Michael Gorton just might have the hottest wine tasting group on the East End.
Informally dubbed the Secret Society of Unknown, Unnamed, Underground Tasters, the group has gone from a small group of local wine country insiders to attract a trove of new enthusiasts, so much so that the monthly meeting has a waiting list that can be dozens long. And in a region where tasting groups can be common, and wineries and retail stores host their own tasting events on a regular basis, that's saying something.
"It's boggling my mind," said Gorton, a funeral director at McManus-Lorey Funeral Home in Medford, the president of the Medford Chamber of Commerce and a wine blogger. "I really can't believe we get this huge turnout each time."
The idea came in the fall of 2010, when new winemaker Edward Lovass told Gorton about a tasting group he had run in California where each week a single host brings all the wine for the group, usually on a certain theme, and then the group splits the total cost at the end of the night.
In January 2011, when they kicked if off, it had 12 members, including Lovass and his fiancé, Gorton, winemaker Kelly Urbanik and former assistant winemaker Robin Epperson-McCarthy. But it quickly jumped to 24 people at the tasting – the maximum amount of tasting pours you can get out of a single wine bottle – out of a list that's now 50-people strong.
"It's not always the same people all the time, different people show up and that's what brings the interest to it. People want to see who will show up," he said.
"The tastings have cost anywhere in the $15 to $20 range a person," Gorton said. "The lowest one was a BYOB $10 event." Though one tasting at , which included a four-course meal, cost $50 a person, he said.
Gorton said the tastings often feature wines from other parts of the world, and not only Long Island ones. Recent tastings have focused on Hungarian white wines, Reislings, Tasmanian pinot noirs and a tasting of 2008 merlots that pitted Long Island ones against other global versions of wines made from that grape. This month Urbanik is hosting and will pour wines from the "same vintage, same vineyard, and same varietal, but from different blocks," Gorton said.
"I've learned a lot from it. I've gotten to taste wines I would never had tasted," he said. "It opens up people's palates, expands their vision and hopefully it opens up their perception of wine so they can see where Long Island fits into the grand scheme of things. It's certainly built up my appreciation for Long Island wines."
While the group is growing, Gorton said he doesn't want to increase the maximum size of the tastings beyond 24 people, even if the list balloons to more than 100 people. It just means members will have to act fast to secure a seat when Gorton announces the tastings, usually 10 days before the event.
He's even reluctant to make a Facebook page for the group, since it already has such momentum.
"People are always saying, 'Add this person to the list,'" he said.
Alexandra Macari, winery manager at Macari Vineyards and a frequent attendee to Gorton's tasting, said the popularity can be tied to how much fun it is for those who show up.
"What makes this group work? You mean a bunch of winos swirling, sipping, spitting and mostly swallowing having a few laughs?" she said. "Serious, deep concentration and getting an education from it all, that's plain and simple. But most of all it's fun."
But when you have a tasting that includes so many local winemakers, industry insiders and winery managers, it's hard to not to think it's the local wine climate that's driving it, Gorton said.
"I can't imagine doing this on a regular basis if we didn't have a wine region out here," he said. "The tasting group is a community. I've never really been a part of anything like that."