Wine Brats

They're young! They're rich! They'll drink anything!

Despite a driving rain, 50 or so healthy specimens of young professional confidently saunter into the Za Stop pizza parlor South of Market. Tables laden with stem-ware and white plastic buckets await them.

The room fills with that unmistakable strain of prominent chins, noses, and foreheads achieved only through the careful breeding of good stock. There are more women than men, traveling in twos and threes, out for a few laughs with the gal pals. They're not here solely to meet a nice, well-off guy with a sensitive palate and sunny live-work loft. But you never know.

Most in this blinding white crowd have already cleared the preliminary hurdles of young adulthood -- a 401(k), a four-wheel drive, that first cappuccino machine. Now they can afford to fret and fuss over another accelerated lifestyle accessory: wine.

They have come with their Palm Pilots and pressed jeans to the January gathering of the San Francisco chapter of Wine Brats, a nonprofit group founded by the twentysomething sons of Northern California winery owners. Bankrolled by some of the state's biggest vintners, Wine Brats is the industry's bid to make lifetime customers out of young adults -- a sort of freshman orientation for the oenologically challenged.

For 10 bucks a meeting, the Brats get to sample several vintages, listen to a winemaker extol each bottle, and soak it all up with a five-course meal. On this night, the line backs out the door, delayed when one young woman needs change for a crisp $100 bill.

Once everyone is seated, Tammy Dubose addresses the room. Chapter president for three years, Dubose enthusiastically welcomes newcomers, and then delivers a stern announcement. "If I have any destruction," she warns, "I'm gonna ask you not to come back." It's a bad sign when a wine tasting opens with a lecture.

Dubose then regales the crowd with descriptions of upcoming Brat events. There will be a "Wine Rave" on July 23. And, of course, the annual "Bottle of the Bay" in August, when the San Francisco and East Bay chap-ters meet on Angel Island for a wine tasting, rope pull, and barbecue.

"It's gonna be an all-out wine war!" she exclaims.
Dubose asks all the new members to stand for the special Wine Brats "Dance of Joy," which she demonstrates. The neophytes join in, clapping and jiving as the rest of the crowd laughs and whistles.

This, clearly, is not the proper way to behave at a wine tasting.
To a seasoned connoisseur, in fact, what the Wine Brats do constitutes nothing less than high treason, the arrogant, willful dismantling of a carefully contrived social order.

At a proper tasting, rows of jowly sommeliers with ear hair and starched collars sniff, swirl, and spit their way through the world's finest wines. Between vintages, they cleanse their Sacred Palates with pieces of bread. White-coated assistants unobtrusively wheel away trays of spit-bucket detritus, as the Palates murmur about acid percentage, tannin content, and flavor combinations of various woods, fruits, and confections.

Sacred Palates do not need to be admonished about breaking the crystal. And they certainly do not jiggle to the Dance of Joy in a pizza parlor.

Millions of dollars, and decades, have been spent cultivating the image of the state's wine industry, trying to convince the world that California wines are not grog for unschooled barbarians.

Then along come the Wine Brats, unimpressed by Sacred Palate rituals that have been refined over generations. The Brats are not about to don white lab coats and spit into a bucket with a bunch of old men.

Young adults and their elders often annoy each other just on general principle. But passion is raging in the clash between the Palates and the Brats, a tussle to see whose pretensions will govern wine culture.

This, apparently, is what happens when people with much money fight over something of little meaning. But it makes a good show for the rest of us.

The Za Spot continues to fill with late arrivals. Two young men in suits and ties slide into a table. One has never before been to a Brats event, the other has attended one. Asked if he plans to attend the upcoming Valentine's Day party, Suit No. 2 demurs.

"Let me check my e-mail," he says, reaching into a suit pocket and producing a sheaf of messages, laser-printed and neatly stapled. Unfolding the stack, he flips through it briefly, then suddenly lets it drop to the table -- no can do! -- and announces, with a helpless shrug, "Ah, I'm gonna be in New York."

In the middle of the room, Dubose is introducing the night's special guest, Aaron Heck. Heck's family has owned the Korbel champagne winery since 1954, and it has provided the wines for the evening.

"I'm proud to be here tonight in support of Wine Brats," declares the dapper 27-year-old, sporting not only an immaculate two-day growth of beard, but also a tremendous, almost surreal haircut, with Tom Cruise-like locks rappelling down his forehead. "I like them because they make wine unpretentious."

Korbel has sent Heck and his haircut to the city with cases of wine to bolster the Brats' effort. His father has endorsed the Brats since their beginnings, Heck says, and continues pledging some of Korbel's money and support for the group.

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