Now that another year is in the books, I’ve started reflecting on the wines of 2016. Which wines did I love? Which ones was I not a fan of? Did I fall in love with any new grapes or regions? Did I learn as much as I wanted to? I read about wine and study contemporary trends from around the country, and wonder how they would be received in Shreveport-Bossier City. I wonder if we are drinking the same wines and varietals we were 10 years ago. Maybe it’s not considered a rut, but maybe we could branch out this year. I’d like to challenge everyone that is interested in wine to learn more this year by starting a tasting group.

Tasting groups are fun. They are a structured environment for the actual learning about a subject a lot of good folks know they enjoy but don’t know why. Do you know why you like Pinot Noir from California but you really don’t like Pinot Noir from Oregon? Is it difficult to describe what you like about the wine in your glass besides saying, “It just tastes good?” Tasting wine and talking about it with other passionate people is how we learn. Sometimes you need a sounding board to bounce those flavors and nuances off of. So the real question is: Is a tasting group for you?

Truly, before you get into one of these groups it’s important to know that you actually want to “study” wine with people instead of creating a drinking group. I love a good happy hour romp as much as the next person but everyone in the tasting group has to take it as seriously as the next person. It’s a place for learning. Sommeliers and other wine professionals use these groups to constantly progress their expertise. In most professional ones, if you miss a meet or show up unprepared, you won’t be invited back. Since we are mainly focusing on a causal group, that shouldn’t be an issue. Just be sure to come wanting to learn, not venting about a less than perfect day at the office. So, on to the meat and potatoes of it. Here’s what to do.

It’s actually pretty simple. First, you need to pick a region of study. It’s best to steer clear of France and Italy starting out. They are so big and have so many specifics it’s hard to get a strong grip on their wines without a lot of background. I’d say choose a region like Australia, Spain or Columbia Valley, Wa. Once you’ve picked your starting point, you’ll need to research which varietals grow the best there and what they are famous for. Any notable producers? What is a regional cuisine that is usually paired with the wine? When you find that information, head to your local wine shop and start shopping. The research is part of the learning and an educated wino in a shop can help direct you on what to get while staying within your budget. Usually, a tasting group requires everyone that comes to throw in some cash or bring a unique bottle. Regionally specific wines, once you are in France or the heart of Napa Valley, can get a little pricey but if everyone is sharing the bill it won’t put a dent in the Pinto payment. Now you can taste, discuss the wines and compare grapes to grapes and see what you enjoy. When meeting with the group, always bring a notebook to write down tasting notes.

With your group established, you can set meetings once a month or to whichever frequency works best for everyone. You can even make it a dinner thing with pairings. Tasting groups are a fun way to fellowship with friends and a painless way to study an area of interest that can be quite daunting. Who knows? Maybe one day it will even grow into a group that travels to wineries together. Group rates are always better after all.

Judd Smith is a local wine enthusiast who also works as Cadre Hospitality Group’s beverage director. To read more from Smith, check out his blog at www.BeardandBarrelBlog.com.