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When it comes to opportunities to try new wines, Washington, D.C., suffers from an embarrassment of riches. If one were to attend all the various tastings, festivals, and dinners held by private wine organizations, embassies, wine shops, and restaurants, biweekly professional teeth whitening would be required. Given the sheer number of events and their generally not insubstantial cost, I have sacrificed my personal enamel and attended enough events to develop some general rules for choosing which are truly worthwhile. (Read next month for advice on what to do once you select an event and are ready to imbibe.) My general test for selecting a tasting is simple — the event must meet at least two of the following five criteria. After that, the more criteria met, the more likely the event will be an enjoyable and valuable experience. First (and this is a necessary condition), does the event have wines that you actually want to taste? If not, you can probably drink something you would enjoy at home for a lot less money. On the downside, you may be drinking alone at home (not necessarily a sign of a problem, but generally not a good thing). On the plus side, you’ll save on cab fare. While I won’t Duly Criticize, Wh INE, and EXPOse any specific event as wanting in this category, they clearly exist and should be avoided like white wine spritzers. Second, does the event offer you the chance to taste wines that you will likely never try otherwise? Who hasn’t wanted to swill Dom Perignon or Château Latour? One wine shop in town sponsors a biannual holiday champagne tasting. I really like champagne, but it’s unlikely that I would ever independently try more than a dozen of the 75 or so wines they were pouring that night. (Dom, for example, was about middle of the road.) Given that I probably drank the admission price (around $100) in sheer volume, I could easily rationalize the lofty price tag as a good value. Similarly, Wine Spectator magazine sponsors an event every year called the Grand Tour, where more than 200 wineries show their best (and very highly rated) wines in various cities. This year, the tastings were held in Las Vegas, Chicago, and Atlantic City, N.J. Even the most devoted oenophile would have had a tough time tasting a quarter of what was available. Third, will the event teach you something about wine? Interested in learning about a specific grape or region? Many events give you the opportunity to try numerous examples of wines made from a single varietal or from a single place. You might actually learn how Lodi and Paso Robles zinfandels differ. Even if you don’t really care how they differ, it’s still pretty neat to try a bunch and figure out that you can discern a distinction. Fourth, does the event offer you the chance to purchase wines at a discount? It’s always nice to save a little scratch, and some tastings allow you to walk around with an order sheet and decide what to buy (at a savings) while you taste. Be warned, however, that alcohol has been known to lower fiscal inhibitions, and while the case of Brunello di Montalcino may sound good at the time, you might want to make a mortgage payment instead. Other events encourage you to sample wines still maturing in the barrel and pre-order them at a substantial discount for pickup upon release. Ordering wines as “futures” comes with some risk, since you can never know how the final wine will turn out. But if you go with a well-known producer, this risk may be small and offset by the discount off the retail price. Finally, does the event offer something else that makes it worthwhile? Along those lines, some tastings provide fabulous food. The New Zealand Embassy shucks acres of oysters. Not to be outdone, the Australian Embassy, at a tasting last year, was serving kangaroo balls. I assume (read: really hope) they meant kangaroo meatballs. Other events may feature special entertainment or donate the proceeds to charity. Still others cater to singles. If you don’t mind trying to pick up men or women who have had a drink or two, go for it. In the end, remember that this test should only be used as a rule of thumb. You may not know whether you will like the wines of Uruguay or South Africa or Amador County, but if the price is right, why not be a bit adventurous? After all, the best way to develop a knowledgeable palate is to explore the range of wines out there. Even blueberry wine from Maryland (and there should be a law against that) may bring to your attention exactly what you don’t like in a wine. With the multitude of events available, you can certainly find some that suit your personal preferences.
Phillip Dubé is an attorney at D.C.’s Covington & Burling.

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