I'm sitting in the living room of my friend's home, where she's gathered a small group of friends for a wine tasting. Betty Kaufman is pouring a sparkling wine. While my friend is the host for the evening, Betty is our wine guide and will be taking us through five wines, all paired with a small bite. But she's not a sommelier and doesn't work for a winery. Betty is an Independent Consultant for WineShop At Home, a company with a mission to take the intimidation out of learning about wine and the wine buying experience by holding a casual tasting in the comfort of people's homes. Think of it as a Tupperware party for wine. Yes there is a sales pitch, but it's a soft sell. You get to try before you buy. No one is judging your knowledge about wine or what you're tasting in the glass. It's all about being in a relaxed atmosphere that encourages enjoying wine rather than analyzing it.
Betty joined WineShop At Home several years ago after being laid off from a high-tech job in Silicon Valley. "I decided that was the perfect opportunity to pursue my passion. I wanted an entrepreneurial position in the wine world," she says. "When I came across WineShop At Home, I found my home." The company was launched in the mid 1990's first as an internet company selling wine. Now WineShop At Home is direct to consumer through in-home wine tastings, and produces its own wine brands under the direction of a head winemaker in Napa Valley. Alex Reble has made wine in both his native France and in California at wineries, such as Beringer, Newton Vineyards, Flora Springs and Silver Oak. The wine portfolio consists of sparkling, white and red wines, mostly from California, but also from Bordeaux, Chile and Argentina. The wines are limited in production and once they sell out they are gone. WineShop At Home has approximately 6,000 members in its wine club, all people who attended at least one in-home tasting. There are more than 2,500 Independent Wine Consultants across the country in 31 states and Washington D.C.
Back to our tasting. Betty brought five wines, a sparkling wine, a white blend with mostly Viognier, a Merlot, a Rhone blend and a Malbec. Each of us has a wine tasting guide sheet that has a list of flavors and aromas and space to make notes about the wine. As we taste the wines, Betty talks about them, and tells us about the food pairing. The sparkling for example is good with sushi. The Malbec works with blue cheese and smoked almonds.
After about 90 minutes, we've tasted all the wine and food. Now it's time to shop. The price range runs from $17 for the white blend to $30 for the Malbec; most wines are around $24 (shipping is additional). You can order just one bottle, a half case or case, or join the wine club to get shipments of wine on a regular basis. You can host a wine tasting in your own home too. Being a host requires you to pay for the wine sampler that you'll be using in the tasting, which costs $29.95 plus tax and shipping. You invite the guests, up to 12 people max, and provide food, or you can ask your guests to bring a dish. Some hosts ask their friends to chip in for the sampler fee. Hosts also get special discounts and other goodies for holding the tasting.
You can also become a wine consultant for WineShop At Home. Betty says, "people will say, 'what you do looks like a ton of fun, can I do it too?'" Some consultants do this as a full time job, others as a supplement to current income, or just for fun and to learn more about wine. Betty tells me that to help her and other consultants keep up with what's going on in the wine world that there are training programs, a national convention and leadership seminars. Winemakers provide information on new wines in tasting notes and online videos.
Everyone at our tasting enjoyed the wines and had a fun, relaxing time learning and trying new things. The nice thing is that there is no hard sell here. I didn't buy a thing. Betty says her number one goal is to help people have more fun with wine. Her second goal is "to give people an opportunity to try great wine before they buy it. In the wine stores you don't have that opportunity. It's all guesswork." She's right about that. As more and more wine brands hit the shelves, having a personal guide in your own home, introducing you to wines you might not try on your own, is worth checking out.