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Wine tastings and free garden tours at Stan Hywet Hall

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Steam rises from the pavement on a balmy, rain-soaked evening at Stan Hywet Hall in Akron. Within minutes, a crowd of 120 serious and not-so-serious oenophiles are mingling amid a cocktail party atmosphere in the estate's Carriage House. Waltzes by Strauss emanate from a boombox in the corner, and the room is hemmed in by two long tables lined with Germanic wines. It is the first in a series of wine tastings and free garden tours held monthly through November at the historic mansion.

Steward for the soiree is Darryl Spansky, a representative of the Hammer Company, which presented the evening's wines. A distinguished fellow who knows his way around a goblet, Spansky works the room gracefully, making light conversation and offering advice for newbies. "The amateur should find a very good retailer, in a mid-to-upper price range, and try wines from different regions," he says. "Try them with food or at dinner parties, but don't be intimidated by the language. Focus on the grapes, the distributor, the region."

And if the wine's no good, focus on the dump bucket. Each table is equipped with a red pail, into which patrons discard their unwanted vino. Spansky hears there's a suspect Riesling at large with a "slightly acidic" aftertaste. He beelines over to the sample table, quickly tastes the wine in question, and then instructs the server to discard the bottle and open a new one.

"This is like a Seinfeld episode," one enamored guest says, proving that anyone with an affinity for finishes or a nose for noses can feel at home at Stan Hywet.

First-timer Vicky Gillmor of Cuyahoga Falls calls the event fun. "Is that the right word to use?" she asks with panicked uncertainty. Gillmor inches her way up to the table filled with sweet wines and studies her program. "Which one is the best?" she asks the server.

"Which one is the best?" the server responds. "The one you like is the best."

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