A sign posted at the entrance to Highland Park Drive says, “Neighborhood Under Construction.” The streets are torn up, so residents are navigating “Montana gumbo” and avoiding potholes. Even in these conditions, the Poet Streets Whine group draws an enthusiastic crowd.
The Poet Streets is a neighborhood north of the Hilands Golf Club. Streets are named for American poets: Longfellow, Irving, Whittier and Emerson. The one exception, Raymond Place, was named for Raymond M. Hart, co-founder of the downtown Hart-Albin department store, which some of us remember fondly.
This month, Susan Nybo hosted the gathering on Highland Park Drive. “This is such a great way to get to know your neighbors and to keep in touch with them,” Susan says.
With the sun finally out after days of rain, everyone is excited to meet on Susan’s patio and enjoy her lovely garden. Neighbors call greetings to one another as they attach their clothespin nametags to their outfits. Each lady pours herself a glass of wine or grabs a bottled water. They savor the chicken skewer appetizers, ham/asparagus roll-ups and veggies. Snippets of conversations can be overheard.
“Do you know who bought the house at the top of the street?” “When do you think the construction will end?” “We’ve never met before; where do you live?” “Could I hire your son to mow my lawn?”
The Poet Streets Whine group has been meeting for about 15 years. Rachel Court brought the idea of a neighborhood wine group with her when she moved to the Poet Streets.
“When my kids were little, I felt I needed to help them get to know their neighbors,” Rachel says. “They knew their moms knew the other moms, and they could feel safe in their neighborhood. Everyone looked out for everyone else’s kids.”
The group includes women from around the Poet Streets neighborhood but also includes a few members from outlying streets. Word of mouth has helped this little group of wine lovers to grow. Invitations are extended to new neighbors so they can feel included right away.
Get-togethers are every month at a neighbor’s home. Although they call themselves a wine (whine) group, not all the women drink wine. And, even though the name suggests it, they do not “whine” much either. This group is an excuse to catch up and get to know each other better. With busy lives, it’s a social connection with the women who live nearby, sharing conversation over a few light hors d’oeuvres.
Kari Kaiser came to the Poet Streets neighborhood nine years ago. “Especially coming from a very small town, being quickly welcomed by the neighborhood wine group made the adjustment easy,” Kari says. Sometimes the group is small, with just a handful of women. Other times, it can swell to 25. The email list is even larger, with almost 75 women getting the details on the next gathering.
Neighbor Judy Senteney says, “There are several women I have met that I never would have.” In fact, during a brief conversation at a recent gathering, she discovered that she and one of her neighbors both went to the same nursing school 50 years ago.
“When your kids leave home, you don’t have the same neighborhood connections through school and sports,” she says. “This gives you a way to keep in touch.” In winter, when neighbors are squirreled away in their homes, coming out for a neighborhood wine group keeps people engaged.
Another wine group in the hospital corridor has been meeting for 22 years every Wednesday evening. It started when the neighborhood gathered to welcome some new neighbors. The men left, the ladies stayed and said, “We should do this again!”
They have decided to include the men in a gathering once a year. This group is small, just six to 10 women. They have brought their kids along over the years and are now bringing the grandkids. Karen Jarussi was one of the originators.
“Our wine group has created a true sense of neighborhood and kids grow up knowing their parents’ friends,” Karen says. “We could send our kids down to 10th Avenue Grocery knowing on each block someone would keep an eye on them.” Kids at school would tell their teacher they were going to “whine playgroup” after school and it would undoubtedly raise some eyebrows.
Neighborhood wine groups ebb and flow. Some ladies come every month, some not for several. But the groups continue because as we transition through life, it is important to foster social connections. Plus, when you’re missing an ingredient mid-recipe, it’s always nice to know where to go for a cup of sugar!
About 15 years ago, I started my own wine group, the Swirl Girls, with friend Cara Schaer. I was studying for my certified wine professional test from the Culinary Institute of America, and before my exam in 2008, the eight of us met every month, tasting and learning for a couple of hours.
Over the years, we’ve become less structured, leaving the format to the discretion of the host. There might be a theme or we might gather at a restaurant or wine bar or we might bring a dish for a potluck. The best part of Swirl Girls is that it brings friends together over wine.
Consider where you’ll host your group
While most people gather in the kitchen, creating a new setup is as simple as setting your glasses, bottles of wine and food in another room.
Pair your wines with food
It is always a good idea to put something in your guests’ stomachs before drinking wine. The general rule is light wines with light food and more weighty wines with heavier comfort foods. You can also consider wine as an ingredient in food for an extra twist.
Try a monthly wine club
Did you know that City Vineyard and Levity in Billings both have monthly wine clubs? Why not gather neighbors or friends to sip these monthly offerings together? Tasting notes usually accompany the wines, which allows you to discuss and learn. What someone else detects in aromas and tastes may open your eyes to nuances you never considered.
Savor the flavors
Is the wine pretty? Is it bright? Swirl to aerate, livening up the aromas. Don’t be shy about sticking your nose in your glass and just experiencing the fragrance. Then taste and note flavors as well as texture. Repeat with each glass!
Try a blind tasting
Dig up old scarves and use them to blindfold your taste testers, or place wines in brown bags and allow each taster to pour and fill out her own tasting notes. You can even use black wine glasses to shield sippers from the color of the wine. Is it a red or white? Can you identify the region? Try Chardonnays from California, France or Australia. Sip Cabernet Sauvignon from Washington, California, Chile and China. Enjoy Rieslings from Germany, Washington, Austria and Australia.
FROM CITY VINEYARD’S ABBY RENO
Langlois Chateau Crémant de Loire Brut, $27
This non-vintage sparkling wine is a blend of 60 percent Chenin blanc, 20 percent Chardonnay and 20 percent Cabernet Franc, creating apple flavors with tangy accents. “This sparkling wine is smooth with a nice lingering finish,” wine group member Sherina McIntyre says.
FROM LEVITY BAR’S DAVID CARPENTER
Conundrum Rosé, $20
The non-vintage wine presents scents of strawberries and white peach in a pretty rose color. Dry refreshing tastes of citrus intermix with floral and berry nuances. “The flavors are subtle,” Carrie La Seur says. “Flavors of cut grass and fresh strawberries. Really fresh.”
FROM BOTTLES AND SHOTS’ TAMMY MURI
19 Crimes, The Banished Red Blend, 2016, $13
Deep dark purple wine with notes of dark berry, chocolate and vanilla. “I love these wines,” says hostess Susan Nybo. “The Banished is smooth and very drinkable.” One additional note about this wine: load the “Living Wine Labels” app onto your phone to experience the stories behind each bottle of 19 Crimes.