Wine, Justin Bieber says, is like a car.
"It could be a Cadillac or a Buick," he says, leaning back in a supple leather chair in the private dining room of Parizade, a trendy Durham restaurant. "A Cadillac just gets you there more in style."
The Duke University senior regales his companions with the tale of a recent trip to Maryland, where he showed off his new discriminating palate to some high school pals. In a blind taste test, Bieber brags, he easily pegged the white wine as chardonnay.
Amaaaazzzing, his friends swooned.
"They thought I was very knowledgeable and classy," says Bieber, a curly-topped student from Potomac, Md. "What I've learned here has really paid off."
This weekly late-night gathering of Duke students is called Senior Wine Tasting and has been held for several years. The social club -- invitation only, please -- is open only to seniors, nearly 100 of them, who spend their final semester together sipping wine every Tuesday night.
Gone are the underage days of chugging cheap beer in stinky fraternity chapter lounges. No, this party is for about-to-be-responsible young adults. They'll soon be out in the real world, building their careers as graduates of one of the country's elite universities. It helps to be wine-savvy to impress bosses and dates.
The over-21 students pay $270 for 10 wine lessons.
They straggle in after 10:30 p.m., the women dressed to the nines in slinky tops, jeans and designer heels, the men in slightly wrinkled Oxford shirts and, sometimes, ties. This is only the first stop on their evening out.
In Parizade's private dining room, they gather at round tables laden with Mediterranean nibbles -- cheeses, fruit and stuffed grape leaves. The chatter and laughter build.
Jeff Goller, the instructor from Empire Distributors of Morrisville, has to whistle to get the crowd's attention.
"Is Chianti a place? Is Chianti a grape?" Goller asks.
Someone yells, "Both!"
No, Goller says, Chianti is a prime wine-making region in Italy. The students sip Ruffino Aziano, a Chianti Classico.
"It has that kind of twang to it that makes you want to grab a plate of pasta," Goller says.
The students also sample a pinot grigio, a verdicchio and a red from Sicily.
For some, the wine tasting is supplemented by a beer or a mixed drink on the side. Cigarette smoke hangs in the air.
Joel Rodriguez of Maywood, N.J., explains that the group is made up of members from a few sororities and fraternities, and the invitations are circulated informally. "The crowd that comes here is the more social crowd at Duke," he says.
For Pat Meyer of Cleveland, being culturally literate about wine will be handy for entertaining dates. He has moved beyond his early days at Duke. "When you're young," he says, "it's all beer."
The students say it's the tradition of the club and the senior bonding that make the wine taste sweet.
And if they learn something along the way, well, "salute!"
"I'm still not quite a connoisseur," Bieber says confidently, "but I know a lot of adjectives about wines."
Staff writer Jane Stancill can be reached at 956-2464 or firstname.lastname@example.org.