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    Laguna Hills senior center director takes the snobbery out of wine
    • August 28, 2023

    The scene was surreal. Aimee Roberts, director of the Florence Sylvester Senior Center in Laguna Hills, stood in the building’s parking lot, swinging a sword as she decapitated a bottle of Champagne and some of the bubbly came gushing out onto the pavement.

    Roberts was demonstrating the art of sabrage, a technique for opening a Champagne bottle with a saber, for members of the senior center’s monthly wine club.

    “The first night I ever spent in California years ago, I saw someone standing in the setting sun performing a sabrage and I thought it was so fantastic,” she said.

    Roberts had won a trip to the Napa and Sonoma wine regions as a working member of the wine industry in Texas at the time. A recent trip to the Champagne region of France refreshed her memory of the showy sabrage, which she thought would be fun to demonstrate at the wine club.

    The method is used for ceremonial occasions and dates to the time of Napoleon, when the sword wielder was often seated on horseback, she said.

    The person slides the saber along the seam of the bottle to the lip to break away the top of the neck, leaving the bottle open and ready to pour. Glass shards are blown away with the force of the Champagne bursting from the bottle at 60 to 90 pounds of pressure per inch.

    “It’s an exhilarating experience,” she said.

    Laguna Woods Village resident Patricia Kaizoji tries her hand at sabrage, using a saber to slice the neck off a bottle of Champagne, at the Florence Sylvester Senior Center’s monthly wine club gathering.
    (Photo by Mark Rabinowitch)

    Laguna Woods Village resident Philip Heitz tries sabrage at the Florence Sylvester Senior Center’s monthly wine club gathering.
    (Photo by Mark Rabinowitch)

    The cork and the top of the champagne bottle are what’s left after a sabrage, seen at the Florence Sylvester Senior Center’s monthly wine club gathering.
    (Photo by Mark Rabinowitch)

    Aimee Roberts, director of the Florence Sylvester Senior Center in Laguna Hills, demonstrates the art of sabrage, slicing off the neck of a bottle of Champagne with a saber. Roberts, a certified sommelier, launched the center’s monthly wine club in March 2022.
    (Photo by Mark Rabinowitch)

    Aimee Roberts, director of the Florence Sylvester Senior Center in Laguna Hills, presents information and background on the wines, their characteristics, prices, availability and more during the center’s monthly wine club gathering.
    (Photo by Mark Rabinowitch)

    The wine class at the Florence Sylvester Senior Center in Laguna Hills takes place on the first Friday of every month.
    (Photo by Mark Rabinowitch)

    A curated selection of cheese, crackers, charcuterie and chocolates accompanies the assorted wines at the monthly wine tastings at the Florence Sylvester Senior Center in Laguna Hills.
    (Photo by Penny E. Schwartz)

    Laguna Woods Village residents attend a gathering of the Village’s Wine Lover Club in Clubhouse 5. The club meets the second Wednesday of each month and pairs wines with themed dinners.
    (Photo by Penny E. Schwartz)



    Roberts, who has been the senior center director for two years, came up with the idea of the wine club during the pandemic.

    “Many of my neighbors in Laguna Niguel were older, and when I asked them what would be a fun activity, they suggested this,” she said.

    The activity fit right in with Roberts’ background working many jobs in the wine industry, including earning the designation of certified sommelier.

    She was trained by master sommelier Fred Dame, earning her entry level badge in 1999 and the higher level of “certified” in 2006. At the time, it was a male-dominated profession, she said.

    Being a sommelier requires a good working knowledge of wines, regions, pairings and wine service.

    “It turns out that I have a good sense of smell, which helps,” said Roberts, who now belongs to the wine organization Court of Master Sommeliers.

    After moving to California, she worked with fine wines as a salesperson for a large distribution company.

    At the same time, she was volunteering with Meals on Wheels at the Laguna Niguel senior center and enjoyed her work with seniors. She was told that the Florence Sylvester Senior Center in Laguna Hills was looking for a director.

    “I had a strong background in science, and the mission of Age Well (which runs the center) fit in with my personal beliefs and goals,” she said.

    So in June 2021, she left the wine industry to join the senior service system.

    Birthing the center’s wine club in March 2022 became a way to blend both her passions.

    “Since the (Laguna Woods) Village’s Wine Lovers Club focused on regional wines, I decided to focus on varietal wines that come from many regions around the world,” Roberts said.

    She started with the major varietals, working her way to the “more nuanced” ones offered lately. At each club meeting, which requires advance registration and costs $25 per person, four samples of the featured varietal are poured for tasting along with a curated selection of cheese, crackers, charcuterie and chocolates.

    Roberts offers tasters information and background on the wines, their characteristics, prices, availability and more.

    The wines are usually priced at $35 to $55 a bottle and are not found at the typical grocery store. Roberts wants participants to taste special wines that are accessible but of a higher grade than the average.

    “I hope it’s fun to have a little more knowledge,” she said. “My experience has been that people are uncomfortable ordering wines, and I want them to feel more comfortable doing that.

    “Wine shouldn’t be snobby,” she added with a laugh.

    Roberts enjoys the process of planning each month’s tasting, from the research, to picking the wine, buying it and “teaching” about it in an informal and interesting way.

    Based on the number of people attending the monthly sessions, the club has been a great success. It has grown from 24 attendees to 48, with a waiting list each time.

    “I like to see what people like,” she said, asking at the end of each tasting which wine was the participants’ favorite.

    “I tell people that they know what they like and shouldn’t be intimidated by others.”

    The wine tastings take place on the first Friday of each month at a cost of $25 per person, payable in cash or check at the door. Reservations are required; call the senior center at 949-380-0155.

    Laguna Woods Wine Lovers Club is for those who love wine and want to learn more

    Laguna Woods Village residents who enjoy wine don’t have to venture outside the gates to sample wines from around the world.

    Meeting the second Wednesday of each month in Clubhouse 5, the Wine Lovers Club features worldwide regional wines paired with appropriately themed dinners. It seeks to introduce participants to varieties they may not have tried before in the company of people they may not have met before.

    The idea behind the club, founded in 2019, is to foster fellowship along with wine knowledge.

    “The goal is to meet people, drink wine and break bread together,” said club President Judy Okonski, who has helmed the Wine Lovers Club since its inception.

    “We started with 35 people and now have more than 300 members, with more than 200 attending each meeting,” Okonski said. “Our secret is that we give people time to visit.”

    The club not only teaches wine education but also sponsors several trips a year to places like Temecula or San Diego wineries and one cruise each year.

    Integral to the monthly experience is Jeff Champion, a sommelier and certified wine specialist, who offers information on the featured region of the world and the wines from that locale.

    Members receive an email in advance, detailing the wines that will be featured and where to buy them. Attendees can buy those bottles to bring to the dinner or bring any beverage of their choice. Occasionally, a specific vineyard is spotlighted and the club provides the featured wines.

    Members usually bring their own appetizers to enjoy and share during the social portion of the evening before Champion’s formal presentation, which is followed by the dinner served buffet-style.

    “Usually, I pick a regional wine and then try to pair the food that should be served with it,” Champion said at the start of the June meeting. “This time, however, I started with the food and looked for the best wines to go with it.”

    The result was an evening titled “Italy: Through the Eyes of Lasagna.”

    Champion described the variations on that classic Italian dish as it is prepared in the Marche, Tuscany and Puglia regions of Italy.

    “Every region, and even every family, has its own recipe,” Champion said.

    He then detailed varieties of both red and white wines that pair well with the lasagna from each area through a slide presentation before a meal of lasagna, salad and garlic bread was served.

    Village resident Ron Askew, attending the monthly event for the first time, said he enjoys wine and fellowship and appreciates the casual atmosphere he has encountered.

    Long-time member Jackie Sieber originally joined the club to go on last fall’s sponsored cruise along the California coast and plans to cruise the Mexican Riviera with the group this fall.

    She has kept coming back. “The food is good and the price is reasonable, and I like to learn about the wines,” she said as she and partner Tom Mitchell uncorked their own bottle of wine.

    “We went to Italy in  2017 and just now opened what we brought back with us,” she said with a laugh.

    For information on the Wine Lovers Club, visit the website via or call Okonski at 949-837-2273. Membership is $35 per year, with monthly events usually priced at $15  per member and $20 for non-members, payable in advance.

    ​ Orange County Register