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When a certain group of Baltimore men gets together for its annual dinner party held the night before New Year’s Eve, the activity list boasts everything offered by your average fraternity: a house full of alcohol, food and guys who believe in partying. In the case of the party known as the “Penultimate,” though, it’s bordeaux and rack of lamb- not beer and burgers.

The tradition started about five years ago when one of the guys, chef Jerry Peligrino, opened his Federal Hill restaurant Corks. Needed in the kitchen on New Year’s Eve, he and his buddies decided to let their hair down the night before.

“The first year we each started with a 2-pound lobster,” says Peligrino of the first of his seven courses. (Technically, the first course was 7 ounces of Beluga caviar, but who’s counting?) “Then we moved onto some ominous piece of meat. And, of course, there is always champagne.”

It doesn’t hurt to have expert chefs among their ranks. Peligrino and Steve Ward of Federal Hill’s Vespa help create the excessive meals, which have also featured venison and leg of lamb.

And there is always wine. A lot of wine. The members empty their cellars of bottles that have been waiting to be dusted off and paraded before the dinner table. Peligrino’s cellar is heavy on American wines, while Jack Hoffberger worships bordeaux, so they enjoy a good mix. Highlights from the 25 bottles consumed last year were an ‘82 Latour and a ‘94 Screaming Eagle.

“It’s really a celebration of the end of the year and of excesses,” says Patrick Sutton, who is part of the crew. “It can get a bit colorful,” he adds, dryly.

After so many sips, have they ever left the meat in too long?

“I don’t think it’s possible for there to be a disaster,” says Sutton. “Only if the bottles stayed corked.”

Like a fraternity, there is a sense of brotherhood among the Penultimates, who also include Dr. Marty Passen, Greg Rochlin and Michael Fishman. And like a fraternity, there are rituals. Of course, fine wine and rich food are the first and second. Often Krispy Kreme doughnuts find their way onto the menu in the wee hours of the morning. (Rumor has it that last year Peligrino was caught “napping” with a half-eaten jelly doughnut on his chest.) And the most important tradition, according to Peligrino, is that whatever happens “does not leave the room.” (For instance, if they were to make a late-night expedition to a local gentlemen’s club.)

So what do the women do while the men are clinking glasses? Does this house have a sister sorority? Girlfriends and wives of the “Penultimate” men once got together for the “Femultimate.” “We called it that, they didn’t,” Peligrino says, chuckling.

Last year a new tradition started, a blind wine tasting. The guys brought their bottles wrapped in tin foil and tried to guess the grape varietals, the vintage and the winemaker just by taste.

Yes, it’s a little different than a keg party.

Indeed, these men confess they’re “getting older.” Although they usually hit the town after dinner, this year they stayed at Sutton’s house, ending the party at 4 in the morning. But they still had a good time.

“We could probably get McDonald’s and it would still be great,” says Peligrino. “This is about taking good care of ourselves that night, relaxing and socializing with the guys.”

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