Digging in the Dirt

Sitting at long tables covered in white linen, people swirl the dark red wine in their glasses, then tilt them at an angle, holding them up to lights overhead. They're not looking for water spots. They're checking out the "legs" of the wine.

"Legs," the spindly, elongated drops that cling to the sides of the glass, are a clue to a wine's viscosity. A wine with "a lot of legs" leaves thick droplets hanging on the glass for a long time, notes Marc Davis, Florida general manager of international wine importer the House of Burgundy. Viscosity, he tells a group gathered for one of the Wednesday winetastings at the Best Cellar in Wilton Manors, translates to "mouth feel." A hearty French red like the Chateau Tour Calon '94, a blended wine featuring distinctive Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, has more mouth feel than the lighter Prosper-Maufoux Brouilly '96, a Beaujolais.

Both wines are being sampled -- sniffed and swallowed, not just gawked at -- at the boutique wine shop opened in April by Bob Vanderporten. But before the smelling and slurping begins in earnest, tasters drift in as if arriving at an informal cocktail party. Michelle Marcus, a friend of Vanderporten's for 30 years, acts as hostess, greeting everyone at the door.

At the small semicircular bar near the entrance, Richard Stetler pops corks and pours bubbly into fluted glasses for the champagne reception. A long-time maitre d' at the Cypress Room at the Weston Hotel, Stetler is both an investor in the shop and the resident wine whiz.

"I'm not the expert," Vanderporten admits. "I'm taking on a partner who is." A wine lover, though unpedigreed, the 55-year-old sticks to handling the business end of things. He ran a temporary employment service in New York City for 15 years and moved to Fort Lauderdale in 1988. In January he was watching CNN and saw a segment about an entrepreneur with a national chain of wine shops called the Best Cellar. "Before they got off the air with him, I was on the phone with my attorney and checked to see if [the entrepreneur] was incorporated or trademarked," Vanderporten recalls. "He had nothing."

Set in a nondescript strip mall, the narrow storefront of Vanderporten's Cellar leads to a room of mirrors, rosewood trim, and marble tile. Each place at the tables is set with two wine glasses -- one for red, one for white -- and a white china plate holding a hearty chunk of French bread. At the centers of the tables sit pitchers of water for palate-cleansing and a tray of appetizers, including pate and salmon mousse.

The price for all of this finery? Just $10, which also entitles tasters to discounts on wine. Wine of the Month Club members -- who pay $240 annually -- receive a bottle of wine and a newsletter each month and invitations to private tastings.

But Vanderporten knows that an annual commitment might be too much for wine neophytes. By holding weekly gatherings, he offers them a more low-key setting in which to explore their tastes. Each tasting features wines from a different winemaker or distributor, focusing on smaller, exclusive vineyards. On a recent Wednesday evening, Davis lead a group of ten through a selection of reds and whites from Prosper-Maufoux, a French winery with which House of Burgundy has a long-standing relationship.

While the tasters sip and swirl, they get to know each other -- as well as the wines. Some trade stories of European wine trips, but not in a haughty manner. Even seated among such knowledgeable drinkers, novices are made to feel comfortable. And while all of the linen and glassware may sound stuffy, before long, reds are being poured into glasses meant for white. And after much elevated talk of "legs," "nose," and growing conditions, Davis distills matters down to their essence. Ultimately a wine's flavor depends on the soil in which its grapes are grown. "It's in the dirt," he says.

-- John Ferri

Wine tastings are held every Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Best Cellar, 2424-A Wilton Dr., Wilton Manors. Cost is $10, and reservations are required. Call 954-630-8020.

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John Ferri