On the Mall: Sipping Pinotage at the National Museum of African Art

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How, a website that claims to teach anything, says that the first step in attending a silent auction is perusing the online catalog. Having scored a ticket to the National Museum of African Art’s first benefit gala (such are the perks of professional journalism), I downloaded the auction catalog and observed the items up for bid: original oil paintings, a basket woven by Rwandan widows, a luxury vacation for two in scenic South Africa.

The Monday night benefit was scheduled to be a smorgasbord of fundraising activity—a silent auction, yes, but also a dance event with live band, and a world-class wine tasting. All proceeds were to go to the museum.

I arrived woefully alone and early (who was it who said you should never come early to a party?), and hid out in the exhibits until the band got going and the museum’s three levels were packed to the windows with people.

I grabbed a fluted plastic cup and stood in line at one of the wine tasting tables. I aimed to try all the wines; I didn’t know then that there were more than 50 of them. The first table yielded my favorite blend of the evening—the Chenin Blanc, a white wine fermented first in a tank and then in a barrel.

Tank fermentation is common in South Africa, and any wine-lover worth his nose will have heard of it. I hadn’t, of course. I hopped from table to table, refilling my cup with generous "pours" of a dizzying array of wines. I tried at least three shades of Pinotage, a South African specialty made from a mixed Pinot Noir/Cinsaut grape.

I cut myself off from samples after a few tables, figuring that no matter how tempting the rest of the wines (and there were many I hadn’t tried), I still had to take the train home later without falling and electrocuting myself on the third rail.

Instead, I sidled up to the tasting tables and asked for advice from other samplers, hoping to make friends. It worked, and within thirty minutes I was chatting with a group about the best wines to pair with spicy sauces (a dilemma for me ever since I matched a fine Merlot with Tandoori chicken and ended up with a mouthful of vinegar).

Soon it was 8:30 and the crowd had peaked. A few couples were swirling to the music on the lower level, and I took my cue to leave. Walking back to the train station in the perfect fall weather we sometimes get in DC, I could see why Bono, the king of conscientious cool, chose this museum to host the upcoming ONE campaign party (The ONE party won't be a fundraiser—Institution rules say that only Smithsonian museums can raise funds on museum grounds).

The museum, with its three nested floors and taupe and mint interior, is the perfect place for dim orange lights and ultra-tasty wines. I found out later that the event made $40K for the African Art Museum and attracted nearly 400 people (capacity is 700).

And it was a fun, unusual way to see a well-known national museum. I haven’t heard from my newfound friends—to be fair, I gave them my email address on a cocktail napkin—but I did eat, drink and enjoy.

See photos from the auction and the tastings, here.

Image of an Hermes scarf up for bid at the silent auction, © Anika Gupta.

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