They may be called the Wine Brats, but the more than 50 urban cuties gathered at Corks in Federal Hill are extremely cordial.
Maybe it's because Tim Shriver, presiding over the wine table, is a conservative bartender, pouring just enough so the Brats can savor the wine without morning-after embarrassment.
"It's a wine tasting, not a wine drinking," says the wine broker from Baltimore County as he lifts bottles from his copper wine bucket and refreshes glasses with autumn-themed merlots, ports and chardonnays.
The decor in the back room of Corks is what some might call "Tuscan Garage." The soundtrack -- a little soft jazz, a little salsa -- is "elevator music" to some, a call to dance for one tipsy Brat doing a solitary mambo.
Women with wine-colored lipstick (a coincidence?) and meticulous brows unwind with equally well-heeled men.
A collegiate bacchanal it's not, but last week's elegant event left a few reminiscing about those days. Sally Katovsich, 30, and Ann McMillin, 29, from Federal Hill and Debra Vass, 33, from Homeland, mention some memorable intoxicants from their youth: Strawberry Hill, boxed wine. Katovsich, on her third glass, assures that she's "not as big a lush as you think."
Wine Brats was founded in 1993 by California wine family sons Jeff Bundschu, Jon Sebastiani and Mike San Giacomo. Their aim: Uncork the often intimidating world of wine to the younger generation, and tempt them from microbrews to merlot. According to the latest study by the Wine Institute, twentysomethings drink less wine than any other alcoholic beverage.
Recognizing the need to initiate a new class of wine drinkers, the wine industry began funding the Brats in 1996.
"[Wine] has always been marketed to a 40, 50 [age] group," says Gladys Horiuchi, spokeswoman for the Wine Institute in San Francisco. "The Wine Brats want to take the snobbery out of it."
Now, there are 45 Wine Brats chapters throughout the country, involved in events from Wine Raves to barbecues to these kind of informal gatherings at Corks. The Brats pioneers will be in Baltimore in early November to promote their new book.
The Baltimore chapter was founded two years ago by Shriver and Corks co-owners Jerry Pellegrino and Joel Shalowitz. Shalowitz thinks Wine Brats is valuable because "someone will get a wine list and think it's a Frisbee" if they don't know better.
The Baltimore Wine Brats convene the first Tuesday, 10 months a year at Corks. A year membership is $60, or you can pay $10 at the door. Next year, the price will go up to $95 a year, $15 a tasting.
Eighty-five percent of the members are between 24 and 36 years old, according to Joel Quigley, executive director of the Wine Brats national organization. "It seems that at 24, they're tired of kegger parties and shots," he says.
At Corks, the atmosphere is about as anti-frat as it gets.
The mostly late 20s to early 30s crowd who came specifically for the Wine Brats is uniformly upscale, lauding the relaxed environment. Those taken by surprise have a slightly different take.
Graeme Fergusson, 41, in a leather jacket emblazoned with the Tazmanian devil, sits with his back to the Brats, drinking a full glass of Pinot Noir supplied by Corks' bar, not Shriver.
The Federal Hill resident with a thick Scottish accent finds the Brats "amusing."
"They're not annoying me," he says. "I just don't want to talk to them."
But he can't stop them from talking to each other, about trips to Tahoe, summer home shares and, of course, wine.
"I drink a lot of wine, but I wouldn't like to say I know a lot about it," says Theresa Wright, 30, a Mount Washington resident who works for trendy cosmetic company Origins.
If Wright has any questions, all she has to do is turn to Shriver.
"The people who ask learn," Shriver says. "Some people just want to get a buzz and talk to their friends."
One lesson learned last week was the importance of sequential sipping. Shriver is not the wine world's answer to the Soup Nazi, but he would prefer it if you'd drink the five wines he has arranged in the appropriate order.
Each wine is supposed to enhance the taste of the next one. Start with a sweet dessert wine, like the port on the end, and you'll confuse the palate, Shriver says.
"You don't want to even try the white?" he asks a Brat who is daring to buck the system.
Yes, learning about and appreciating wine are the prime directives of the Wine Brats. But who can deny that the mix of alcohol and attractive young professionals is a vintage opportunity to make a love connection? "It's just a wine tasting, it's not a meat market," says Matt Neuberger, a 34-year-old stockbroker from Canton.
Still, the occasional flirt intrudes, or rather, introduces himself. Robin Norton, 35, from Roland Park, describes the meeting as "an upscale singles event" that may yield a few phone numbers if a guy happens to be "a chick magnet." He estimates his buddy David Rever has made 15 or 20 new friends tonight.
Currently, the 38-year-old dentist is chatting up an attentive brunette as Norton sits quietly at the bar.
"Generally, people are not going to talk to you," Rever says. "If you want to meet new people, you can't be shy."
And a little wine never hurt, either.
The next meeting of the local Wine Brats is Nov. 2 at 8 p.m. at Corks, 1026 S. Charles St. For more information, call Tim Shriver at 410-337-9463 or visit the Wine Brats Web site at www.winebrats.org.
Pub Date: 10/11/99