Seeing Red and White at Wine-tasting Lab

A long-running gathering trounces Monday Night Football and uncorks bonhomie

So you think you're up on the scene. You've been around town for years now. You know how to work the velvet ropes, the back doors, the bouncers. You've got a head full of secret passwords from party promoters and an e-mail inbox crammed with invites from club impresarios. So you should know: What's the longest-running one-nighter in Miami?

Nope, it's not Fat Black Pussycat, though that's a good, if uninspired, guess. Here, try another one. Where does this party take place? This time I'll give you a hint: It's not B.E.D., Opium, Rumi, or Tantra. In fact it's not even on South Beach.

No, don't worry. I'm not surprised you still can't figure it out. One last question: What are the rules for getting in? And I'll tell you right now you can wear whatever you want and bring whomever you like. Entourages, as a matter of fact, are welcome. In addition, parking is plentiful, there's no cover charge, and you don't have to purchase at least one upper-tier bottle of champagne to make a reservation.

If you're clueless -- or if this kind of one-night event sounds too good to be true -- then you obviously haven't been to Monday Laboratory (emphasis on bor) Night at Biscayne Wine Merchants & Bistro in North Miami.

Launched about sixteen years ago by host and proprietor Jan Boxer-Sitko and his Cabernet-loving cohorts Marc Davis and Harry Choucherie, Monday Laboratory Night is what Boxer-Sitko describes as "a way of sharing the wealth and participating in life." In other words, as Alcoholics Anonymous doctrine maintains, drinking alone is trouble. Boxer-Sitko's reasoning is, however, purely practical. "What do you do if you have wines in your cellar -- your presumed cellar -- and you happen to open one by yourself and the wine is wonderful? You blew it, because you didn't enjoy the participation of someone else sharing in your experience."

But despite the purity of motivation, the one-nighter is "not a philosophical statement," Boxer-Sitko warns. "It's a statement against Monday Night Football."

Indeed, the regulations regarding getting into the event are relaxed -- you just have to know about it and make a reservation. Current organizer Alan Kratish, the Florida sales manager for Halby Marketing, which reps wineries, defines Laboratory Night as "an ongoing, informal ... ragtag crew of wine drinkers [who] meet sporadically. Notification for this event has progressed over time from 'message in a bottle' to telephone to the current e-mail." Recipients of the e-mail are free to forward it to fellow interested consumers. "Our ultimate goal is to fill the entire restaurant with revelers until we are spilling into the street, the kitchen has depleted its reserves, the waitstaff collapses from exhaustion, and Laboratory Night at Biscayne Wine Merchants becomes the stuff of legend," he jokes.

Still, there is some hard-and-fast protocol to follow. For starters, Boxer-Sitko is serious about the football; no one is allowed to discuss sports, period. Additional forbidden subjects include politics, religion, and business. "If you feel compelled to raise any of these topics," Kratish says, "please come back on Tuesday."

Second, every diner (or couple of diners) must bring a bottle of wine, hidden in a paper bag throughout the evening, to pour for the group. But the disguise is not for test purposes. "It's not about guessing what the wine is, not about who's wrong or who's right," Boxer-Sitko says. "It's about simply listening to the wine. It's not important that the wine is [for instance] a '61 Lafite. [The vintage] is secondary or even of less importance than that."

However, Kratish recommends that "unless you thrive on verbal abuse, no white Zinfandel, please." He also notes that "depending on the group's size and earnestness, sometimes we have a serious discussion and analysis of the wines. More often than not, we just drink them."

The latter is more in keeping with Boxer-Sitko's attitude of "no presumption." Hence the communal tables and the constant circulation of guests as well as host. Boxer-Sitko's is a traveling wineglass, and he samples as many of the group's offerings as he can, all the while deliberately keeping things light with slightly risqué jokes: "Does everybody have a corkscrew? Do you know where the cork is? I won't ask if you know where the screw is."

As any good drinking party intends, though, Laboratory Night is also about eating fine fare, and a lot of it.

To that end, Boxer-Sitko and his wife, chef Esther Flores, provide complimentary appetizers such as olive oil-drenched goat cheese dressed in herbs they grow themselves in a container garden. The party-goers then pick an entrée from either the reasonably priced short menu or the lengthier blackboard listing, which is where you'll find the restaurant's infamous "when available" chopped sirloin steak, shrimp with sherry-ginger sauce, rack of lamb, and roast duck with honey-jalapeño glaze. The night we experienced the event for the first time, my friends and I scored an exceptionally good veal pot pie and a vibrant, herb-crusted rack of lamb, among other French-comfort food-inspired delicacies. And like the wines, somehow the dishes wound up in rotation, too. Well, swapping spit is one way to make friends with any strangers at your table.

The caveat, of course, is that the more people attend Laboratory Night, the longer it takes for your entrée to be prepared and delivered. By the time it does arrive, you might have had more wine than is strictly good for you. So bringing a designated driver along is also probably a good idea, unless you want a cop to send your blood to a real lab, a point at which the night will stop being an experiment in fun and start being a trial of major pain. And that's before the hangover sets in.

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