Allen R. Balik: Inside a Tasting club

Allen R. Balik: Inside a Tasting club

From the time I became seriously interested in wine (following my initial trip to Napa Valley in 1979) I have participated in many different tasting groups.

Some were rather informal — just a group of friends gathering from time to time to enjoy some new experiences and vinous discoveries — while others showcased famous wines from celebrated collections and meals prepared by notable chefs.

Happy friends having fun outdoors - Young people enjoying harvest time together at farmhouse vineyard countryside - Youth and friendship concept - Focus on hands toasting wine glasses with sun flare


While each group projected its own personality, the common link between the members was always a passion for wine and the desire to learn something new. My appreciation for these many varied groups (and all the wine loving people I’ve been fortunate to meet through them) was brought into clear perspective a few weeks ago when my wife Barbara and I returned to L.A. for the annual Cheers Zin BBQ at the Encino home of friends Helene and Jon Dobrer.

I have been a member of the Cheers wine group for more than 25 years. Unfortunately, my irregular travels to the L.A. area no longer allow me the benefit of attending the weekly tastings on Friday afternoons. But through our common bond I’ve managed to remain close with all the members and make it a point to at least attend the annual Zin BBQ where we all bring a bottle (or two or more) of a great zinfandel spanning many vintages, vineyards and producers.

Cheers was originally founded about 30 years ago by a small group of wine loving comrades as a way of assisting our good friend Marty Petersil of Flask Liquor in his buying decisions. They met Friday afternoons in the back office of Flask. But as the group expanded, the venue was changed to a nearby restaurant with the members enjoying small bites along with their own bottles of wine that were served blind.

Even after Marty passed away several years ago, the tradition continues with the original and longtime members (about a dozen in all) still active.

At this year’s Zin BBQ, I was struck once again by the camaraderie of old friends gathering around a shared passion and the growing presence of the next generation. Each year, more of our sons and daughters join us for a fun evening with great food and some terrific wines indicating the tradition of Cheers and the Zin BBQ will continue with new energy and younger palates.

While our move to Napa 15 years ago was rewarding on so many levels, I really missed my regular Friday afternoon “fix” at the Cheers tasting. Ten or 12 friends gathering for an hour or so blind tasting special wines and laboring successfully and (mostly) unsuccessfully to identify them was always a fulfilling experience. Each week, we expanded our knowledge and tested the boundaries of our senses in a very relaxed atmosphere.

Closeup shot of wineshelf. Bottles lay over straw.


So in 2005, talking about tasting groups over dinner with Louise and Bob Dye (formerly owners of Charnu in St. Helena), we decided to gather a few friends from the wine industry to start a couples group of our own in Napa Valley.

We formed Cork & Baggers as a bi-monthly tasting group that meets the private room at Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen in St. Helena.

Over the years, our group has grown to about 18 people with each couple taking a turn selecting a category of wines (served blind) for each of us to bring and a menu of coordinated pairing bites to savor for the evening. The range of wines chosen over the years (expertly chronicled by Louise) has challenged the imagination and fostered long-lasting friendships.

If you’ve ever thought about expanding your vinous horizons beyond just sharing a special bottle with friends over dinner, you should consider forming a tasting club and letting it develop its own personality. The rewards will extend beyond your imagination.

My September column—“Another look at terroir”—generated several interesting opinions and questions.

Pablo—Your discussion of “terroir” is timely and interesting, but I am wondering about your reference to “international” winemaking trends “overriding expression of terroir.” I question this correlation; why would one preclude the other?

The commonly accepted aspect of terroir involves the total environment surrounding the vine and denoting a specificity of place. While the concept of the international style (attributed by many to wine critics’ influence) is based on wines from various regions around the world sharing similar flavors and characteristics. One may not preclude the other but they certainly differ on many levels.

Share your experiences with other readers by commenting on this article at or email me at


Allen Balik has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 35 years. Each year, he and his wife, Barbara, produce the Evening Of The Culinary Winemasters event at Warner Bros. Studios, a benefit for Cystic Fibrosis.
He regularly appears on CRN Digital Talk Radio’s What’s Cookin’ and What’s Cookin’ on Wine programs.

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