The cramped room sparkled with the glint of green wine bottles and an impressive collection of wine knick-knacks. Pictures of scenic vineyards and maps of France, Tuscany and California covered what little wall space was available. Cork coasters and paper plates stacked with various cheeses beckoned us to the big table that dominated the room.
Charlie pulled down stemware from a rack on the far wall, turned around and asked, “What do you guys like?”
Our response was a less a chorus than a cacophony: Syrah. Zins. Cabernets. Pinots. Cabs. Merlot. Big cabs. Meritage. Bordeaux.
My wife and I were with a group of strangers who had come to discuss making a barrel of wine at Grape Expectations’ Nevada School of Winemaking. We all knew a little about wine. Or, at least thought we did.
“I think I’m going to like you guys,” I said. The generous pours began.
I also thought I knew a little about friendship. But stepping into Charlie Peters’ office that evening in 2009 not only taught me something about that, it changed my opinion of Las Vegas. It hadn’t been easy meeting other couples our age since moving from L.A. three years earlier. Suddenly, progress by the glass: By the end of the night, there were at least eight empty bottles on the table, and we were hugging 10 former strangers with whom we’d committed to make wine — a nearly yearlong process that requires diplomacy, dedication and lots of decisions.
What kind of grapes should we use? Should it be cabernet sauvignon-dominant or zinfandel-dominant? Should we just do a pinot noir? Or, should we do a meritage and mix together four or five different grapes to appease everyone? What happens if we add a little rosemary to the crush? Or maybe a couple of pounds of blueberries? What do we call our wine? Do we want a sexy label or a clever label or a serious label? Who’s going to design our label? How much is it going to cost? Can we each design our own? Will your sister-in-law who’s a graphic artist in Maryland do a separate label for me if my wife and I don’t like the one that the group picks?
If you’ve ever wanted a real-life lesson in group dynamics, if you want a fun crash course in project management, if you want to turn a group of acquaintances into a team that doesn’t let little disagreements ruin budding friendships — make a barrel of wine with a bunch of strangers. They won’t be strangers for long.
I’ll boldly hypothesize that good friendships make for good wine. Or maybe I just want to brag: Our barrel of barbera/syrah took a bronze medal the following year at Grape Expectations’ annual awards dinner. Of course, not every decision of ours was smooth and unanimous, not every step in the process was a kumbaya. For instance, we couldn’t agree on one name, so we went with two different labels: Hey Barbera, Que Syrah? and No Ordinary B.S. We laugh about such disagreements now — like good friends do.
But I suspect even the occasional bad barrel still produces good bonds. Since that first session, my wife and I have been involved in making more than 20 barrels of wine. Some picked up awards; other elicited polite shrugs. They were, however, all fun to make — and a novel way to get to know a wide cross-section of the people who make up Las Vegas.
Ditch that image of the wine snob with a raised pinkie talking about a charred mineral tannic mid-palate. Winemaking has been one of the most egalitarian, socially equalizing endeavors I’ve been involved in. I’ve met executives and secretaries, tradesmen and entrepreneurs in every group. And in a town where gated subdivisions and around-the-clock work schedules don’t exactly encourage community, making friends is already challenging enough. Doing it while de-stemming and crushing 750 pounds of grapes, or while debating the merits of wine label designs or — best of all — sipping a fresh vintage directly from a new barrel: That’s a different kind of friendmaking I’ll gladly raise my glass to.
Writer Eric James Miller is currently working on an as-yet-unnamed three-year-old barrel of Barolo.