Reading under the influence

Cru Cellar's book club puts the "lit" in literature.

Jen Bingham

Jen Bingham has matched wines with just about every kind of food and occasion — everything from sushi to bratwurst, birthday parties to bachelor blowouts.

But it wasn't till a few months ago that the certified sommelier and owner of South Tampa wine shop and bar CRU Cellars faced her toughest wine pairing puzzle yet: She was asked to pick something to please a misfit teenager, an androgynous dorm matron and a narcoleptic pianist.

Oh, and none of these people really exist.

That's because these folks are fictional characters in the quirky coming-of-age novel Finny by Justin Kramon. And the occasion was the inaugural meeting of CRU Cellars' book club.

Jen settled on serving bottles of 2007 Lieb North Fork of Long Island because much of the action in the novel takes place in and around New York City.

Now, books and booze are hardly a new combo, with tales of overindulging writers often as famous (or more) as anything they scribbled. And it's no secret that readers tend to be tipplers. Yet for Jen and many of the now-20-plus-member book club, combining the two was pure inspiration.

"Most book clubs drink wine, so I figured why not have meetings here?" Jen says one recent weekday evening in her shop's cozy wine bar area, packed with people.

Book club members concur. "I never wanted to join a book club before because they seemed so stuffy," says founding club member Sarah Kodadek. "But this place is so comfortable and unpretentious. Jen makes it fun to come talk about books — and even learn about wine."

Before meeting at book club, members were strangers. Most weren't even wine store customers. Now many members are also regulars.

The books are selected collectively, then Jen sets about picking a complementary wine. For the club's second monthly meeting, they chose to read Room, a dark novel by Emma Donaghue.

"This was a really hard book to pair with wine," Jen says. Her pick: A wine called "The Other" by Peirano Estate Lodi, because the drawing of the female figure on the label seemed to echo mysteries of the book's mother character.

Not that all picks — at least in books — have been winners. Of the club's selection of the novel The Tiger's Wife, by Tea Obreht, Sarah confesses, "I only made it to page 25."

"I didn't get that far," jokes Jen. "Definitely a clunker."

However, the wine choice — five-year-old primitivo from winemaker Gorilla — was a hit. "The book's narrator is 5 years old and his grandfather carries a copy of Jungle Book," Jen explains.

Another book club has since begun meeting regularly at CRU, joining a growing number of groups and events calling Jen's shop home. Besides leading regular wine classes, Jen plays host on any given evening to wedding showers, corporate events and birthday parties.

"People just seem to love hanging out here," she says with a laugh.

Meanwhile, Jen's thinking about what wine to pair with her book club's next read: The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman. With one of the area's best selections of Italian wines, Jen should have little trouble matching a wine with the novel's setting: Rome.

Cru Cellars 2506 South MacDill Ave., Tampa, 813-831-1117, crucellarstampa.com

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