It’s a Friday evening in Chicago, and for the 500 or so twenty-and thirtysomethings crowding the bar or dancing to ’70s tunes at the appropriately named hotspot Drink, the night doesn’t belong to Michelob. Some quaff Rosemount Estate Grenache Shiraz, a red wine from Australia, out of Mason jars. Others use X-rated novelty straws to slurp a spicy white made by Italy’s Ecco Domani. And the Wine Brats, as the three organizers of tonight’s festivities call themselves, field questions as they mingle with revelers. “What wine goes best after sex?” asks a 31-year-old middle-school teacher. “Gewürztraminer,” Jeff Bundschu, 30, quickly replies, “because it brings back the spark.” Pinot noir, counters Michael Sangiacomo, 29: “It has a lush, bright, fruity finesse and a lasting finish.” Jon Sebastiani, 28, recommends “anything cento per cento [made from only one variety of grape]. That means it’s the best of the best.” The Brats grin.
These three childhood pals from California’s Sonoma Valley aren’t just promoting boogie nights. Their mission is to explain the mysteries of wine to young adults intimidated by its myriad varieties and the stuffy image of the swish-and-spit set. “We knock wine off its pedestal,” says Bundschu. So far, successfully—the nonprofit Wine Brats group has uncorked 45 chapters throughout the country since the trio founded it in 1993 (1998 budget: $500,000, from event admission fees and donations from wineries). Chapters conduct tastings, vineyard tours and seminars with titles such as “Fast Wines for Fast Lives.” Membership is free; about 12,000 people have signed up.
Blowout “wine raves” like the one in Chicago are big attractions, drawing hundreds of thirsty pilgrims who pay $25 to $30 apiece to quaff the fruit of the world’s prime vines. The first rave, in San Francisco in 1997, featured retro lounge music and Internet terminals; the second, at New York City’s Windows on the World in March 1997, included an Armani Exchange fashion show. (Next up: Los Angeles.) Crows Bundschu: “Young people who could be at an Alanis Morissette concert are grooving at winery events.”
When it comes to wine, the Brats know what they’re talking about: both Bundschu’s and Sebastiani’s families run respected wineries, and Sangiacomo’s family grows grapes for other winemakers. In college—Sebastiani and Sangiacomo majored in business at Santa Clara University; Bundschu studied international relations at the University of Southern California—all three were shocked by their classmates’ ignorance. “If you poured a glass of wine, people thought you were a wimp,” says Sebastiani. “They were all drinking beers and tequila shots.”
To change that, “we started inviting our friends over for wine tastings,” says Bundschu. “It turned out to be so fun.” In 1993, soon after starting work in their families’ businesses (Bundschu in marketing, Sangiacomo as vineyard supervisor, Sebastiani as a sales manager), they summoned pals to a mixer at a Santa Rosa wine bar, hoping for a crowd of 20. They got 85. Heartened, they began to throw flashier bashes, including a tasting in an office they converted to a miniature-golf course, and dubbed themselves the Wine Brats.
The trio’s parents weren’t always supportive—until they realized that the group’s success could only help the industry. “At first I was nervous Jeff was taking so much time from our business,” says Bundschu’s father, Jim. “But now I think it’s marvelous.” The Brats, who still work their day jobs, hired an executive director, Joel Quigley, 37, to run the group full time in 1995.
In many ways, the friends are brats no more: All are married (Sebastiani to Kate, 27, a lawyer; Sangiacomo to Whitney, 29, a leasing and construction manager; and Bundschu to Liz, 31, a hospitality director at his winery). And they are working on a book, The Wine Brats Guide to Living, with Wine, due out next spring. But they’re sticking to their quest to make wine hip. At the Chicago rave, Sebastiani raises his glass. “We’re not stopping,” he says, “until Dennis Rodman is sucking down Chardonnay.”
Gabrielle Saveri in Sonoma and Sheree R. Curry in Chicago