When Andy Hale was a restaurant sommelier studying for rigorous exams to achieve higher certifications, he and a buddy doing the same honed their skills by staging blind tastings after work. “We would pop the cork on a couple of bottles and challenge each other to figure out what they were,” he says. “If we got it right, we’d drink the rest of the bottle to celebrate. If we got it wrong, we’d drink the rest of the bottle to drown our shame. It was fun either way.”
Hale, now the director of the Asheville School of Wine at Metro Wines, thought people interested in wine would enjoy what he calls an “educational drinking game,” so he founded the Blind Tasting League. Before COVID-19, as many as 30 people gathered monthly in the classroom at Metro Wines to sniff, eyeball and taste their way through two unknown whites and two reds to deduce climate, grape variety or blend and whether they were Old World or New World, then reach conclusions and make a guess.
On Wednesday, Aug. 19, at 5:30 p.m., Hale takes the BTL where no tasting has gone before, making his Facebook Live debut with a guided event where participants can play aspiring sommelier in the privacy of their own homes. Two wines — one red, one white — will be available for tasters to buy in advance at Metro Wines, wrapped in bags, no peeking. Accompanying printed materials can be downloaded from the BTL blog (avl.mx/7×5), site of an amusing introductory video by Hale. “We try hard to be anti-wine-snob,” he says reassuringly.
The free virtual tastings (the wines cost about $20 each) require no RSVP and will be held the third Wednesday of each month.
Grab a glass
No guessing games are involved with Sierra Nevada’s free virtual beer tastings presented every Friday at 5 p.m. via Zoom. “We miss seeing people, and this is a way to keep that connection going,” says Amy Ebling, tour supervisor at the brewery’s Mills River location, which remains fully closed to the public.
Reservations are required (avl.mx/7×6) in order to receive the link to join in; participants will also be told which beers will be tasted and discussed so they can purchase and chill the selections in advance of the 45-minute primer. Ebling or tour coordinator Ashly White will welcome Zoomers, then introduce certified tour guide Mason Ward, who will weave stories from Sierra Nevada’s 40-year history throughout the tastings along with details about four or five styles of beer. Ebling recommends having a glass on hand. “So much of what we perceive as taste is also smell, so when you pour it in a glass, you’ll get more sensory components.”
Local beer, wine, cider and cheese are explored in the virtual paired tastings that have replaced the live events conducted by Katie Moore, executive director of the WNC Cheese Trail, which hosts the annual Carolina Mountain Cheese Fest. “The tastings and pairings were one of the main ways we kept the trail and our member businesses alive in people’s minds through the year,” she says. “We wanted to figure out a way to do that when we can’t gather in person.”
Tickets to Moore’s online pairings include a kit for two that must be picked up in advance of the hour-long event. The first on June 15 was a wine-and-cheese collaboration with plēb urban winery; on Aug. 13, the second explored beer and cheese was with Blue Ghost Brewing. The third, which takes place Thursday, Aug. 27, with TreeRock Social Cider House, will feature two ciders, one mead, three local cheeses, crackers, olives and nuts for $35 (avl.mx/7×7).
“The beverage makers talk about their product, and I talk about the cheeses,” Moore explains. “We do a little Q&A at the end and record them for people who buy tickets but can’t make the set time. It’s been fun and successful, so we plan to keep doing them.”