This is not a normal wine tasting, suited older men smiling near dump buckets, quiet murmurs as people swirl their wine glasses around. It’s the Saturday night after Tax Day and bespectacled Michael Daves is playing the hell out of his guitar in the corner, a bluegrass yelp dominating the din of the 50 or 60 people crowded into a Williamsburg loft.
The event comes courtesy of The Noble Rot–not the fungus but the “traveling wine saloon.” It’s a bit like a supper club but with a focus on wine and wine education instead of food–although this time there is food, and some members of pioneering Brooklyn supper clubs Whisk & Ladle and A Razor, A Shiny Knife. Michael Cirino of the latter is joking loudly as he helps The Art of Eating In’s Cathy Erway prepare small Asian bites with Studiofeast’s Mike Lee. Cocktail whiz Mayur Subbarao (Mayahuel, Dram) is off to the side talking to Jean Georges pastry genius Johnny Iuzzini, who just got a few new tattoos. This month’s event isn’t exactly about wine–Monica Samuels from Southern Wine & Spirits has brought six different sakes to pour and talk about, thus the Japanese-inspired menu that includes soy-marinated yellowfin tuna with vinegared onions and minced pork with dashi-braised daikon.
The masterminds behind this all are Brian Quinn and Jonny Cigar. Their first event was a rooftop wine tasting where all of the selections, provided by Cabrini Wines, were priced normally at $10. Recently they held a champagne tasting in a luxury suite at the Waldorf Astoria, complete with formalwear and an indie harpist. The two actually had to sneak everything up in suitcases to avoid hospitality charges and discretely shuttle guests to the room without alerting hotel staff, perhaps the very first case of a guerrilla champagne tasting.
Quinn and Cigar instruct people according to the criteria set in Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World, a kind of oenophile’s bible. The idea is to use social tools as opposed to instruction, asking people what they think they are tasting and have them discuss it with the person next to them instead of telling people what they should be tasting.
“We are very–I don’t want to say Penn & Teller because Brian speaks more than that–but we have a very tongue-in-cheek way of doing things,” says Cigar. “We try to be sarcastic, we try to joke. We try to avoid wine-speak, and we don’t like to dictate to people what they’re tasting.”
They also rely on guest experts like Samuels. She introduces a sweet and smoky sake called Hojyun Biden Yamahai Junmai; a cloudy sake with 21 percent alcohol (this one was very popular) by the name of Murai Family Nigori Genshu; and Katsuyama Genroku Aged Junmai, a brown sake strangely reminiscent of cognac.
She patiently explains how the starch is separated from the protein in grains of sake rice, how creating sake is more like brewing beer than making wine, and how it is not necessarily high in alcohol, although the last lesson is slightly undermined by Cirino’s chants of “Sake bomb!” It is educational, but also has a loose, fun feeling, like being at a house party.
“The key is doing it in private homes, not in a commercial space,” says Brian Quinn. “It just feels special.” The home in this instance is the loft of photographer Joseph Overbey. Quinn and Cigar are able to be nimble when it comes to setting up events in private spaces because they own all of their own wine glasses and don’t need much in the way of other supplies; if they have running water and a lenient landlord, they’re ready to go. Next they’re planning to take it outside, with a wine and barbecue pairing. Hopefully no covert actions will be necessary.