Friday, October 31, 2003

Wine, women and men meet without the pretense

By Maggie Downs
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Maggie Downs

The young professional women were all plunging necklines, sculptured hairstyles and piles of silver jewelry. The men, fresh from a Structure ad, were in anything from velour to business attire. They swished mouthfuls of merlot from plastic cups with the ferocity of a washing machine.

Most, if not all, cared little for the wine's subtle flavors, its pedigree, its palatability.

This was a different kind of wine tasting. One for the beer crowd.

Like most brilliant ideas, this was hatched during a late-night exchange of "what ifs."

The next Bacchanalian Society wine tasting will be 7 p.m. Nov. 13 at the Newport Aquarium. Here's how it works:

• A different type of wine is chosen for each event. This time, it's merlot. Each person will bring three bottles of the same merlot.

• Upon arrival, all three bottles will be given to the hosts, who will wrap two to conceal the wines' identity. The wrapped bottles will have a number randomly assigned to them and will then be set out for tasting. The third bottle will be left unopened and will not be put out for tasting.

• Each person will be given an index card with a number for each wine. They will be rated on a scale of 1 to 5.

• The tasting lasts for two hours. The wine with the highest average score wins. The winner goes home with everyone's third unopened bottle of wine.


Three friends, all 30 years old and all new to Cincinnati, wanted to do something unique. They wanted to become acquainted with people outside their workplaces. And they wanted to meet women, but not in some cheesy "How you doin'?" kind of way.

So Kevin Ghassomian, Ashley Hess and Todd Fisher formed the Bacchanalian Society of Greater Cincinnati, named for Bacchus, the Roman god of wine.

Their first - and what might have been last - wine tasting was held April 2002 at the University Club. Thirty people were expected. More than 60 showed up.

"We literally didn't know if anyone would be there," Hess said. "And then everyone began asking about the next one."

So they had to plan more.

Subsequent tastings, which are now held quarterly, have been at someone's house, the Bankers Club, and Four Seasons Marina.

Since the beginning, the crowd has grown exponentially. Its e-mail list has grown to more than 500.

The majority of attendees are between the ages of 25 and 35. About half are couples. Most have professional careers, like Hess and Ghassomian, both lawyers at Greenebaum, Doll & McDonald, and Fisher, a senior business analyst.

Beyond the fun, the events are good business. Every networking club has an initial spike in membership following a wine tasting.

Now the guys are looking at ways to capitalize on the gatherings. They hope to designate a charity to benefit from their success.

"To have this many young professionals in one place is too ripe an opportunity to waste," Ghassomian said.

But the real beauty of the tastings is that countless relationships - including one engagement - have been kindled. The events foster dialogue, because the design is inherently interactive. People continually move around the room. There's always something to talk about. And, Ghassomian points out, "it's amazing the way wine will loosen your tongue."

"It's not like going to a club or a bar, where things are loud and it's not good for conversation," Fisher said. "It's just food and wine and talking."

It's not snobby or pretentious, either. At these events, the goal is more about conversation than the wine's bouquet or aroma.

That's a relief to the founders.

"When I see something about wine tastings elsewhere, I assume I'm expected to know something about wine," Fisher said. "And, quite frankly, I don't."


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