Venture beyond textbook, lectures and sample it yourself

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Learning about wine, and developing your own preferences, does not have to be work.

Put down the textbook. Abandon the lecture hall. And start having fun with wine.

Unless you are planning a career in the wine industry, the minutiae of grapes, appellations, barrels, bacteria and so on don't really matter.

What you need to know is what you like, and what's out there. The more you taste, the wider you cast that flavor net, the more bottles you'll have in your personal "Yum'' file.

So there is really only one thing you need to do: Taste a lot of wine.

With spring in full swing, it's easier than ever to gather a group of friends for a wine party. Do a buffet -- picnic food or potluck.

Put out some decent stemware; you can find excellent options for about $3 or $4 a glass at the big-box stores. Choose a theme: $10 or less; unoaked chardonnay; South American wines; wines with animals on the label. Whatever.

Let your imagination run wild. Invite your friends and have everyone bring a bottle that fits the theme.

That's it. No need to be more formal than that. The idea is to taste a group of wines together, which allows you to compare them.

It gives people something to chat about, in the simplest terms. I like this (why?). I hate this (why?). I taste this (you've got to be kidding! Dirty socks?).

At the end of the night, you've probably found a wine or two that you really like. And you've had a heckuva good party.

Here is a spring bouquet of party-friendly new releases that have tickled my palate recently:

Murphy-Goode 2008 Chardonnay ($14). Smooth and supple, from cooler sites in California, with a mix of apple, pear, lemon and vanilla.

Murphy-Goode 2008 Pinot Noir ($14). Clean and varietal, with no "filler'' grapes blended in to boost the color. Barrel-aged.

NdQ 2008 Jumilla Red ($12). Local importer CasaVentura brings in this Spanish red from the Jumilla region. It's monastrell (mourvedre) with a splash of syrah. Sappy raspberry, boysenberry, cassis and earth.

From Washington:

Boomtown 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon ($15). A smooth and satiny cabernet, chocolaty, round and ripe red fruits with a streak of licorice.

Ciao Bella 2009 Pinot Grigio ($13). An easy-drinking, fresh white wine with grapefruit and pear flavors front and center.

Eliseo Silva 2007 Merlot ($10). Soft and easy-drinking, with plum and cherry fruit now at its peak.

Hyatt Vineyards 2008 Pinot Gris ($9). Crisp and full-bodied, with fresh pear and apple and white peach fruit flavors. The clever blend includes muscat, viognier and riesling.

Magnificent Wine Company 2007 Red Table Wine ($10). Merlot, syrah and cabernet, with black cherry fruit and the tannic structure of a pricier wine.

Rulo 2007 Syrca Red Wine ($15). Ripe raspberries, cassis, coffee, tobacco and chocolate! The fruit is so bright and fresh you can almost see it.

Saviah Cellars 2008 The Jack Red Wine ($15). Mostly merlot, it's full-bodied and fruit forward, with hints of earth, herb and spice.

Silver Lake 2008 Roza Hills Vineyard Reserve Chardonnay ($12). Buttery and round, loaded with peaches and creamy vanilla flavors.

Vin du Lac 2008 Les Amis Riesling ($14). With muscat and gewrztraminer in the blend, it's fresh, fruity and slightly sweet; an all-purpose white wine to sip on the deck.

Washington Hills 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon ($10). Black cherry and cassis fruit anchors a wine with dark streaks of espresso, bitter chocolate and smoke.

Paul Gregutt is the author of "Washington Wines & Wineries.'' Find him at www.paulgregutt.com or write to paulgwine@me.com.

Pick of the week

Six Prong 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon; $12

Dark, tannic and full-bodied, this five-grape Bordeaux blend from a classic Washington vintage is 100 percent Alder Ridge fruit. Loaded with black fruits, fresh herbs, a hint of tomato leaf and a finishing streak of caramel. (Odom distributes)

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