when he moved to Pittsburgh last year. The tastings are designed to enhance the city's wine knowledge, and to prepare sommeliers to advance further in the rigorous Court of Master Sommeliers examinations.
In a town that's not well known for its wine culture, this is a very good thing.
The group averages six to eight participants. On the morning I visited, there were people from Spoon, Legume, Dish, Allegheny Wine Mixer and Rolling Rock Club. After some playful banter, the mood quickly becomes serious.
"There are a lot of people that want this to be an art," but it's actually more like a science, Wabeck says as he instructs the less-experienced members how to define a wine. He then reminds the more experienced participants what to look for. Each wine can be broken down into its component parts: sight, nose and palate.
First, three white wines are analyzed, followed by three reds. Group members look, sniff, taste and (sometimes) spit. There's an elaborate "tasting grid" to fill in, and Wabeck encourages everyone not to leave any blanks. Despite the catchy beat of a rocksteady soundtrack, the atmosphere is academic, focused, even a little intimidating.
At the end of each round, someone volunteers to share his or her analysis of a wine. Accuracy is important, but learning from one's mistakes — and from Wabeck and the rest of the group — is the real goal.
Or as Spoon's Heather Perkins puts it, "Mornings like this help us provide better service to our customers."