Fruit of the vine: Wine tasting club in its 11th year in Luverne
"Wine is one of the most civilized things in the world and one of the most natural things of the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection, and it offers a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation than, possibly, any other purely sensory thing."
-- Ernest Hemingway, "Death in the Afternoon"
LUVERNE -- The tables are covered with pristine white tablecloths. Wine glasses -- real glass -- await filling. An artful buffet of fruit, cheese and crackers is arranged at one end of the room.
It sounds like the setting for a fancy reception, but on this Thursday evening the room at the Blue Mound Banquet Center in Luverne is decked out in preparation for a meeting of the Blue Mound Wine Tasting Club. This organization, which now regularly boasts more than 100 members per event, invites wine connoisseurs and novices alike to taste a variety of wines and expand their palates and knowledge of wine.
Last November, the club celebrated its 10th anniversary. It now draws people from more than a 30-mile radius of Luverne.
"It's an idea that I came back with from a Minnesota Municipal Beverage Association meeting in Montevideo," related Rich DeSchepper, manager of Blue Mound Liquor in Luverne. "The manager from Herman, Sally Larson, talked about the wine sampling that they'd started up there."
DeSchepper sent his assistant manager, Christy Hess, to Herman to observe how the wine tasting club operated, and Christy came back brimming with ideas about how it could be replicated in Luverne.
"We had 19 people at the first one," Hess recalled. "Now we're over 100. ... That was always my goal -- the 100 mark. It's just amazing what we've grown into."
"I didn't realize how big it would get," added DeSchepper. "We started out at the Coffey Haus (in downtown Luverne) with a small amount of people, and now, at the 10th anniversary in November, we had 130 people."
The club generally meets six times a year: March, April and September through December, taking the summer and harsh winter months off. Each meeting entails quite a bit of prep work -- lining up a wine representative to provide the samplings, getting all the food ready, setting all the tables and coming up with a seating arrangement.
"Rich and I are a good team," said Hess. "We go the night before and get it all set up, then the next night all we have to do is fill the water glasses and pitchers, and I start doing the crackers and breads. We have our own little system, and it works."
Each meeting follows the same general format: Members arrive and are seated at their designated tables. They go through the buffet to fill plates with crackers, cheese and fruits -- foods that will both complement the various wines and cleanse the palate between samples.
Then the sampling begins.
"We have a wine rep come in, and they get to choose six to eight wines," Hess detailed. "They talk about the descriptions of each wine, give a little history on the wineries and the food pairings."
The members are provided with informational sheets about the wines and are able to make notes on the ones they like. At the end of the evening, they can order any of the wines at a discount. While selling wines is a bonus for the liquor store, it's not the main purpose of the club.
"We're looking to educate people and for them to have an enjoyable evening," stressed Hess. "It's a fun night -- bring your spouse, bring your friends, have an enjoyable evening and learn something about the wine."
"People really enjoy coming out and doing it and having the chance to sample different wines," concurred DeSchepper. "Throughout the year, we have to make room for 40 to 50 new wines in the store, so something has to go out to bring in new ones. We have learned a lot in the process."
Prior to the wine club, Hess' own wine experiences were limited to sweet wines served at holiday family gatherings. Now, she can talk knowledgeably about the various wine regions and varietals. And she's noticed that the club's membership, overall, has expanded its horizons, too.
"We used to be a fairly sweet group," she noted. "Now, everyone is willing to try some of the other wines, the chardonnays and the cabs and the merlots. Prior to wine club, we probably wouldn't have sold those."
Shawn Hustoft of Luverne has been a member of the wine tasting club for about six years, and she tries not to miss any of the events.
"I did have an interest in wine, but this really sparked my interest more," she said. "It's a way to try wines without guessing."
While Shawn often goes with the same group of friends, she also tries to invite new people to the wine tasting club.
"It's a good way to get together with friends and a fun and easy way to learn about wine from reputable wine reps, learn about the taste and the grapes -- where they come from," she said. "... What I've learned from some of the wine reps is the more you taste and the more you try, the more your palate does learn to like the drier wines."
Hustoft's enthusiasm for the Blue Mound Wine Tasting Club resulted in the creation of a Facebook fan site for the organization, which she administers, and her group of friends is contemplating getting together for a wine tasting on a regular basis during the club's off months.
"It would be a sisterhood of traveling wine glasses," she said with a laugh. "If we do that, everybody has to bring a wine that they haven't had yet, and maybe we'll keep a wine journal, write down things that happen that night."
Due to scheduling conflicts, the April meeting has been cancelled. Blue Mound Wine Tasting Club will resume again in September. For more information, contact Blue Mound Liquor, (507) 449-5052; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.