Wining and refining

May 25, 2005 at 12:00 am

Suffice it to say, there are members of metro Detroit’s African-American community who would not consider wine tasting a common activity in urban enclaves.

That might be changing.

The Mahogany Tasters is a group of Detroit area oenophiles looking to bring wine education to the African-American community. It was formed last year after the African-American Wine Tasters Society, a national host organization, folded.

Mahogany currently has a series of wine tasting events going on in different locations. The most recent was held May 21, at the Meetery Eatery, located in the Park Shelton apartment building in Detroit. The location of a June 24 tasting will be announced on the group’s Web site,

According to Angela Sikes, vice president of the Mahogany Tasters, most people, regardless of color, drink wine without having much “wine education.”

“It’s about knowing what you’re drinking,” Sikes says. “It’s about the basics of taste, what to look for in a good wine. And the myths, like expense. Not all good wines are expensive.”

Detroit Free Press wine critic Chris Kassel hosted another recent Tasters event at the Hotel St. Regis (events tend to take place monthly). The fairly elegant and relaxed affairs are more programmed than one might imagine. Mahogany prefers it that way, because it helps to avoid the perception that patrons are coming to a drink-off. Past host locations have included places like Harlequin Café in West Village, and the now-defunct Julian Scott clothing store.

During the tasting at the St. Regis, patrons sit at tables while a jazz duo provides entertainment. Chuck Jackson, the group’s president, addresses the group, indicating that the thrust of the evening is not so much wine tasting, but wine education.

Kassel explains this to the group in an introductory talk that focuses on learning how to distinguish different wines.

The seated folks are encouraged to stick their noses in their glasses and take deep sniffs. This allows them to smell more than just the base alcoholic scent that wine gives off. The deep draw, surprisingly, offers floral aromas, and hints of apricot and honey.

The education continues with tips on how to tell a wine’s age. White wines get darker over time. Reds get lighter. Then the tasting begins. Glasses with small tastes are passed to each table. Chardonnays and other varietals first, then blends. Choose the one you like best for dinner, best for brunch, whatever floats your boat.

Tonight, the group is tasting wines from the KWV winery, in South Africa. The New York distributor that donated the spirits, 57 Main Street, is also an African-American company owned by Peter Morales. Vendors usually donate the drinks as a write-off.

Considering Detroit’s normal social fare consists largely of nightclubs, movies and restaurants, the event has an aristocratic air, and it’s not a stretch to imagine that it might feel atypical for African-Americans who usually associate wine, beer or a good glass of Henny (read: Hennessy) with a good buzz. Those in attendance range from the elegantly dressed to the casual. Many appear to be there for the first time.

Sikes says Mahogany moves away from stereotypical uses for wine, and reaches specifically for an African-American audience. However, the group does not exclude non-African-Americans who may be interested in membership.

“Our audience is probably 35 to 50 years of age, educated. You know, post-grad, upper-income — they want to be in know. They like the finer things, and have an affluent attitude,” Sikes says.

Affluent attitude or not, Mahogany’s patrons are not above cultural assimilation. At a tasting at the Harlequin last year, a visitor asked the group’s advice on which wine goes best with greens.

The wine is a hit tonight. And though the thrust is education and not inebriation, multiple tastes are bound to take their toll. The crowd eventually begins to loosen up. Keisha Ferguson, the group’s treasurer, giggles when describing her preference for sweeter wines. For this group, wine tasting is a cool way to have fun, to be social and to be controlled.

The Mahogany Tasters have a partnership with Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Ferguson says the relationship represents an effort to promote responsible consumption. MADD is available to provide rides to patrons in need, and other services and information as needed. Fortunately, its services have not been needed yet.

“This was a different experience,” Mary Wells, a Detroit resident, says. “Sampling dry and sweet wine, and learning about the different types you have with different foods. I would come back.”

Khary Kimani Turner is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]