The resident heel on Shark Tank, the reality show in which fledgling entrepreneurs try to impress a panel of industry leaders, is Kevin “Mr. Wonderful” O’Leary. Mr. Wonderful is known for his snobbery, which he often uses like a saber to poke holes in the confidence of the wannabe tycoons that stand before him. Viewers of the show know that one of the preferred weapons in his insufferable arsenal is his membership in the Chevaliers du Tastevin, which is as he describes it, “a secret society of Burgundy drinkers.”
Mr. Wonderful often touts his membership in the historic wine society as both a status symbol and as proof of his refined tastes. But lest we are all left in the fragrant (are those hints of ochre and cherries?) dust, let’s pull back the velvet curtain and take a look at where this vinaceous fraternity comes from, and what it means to bear the tastevin. And what the heck is a tastevin.
The Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin (Brotherhood of the Knights of Tastevin) is a bacchanalian society that is committed to enjoying and promoting the wines and food (and wines, and wines) of the Burgundy region of France. The club, as it exists today, was started in 1934, but its roots run much deeper. Exclusive wine and gastronomic societies have been around since at least the 12th century, and Burgundy got one of its own by the early 1700s. Known as the “Order of the Free Drinkers of Burgundy,” this early brotherhood had disbanded around a century before the Chevaliers started up again.
The Chevaliers du Tastevin was actually started as a sort of tourism initiative rather than an exclusive club for rich wine snobs. As the secret society’s not-so-secret website tells, Burgundy’s wine production had declined after economic troubles in the in the early part of the 20th century, so two local men set out to reestablish the region as a destination spot for fine wines and fancy meals. They organized a ritualized cellar banquet for friends and esteemed colleagues, showing off the food and wine of Burgundy, and thus the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin was born.
Dressing in scholarly red and yellow robes fashioned after the dress of 16th-century theologians, the society took the tastevin as its symbol. A tastevin is a shallow saucer made of pure silver (or plated with silver, but don’t tell anyone), that is used to taste wine. An invention of medieval Burgundy, they are traditionally pressed with designs and grooves that help accentuate and show off the natural colors of a wine. At the time of their invention, when everyone was trying to judge such traits in dim, candle-lit cellars, the shining facets were a must. The Chevaliers proudly wear theirs around their necks at official functions, making sure that they are absolutely spotless and polished.
Today, the brotherhood has a membership of around 12,000 worldwide, with chapters in countries ranging from Morocco to Japan to Australia. Their headquarters is in the Clos de Vougeot, a 12th-century, walled vineyard originally operated by Cistercian monks. Here, the order holds a number of “Chapitres,” large banquets where the brotherhood can invite guests to join in their bacchanalia, each year celebrating both seasons and saints. According to one account, these gatherings, while somewhat austere in terms of dress and ceremony, can be as loud and raucous as any dinner party where the wine flows freely. There can even be “that guy,” but instead of throwing up in a potted plant, this dude is yelling at the help about the quality of the vintage.
In addition to hosting banquets at their monastic vineyard, and around the world, the Chevaliers have also established a number of annual wine testing events and contests, most prominently, Le Tastevinage. During this annual judging ceremony, hundreds of wines from the region are tasted, and those deemed exceptional are given the privilege of carrying an exclusive Chevaliers du Tastevin label on their bottle.
So, how does one become an honored knight in the service of Burgundy’s wines? Well, for an organization started to bring people in to Burgundy and its gastro-culture, it’s mighty hard to become a member (undoubtedly much to Mr. Wonderful’s delight). In order to join, one must be sponsored by two existing members, must display “taste and decorum,” and need also exhibit both merit and talent. It is not enough to be a wealthy dilettante. You must also be courageous and have the appropriate values—mainly a love of France. The Chevaliers acknowledge that while they have over 10,000 members, they aren’t chomping at the bit to get more. Apparently, Burgundy wine is now well represented enough.
The next time Mr. Wonderful begins to waste hot air talking about his super-secret Chevaliers du Tastevin club, take heart in the fact that you’re now in on the story. His snooty club may not have you, but there is nothing stopping you from grabbing some boxed Chardonnay, calling yourself Mr. Glorious, and starting your own wine appreciation movement.