On a recent Wednesday evening at Shoreline Lake in Mountain View, wine importer Eric Stauffenegger, a native of France, animatedly walked a group of 12 or so people through how to taste two white wines, one a California sauvignon blanc and the other, a French Sancerre.
"Just smell the wines first, a couple of times each," he told the group in a strong French accent, putting his nose deep into his own glass of wine. "Then taste the California; taste the French and go back and forth."
The evening was one of eight informal wine seminars recently launched by Shoreline Lake, meant to educate anyone -- novices and wine connoisseurs alike -- on the often mystifying world of wine.
"Sometimes lectures or lessons in wine are quite serious or they might be quite long in nature," said Christina Ferrari, president of the Shoreline Aquatic Center and Lakeside Cafe. "So (the seminar) is something that we could offer where people could learn something a little bit about wine, not feel intimidated or put off by that mysticism, (and) they could increase their knowledge and also learn some of those technical facets of the wine."
The series kicked off in November with an evening devoted to Beaujolais nouveau, a French red wine released every year on the third Thursday of November (the seminar also took place on that Thursday). The group also discussed kosher and holiday wines, coinciding with Hanukkah and the ensuing holiday season.
Each seminar has a different focus, from something as specific as Beaujolais nouveau or wine preservation to broader topics such as wine pairing or U.S. and French wine basics.
"It's meant for those of varying expertise," Ferrari said. "It's not for only novices; it's not only for those (who) have gone to Napa Valley."
For "Basic Wine Tasting," Stauffenegger -- who owns an Oakland-based wine importing company and has worked as a sommelier in London, Belgium and France -- selected four pairs of wines from France and California. This was not to compare the two competitively, he said, but rather to contrast, understand and appreciate different flavors. (Competition between the two wine regions does run fierce, especially since the "Judgment of Paris" blind tasting competition in 1976, when Golden State wines trumped France's.)
"Typically, California wines are more bold," he explained to the group, urging them to taste the difference between the two. "They're bigger; they're more alcoholic. They tend to be more oaky, in general, and the French wines tend to be more mineral."
One participant, Brian Day, said he came in with a distinct preference for California wines, but left with a better appreciation for those from France.
"I still quite frankly had a bias toward the California wines, but I will be the first to admit that that's because I've grown up here," said Day, who works at NASA Ames in Mountain View. "(Stauffenegger) obviously had picked out French wines that were representative of characteristics he also wanted to demonstrate. So that's something that on my own I would not have been able to do."
Stauffenegger also answered many questions from participants, for example: What's the best way to store wine? (In a cool temperature and on its side so the wine has contact with the cork, which prevents it from drying out.) Is there a difference between screw-top wines and wines with corks? (California winery Plumpjack conducted an experiment comparing the two for 30 years and found no huge difference, but there is something romantic about popping the cork.) How long should a bottle of wine be uncorked before serving? (It depends on the wine, but for both red and white, at least about 30 minutes.)
Though wine is the main player at these seminars, there are also small bites served to pair with specific wines. At "Basic Wine Tasting," there was a small piece of rye bread, topped with a cheese spread, slice of cucumber and smoked salmon with two pieces of cheese on the side to cleanse the palate. Later in the evening came a mushroom tartlet meant to be consumed alongside two syrahs, a red wine.
The series is a new venture for Shoreline, an out-of-the-way lake complex with an aquatic center and restaurant. But it does fall in line with what Ferrari envisions the lake to be: "something for people to escape to," she said.
She added that the series is meant to take advantage of the winter and early spring months, when the lake might not be in much use. "It's taking advantage of those short days (when) the nights are cool and crisp, but it's cozy. We'll be outside either by the fire pit or we'll be in the banquet room doing these seminars.
"And summer is just around the corner so we'll see what happens then," she added, envisioning a summer seminar where participants would taste rose, shuck oysters and watch the sun set over the lake.
Upcoming seminars (all are 6 to 7:30 p.m.):
Basic Wine Preservation: Wednesday, Jan. 8
Basics of Serving Wine: Wednesday, Jan. 29
Wine and Romance: Wednesday, Feb. 12
U.S. Wine Basics: Thursday, Feb. 27
French Wine Basics: Wednesday, March 12
Cost is $25 per seminar. To register, go to shorelinelake.com
Shoreline Lake -- Aquatic Center and Cafe
3160 N. Shoreline Blvd., Mountain View