I am truly blessed. One of earth's earliest pleasures has, for one reason or another, been at my disposal it seems as long as I can remember cultivating a love for it.
In my early days of serving table, I became enticed by the various varieties of wines I was called upon to open and serve: beaujolais, chablis, cabernet. I admit there was a certain curiosity of what was in that bottle that made the customer choose that specific wine, vintage or producer, and, more mysteriously made their face light up when they tasted and approved it for pouring.
I began to notice a trend in producers that were on the lists of restaurants I cut my chops on. Georges Duboeuf, Robert Mondavi, Louis Jadot, Beringer and Moet et Chandon: the gateway wineries. There was so much I didn't know. As is common in the business, there was always an incentive discount for purchasing these wines as an employee (at least among smarter operators) which I found both attractive and unavoidable. I could taste the product I served at a cost usually cheaper than retail? I'm in. And, often if an entire bottle wasn't finished, it would hide quietly on the pantry shelf until ring out when it was taken home to study and dissect.
One of my first trips to a "better" wine shoppe gives me feelings of both nostalgia and hilarity. Staring at shelves that held stately selections such as Sterling Vineyards, William Hill and Trefethen Vineyards, alongside the more attractively priced and pedestrian Fetzer and Gallo wines, was a dizzying prospect, at best. All in a tiny storefront where pipe tobacco wafted regularly from the same store clerk who was in charge of the thermostat. As I snaked down the aisle, I was batted back the other direction upon reaching the boxed wine and massive jugs of Carlo Rossi. It was like wine pong.
How could I know that what I was about to buy didn't suck? At that time, Wine Spectator and the more cerebral Wine Advocate were the publications to help navigate the aisles of tantalizing choices. Numeric ratings and a few sentences of how the wine fared in blind tastings were printed right alongside the price. But, just when I thought I had discovered the Cliff Notes of the wine world, I discovered a thin wafer of a book on tasting and identifying wines. It seemed kind of nerdy, but at the same time, there was something about it's thoroughness and approachability that made it easy to give up the $12.95. Kevin's Zraly's Windows on the World Complete Wine Course was the Rosetta Stone of grapetopia.
I devoured this book and took all the advice it offered from deciphering labels to pronunciation. It threw bizarre terms at me and tossed about various languages that made me feel as though I had stepped off a plane in another continent. I wasn't intimidated, however. I drank it in. It demystified wine: I was learning something. Grenache was a grape, not a cake filling. Riesling was not pronounced with a long "I" sound. And, chianti did NOT always come in a bottle *slash* basket. Wine is geography- learn about wine producing regions, and you are learning about wine (same with food, actually- especially in Italy). When I found out that being presented the cork at tasting was not just a formality, but a silly one at that, I kept it to myself. After all, any concerns about a wine that might arise from the look, feel or smell of a cork should have been picked up on by the sommelier or person pouring said wine. I felt like I had turned a corner.
I had read somewhere that a budding sommelier candidate had spent the equivalent of a year's salary hunting down quality wines and producers for the sole purpose of tasting. He was speeding up the process of cataloging flavors and aromas, whereas some people spend a lifetime. He was learning a vocabulary for describing what he was tasting, and, would eventually be serving. It was only a matter of time after that he would be able to use that vocabulary to choose what he thought then was a proper pairing of wine for food. But, a sommelier needed to know much more. For example, when presented with the prospect of actually memorizing (so say nothing of remembering) which vintages were the best and for which region of the world, it seemed a daunting task that would only come some day in the future with mastery. Proper service, presentation, temperature- and the nerve-racking table-side decanting- were all part of the sommelier's duties.
how could this mysterious, sensuous and sophisticated beverage taste so incredibly delicious? I was back to square one. I knew nothing about wine.
Well, nothing except the most important thing of all: the best way to learn about wine was to drink it. The best way to appreciate it, is with friends. And, no matter how much you think you may know, you will never know all there is to know about wine. The people I do know who are most knowledgeable about wine, are also the most gracious, humble and generous people I know.
After that experience, each time I happened upon a stellar bottle to save or put in the cellar, I found a justifiable reason to open it and drink it (see above standards). Whenever presented with the possibility that I may never get to try a wine of a certain caliber or vintage again, I drink it, appreciate it and am grateful. And wiser, too. For, just when you think you'll never taste it again- you do. And it's even more enjoyable because your memory of the first time returns, and a smile creeps across your face. And suddenly, you can remember who was at the table when it was opened, what you were eating, what time of year it was, and yes- even what it tasted like then. Thus is the power of magnificent wine and friendships. I'm certain that I've tasted some really incredible wines while dining alone or at a trade tasting. But, I can't remember them. There's no connection to what was in that bottle for me. A pop of a cork, a raise of an eyebrow, a swish and a swirl, and it was quickly relegated to my short term memory along with seven-digit telephone numbers and locker combinations.
I raise my glass to you.