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A barrel of laughs

Steve Kaminsky's wine tastings add some zaniness with your Zinfandel

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Steve Kaminsky is the "Steve" behind Steve Show Wine Tastings. a service that is a little bit grapes, a little bit nuts.

A few weeks ago, Kaminsky hosted a tasting during a ladies' monthly, book-club meeting. The evening started off innocently enough, with Kaminsky introducing himself, talking a bit about his background and touching on the various wines the group would be sampling. Next, out of curiousity, he asked what book was being discussed.

"There was a lot of snickering when they told me it was 50 Shades of Grey," Kaminsky says, noting he had a passing knowledge of the erotic bestseller. "They were hoping to make me squirm but instead I ran with it by turning everything we tried into a twist on the book, like describing Pinot Noir as 'sex in a glass.' Or another wine as '50 shades of red.'

"It turned out to be a ton of fun; I got to talk dirty and get paid, at the same time."

Last year, the documentary Somm told the story of four people attempting to pass the master sommelier test, an exam with one of the lowest pass rates on the planet. Know this: Kaminsky will not be vying for the title of master sommelier any time soon.

"People ask me, 'Steve, are you a sommelier?' and I tell them 'No, I am not.' That is a 100 per cent guarantee," Kaminsky says, taking a sip of his Fetzer Cabernet Sauvignon. "If you go to my website, you'll see that it has been labelled a fancy-schmancey, wine geek-free zone. And that's not meant as a slight against geeks. It's just that I believe there are a lot of people who want to learn about wine, but who are intimidated by so-called experts who talk over their heads."

To wit, Kaminsky is more likely to describe something as a "patio-pounder" or announce "it's got some hair on its chest," than to say he detects fig nuts or toffee or pomelo.

"Seriously -- what the hell is a pomelo? So what I'm trying to do is not dumb things down necessarily but educate folks while having a few laughs along the way."

Kaminsky's affinity for wine and wine culture began 16 years ago, during his honeymoon. Kaminsky and his wife travelled to Kelowna, B.C., where they toured a number of orchards and wineries.

After falling in love with the sights, smells and lingo associated with the wine industry, Kaminsky, whose first experience with wine involved "a blue bottle with nuns on the side," began to devour every bit of information he could get his hands on.

Years later, he landed a sales position at a private wine store in Winnipeg. (Because the married father of four now shops for supplies all over town, he prefers not to name his former employer.) One day, after the shop's sommelier walked off the job just before a scheduled tasting, the owner called Kaminsky aside.

"Basically he said, 'Steve, since you refuse to stop talking anyways, we've decided to give you an audience and see what happens.' "

Within minutes, Kaminsky was standing in front of 30 customers, dropping terms like aroma and acidity, body and structure... pretty much everything one might expect to hear at a wine affair. But at some point in the evening, Kaminsky went off the grid by bringing up a camping trip his family had taken the week before and "Jeezus, have you tried putting up a tent, nowadays?"

Although the audience had a great time chortling at Kaminsky's various misadventures, he was chided by some of his fellow employees who told him later, "Steve, it's a wine tasting. You have to talk about wine."

"Bull -," he replied. "You want me to memorize fermentation periods when I can barely remember the names of my kids?"

Over time, Kaminsky's co-workers began referring to his sessions -- with a hint of sarcasm -- as "The Steve Show." So when the married father of four struck out on his own he figured, hey, why not keep that tag?

The Steve Show works like this: clients meet with Kaminsky to discuss what type of event they are staging and how much wine they're going to need. He's been summoned to office get-togethers, wedding anniversary parties and stagettes.

"I start by asking how many people are coming and further to that, how many of them are 'heavy hitters' and how many are abstainers. Then we talk about reds versus whites. After I've got my totals -- and a budget for what they want to spend -- I go shopping," Kaminsky says, noting his personal fee -- over and above the cost of wine -- is around $100 an hour.

Last month, Tiffany Herchak hired Kaminsky for her 40th birthday party in Garson. To get an idea of how informal the affair was, consider this: Herchak's cake was shaped like a toilet bowl.

"Most of the people who came were beer drinkers so I didn't want him to be too stiff," says Herchak, who found Kaminsky through his Kijiji ad. "He was there for two hours and we tried out six reds, six whites and a blush. He told us a lot of different things about the wines -- and a lot of jokes, too."

Herchak's reason for enlisting Kaminsky's services was pretty straightforward: ''I like booze."

"That's such a dirty, unspoken component to all this," Kaminsky says. "You get people talking about complexity and finish but how many times do they mention the buzz they get, after downing a few glasses? At the end of the day all wine has alcohol in it and you're lying to me if you say that's not one of the main reasons you're drinking it. If it was Welch' s Grape Juice we wouldn't even be sitting here."

Kaminsky knows his direct -- some call it crass -- approach doesn't appeal to everyone. But if you have a beef, he's all ears.

"Back when I was working at the store, if people didn't like something I said they'd ask to speak to the manager. If they say the same thing nowadays I tell them, 'Never mind the manager, you can speak to the owner himself. But just remember: the owner has had a couple of drinks.' "

david.sanderson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 7, 2013 ??65525

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