Charlie Adler has a woman problem. Adler’s the founder and president of Tasting Society International, a company that organizes wine and food tastings around the D.C. area. His events, of course, are largely themed around wine, although he’s never been terribly successful at keeping attendees on topic.
At a TSI tasting at the Galleria at Lafayette Centre last spring, one would-be aficionado instructed his friends: “I need you guys to line up all the women that you think are appropriate for me.” The talk at a Latin-themed event in late June (dubbed “Last Tango in Argentina: Wine, Dinner & Romance!” on TSI’s e-mail newsletter) was centered less on the flowing Malbec than on, as one fellow taster put it, the “killer babe ratio”—when all was said and done, Adler figures, the women outnumbered the men 3-to-1. At the “Wine 101” tasting I attended last winter, speaker Michael Franz, a wine columnist for the Washington Post, was holding forth on a particular Sauvignon Blanc (“it’s a matter of fruit mimicking sweetness to our taste buds”) when a woman at my table asked, “How many single babes do you suppose are in the room?” (I was the only man at the table.) Some figures were tossed about. The woman announced to the table at large: “I want to propose a toast to chicks who drink wine!”
Adler’s at a loss to explain the gender makeup of his events, much less the behavior of the people who attend them. What he knows is that there are many who don’t consider his particular problem to be a problem at all. “What the guys do is, they show up at the event to see what the ratio is,” he says. “Then they come in. A lot of these guys are buddies of mine, but they don’t want to pay in advance because they’re like, ‘Well, what if it sucks?’ So they come by, they eye it, and they say, ‘Man, this is sweet.’”
Such language isn’t exactly of the type I was expecting to hear at events keyed to one of the most upper-crust-identified products known to man, but, to a large degree, that’s the secret of Adler’s success. The three events I attended were sellouts; the Argentine tasting drew 500 despite the facts that it cost $55 and better than 100 of the people who had prepaid canceled—a result of the event’s being moved from the Argentine Embassy to the Wyndham Hotel on four days’ notice. TSI’s appeal, according to Adler, is that “you can go to any of my events and know nothing about wine, and you won’t feel like you’re in over your head. What drives my events is people wanting to meet other people.”
Adler, who’s 37, freely admits, “I’m no wine expert. I’m a shmoozer. A bullshitter.” He first started throwing parties when he moved to Washington after getting an MBA from Tulane University. He was selling real estate at the time, and he wanted to meet women. So, on the side, he started Charlie Adler Productions and began organizing events for Jewish singles, pegged to themes such as disco, South Beach, or, his personal favorite, the “funkadelic soul explosion.” The shindigs, he says, routinely drew 300.
Two years ago, after Adler dismantled Charlie Adler Productions because of less-than-killer profits, he switched his focus away from Jews. The idea of presenting wine as a shared point of interest for singles is not entirely original. Indeed, Adler was inspired to launch his business after attending an event put on by the Washington Tasting Association, now one of Adler’s competitors. Peter Anastopulos, the wine manager and buyer at Cleveland Park Wine and Liquor, says that when he first started conducting tastings, they were “a total dating society,” forcing him to focus more intensely on the teaching. “I think the bigger events are great,” he says. “But the reason I’m doing this is to promote wine. I’m not a matchmaker.”
There is a genuine educational element to Adler’s tastings. The smaller, sit-down events, like “Wine 101,” are straight lectures. The bigger tastings are set up in banquet-size rooms (or bigger) lined with wine-filled tables, each of them generally devoted to the products of a particular region or country. The people pouring are also the dispensers of information, and their knowledge level varies widely; one guy at the Lafayette event had sippers rapt as he held forth on Rioja, whereas a woman at the Wyndham who set me up with a glass of Merlot couldn’t even pronounce the word.
Adler doesn’t expect oenophiles to leave his parties enriched, so he doesn’t put up a huge fight when people ask for refunds. “You’ve got different kinds of wine people,” he explains, “and the wine snobs don’t interest us. They’re always unhappy. They want to read Wine Spectator, and they want to see wines rated 90 points or higher. Well, they’re not our crowd.”
The occasional unhappy customer is perhaps to be expected, given TSI’s business model. Adler relies solely on volunteers for help, whom he gives free entrance in exchange for their labor. “A lot of people come up and ask all these questions about wine,” says one such pro bono worker, “and, often, we don’t know how to answer them.” The system is somewhat similar to that of fringe-y nightclubs, where employees often work for slave wages for the honor of being part of the scene. When I asked another sweating volunteer, Howard “I Wish It Was Stern” (that’s what he’s written on his name tag), why he bothered giving away his time, he replied, “I get the honor of being a part of the organization and the joy of living life to the fullest.”
There’s no arguing that wine elicits a sensual response; attend any kind of wine-related function, from one of TSI’s to one at an exclusive vineyard in Bordeaux, and you’ll likely hear people rhapsodize about the wine’s nose, its full body, its legs, and how it feels on the tongue. What sets Adler’s tastings apart is that you can often barely see the tasting behind the meat market that’s been erected on its foundation. (A personal favorite among the out-of-nowhere icebreakers directed at me: “Do you like Tom Petty?”)
“All the alcohol makes people less uptight,” Cindy (she wouldn’t give a last name), a frequent attendee, told me at the Wyndham. “And since this isn’t a nightclub, and since the focus is wine instead of techno music or whatever, I don’t feel strange about going up to a guy and asking for a date. The people here are mostly single professionals.” With that, I told Cindy (and this was true) that Netscape-cum-AOL zillionaire Marc Andreessen was in the house. She squealed—”You serious?”—and she was gone.
For reservations to a Tasting Society International Event, call (202) 333-5588. Or go to its Web site: www.tastedc.com.
The beverage of choice at Full Kee, where the party policy is BYOB, is clearly beer. Which makes a certain sense: Is it really appropriate to drink wine in a room with this much fading paint? I’m partial to Full Kee’s Chinese casseroles, and local chefs, who often dine at this Chinatown stalwart after their kitchens close, are partial to its hours of operation. But this time of year, I order the light, ginger-scented steamed whole flounder. And I’ll probably be doing it more often: Now that Golden Palace and Eat First have gone the way of the Edsel, it seems worth supporting one of the only great Chinatown restaurants we have left.
Full Kee, 509 H St. NW, (202) 371-2233. —Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.