Spo-Dee-O-Dee

Cork trees in Portugal, showing the number which indicates when they can next be harvested. (See Comments)

Cork trees in Portugal, showing the number which indicates when they can next be harvested. (See Comments)

My first experience with wine was in the balcony of the Millsaps College Christian Center Auditorium, where certain members of my college theatre group would wile away the boring hours of Friday-night “photo call” with cheese and Dixie cups full of Gallo “Hearty Burgundy” or, even worse, “Tokay.” The wine was in a fiasco-shaped jug (that’s the Chianti-bottle-with-the-dripping-candle shape) covered in imitation brown leather, little brass lion’s heads on either side with rings through their noses, and an absurdly colossal stopper. It was a present from a girl much sweeter than I, but just as naive; you wouldn’t dare take it to Cole Porter’s place, but it might have impressed Henry VIII, say, as he tossed that last turkey legbone over his shoulder. So: I had my very own wine flask, let’s get some wine to put inside it! We thought we were having a wonderful time, and that’s because we were. This, I discovered much later, is the first rule of wine appreciation: if you like it, then it’s good. We weren’t drinking for intoxication (we had intermittent photo calls ourselves and would have been forever banished), but for conviviality. Unlike beer, the college man’s staple, this stuff wasn’t meant for quaffing, but for sipping. Away from photo call, we tried a “fortified” wine once — these are ultra-high-alcohol “misery” wines like MD 20-20, made, shamefully, principally for winos — and nobody could stand it. Wine snobbery in its infancy.

We’re talking late Sixties here, just as far-sighted pioneers were transforming Napa and Sonoma from Mayberrys into Edens. In those days, California wine was a joke. (Where do you think our jugs of “Hearty Burgundy” came from?) It had nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with fine dining to the snobs back East and in Europe, where such matters were adjudicated. It reminds me of how New York State wines are treated today, even in their own state. Come back in twenty years and see if you can afford a case of North Fork Chard. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

One night an older and more sophisticated friend (actually, any bit of sophistication would have constituted “more”) invited a few of us to dinner. Grilled steaks. He cracked a bottle of Saint-Emilion (not only can’t I remember the chateau, I thought St-Emilion was the brand name, so that’s what I strove to remember). This was the first time a drop of Bordeaux — for, of course, that’s what it was, even if I didn’t realize it yet — had ever touched my tongue. It wasn’t the taste of the wine alone. It was that a sip, along with a bite of steak, produced a third taste in my mouth, a glorious flavor that made it both the best steak and the best sip of wine I’d ever enjoyed. Many wine lovers have had similar epiphanies. That was mine. Gallo Hearty Burgundy was now like a former friend whose personal hygiene makes you uncomfortable. I would order St-Emilion by that name in restaurants, sometimes annoyingly overaccented, and direct the waiter to “put it in the fridge until you bring the entree,” a tip my steak-grilling friend had shared. (Note from the Reality-Based Community: :15 of fridge chilling before you serve a red wine will barely change the temperature of the outside glass, but the faux erudition can have an effect on certain women. For you, make it about an hour, like my grilling mentor must have done, or use an ice bucket bath (half ice, half water) to achieve cellar temp in about :05. Yes, it’s OK, even for still red wine.) In the Deep South of the early and mid-Seventies, where our tale takes place, waiters weren’t expected to be wine experts. Any knowledgeable server would have thought either: “This guy digs a specific appellation from the Right Bank: he’s James Bond!” or “This idiot gets the Cheval Blanc and the bill that comes with it!” But I continued to think I was having a wonderful time, because, once again, I was. Others back then were drinking stuff like Lancers or Mateus, maybe Blue Nun (brilliantly marketed to America with radio spots featuring Stiller & Meara; it’s a German Liebfraumilch which isn’t all that bad). A girlfriend used to make the best quiche, and with it we’d drink Anheuser Bereich Bernkastel, a flowery Riesling blend that I can taste right now. But wine still hadn’t become a part of my everyday dining, as in Robert Mondavi’s dreams, and everything we’ve mentioned so far since I weaned myself off the Hearty Burgundy comes from the “Old World.”

Europeans, particularly Brits, who have an uncommon love for Bordeaux (they call it “claret”), never saw the next wave coming. Steven Spurrier, one of the few wine experts who had been looking back over his shoulders, traveled to California wine country and was quite impressed by what he saw. A natural publicity machine, Spurrier proposed a wine tasting in Paris for 1976, the American Bicentennial. Wow. New World vs. Old. California vs. France. The distinguished panel of French judges shocked themselves, and the world. A bottle each of the winning vintages of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon now reside in the Smithsonian — because the winners were American. The “Great Tasting” — depicted in part (the white wine competition only) in the underrated film BOTTLE SHOCK — is probably the most important wine event of my lifetime. Not only did California wines establish that at their zenith they were the potential equal of anything else in the world, but ordinary Americans also began to take notice. By the time scientific evidence emerged that red wine in moderation is actually good for you, things had irrevocably changed. And I myself had begun seriously paying attention.

Another trend which shadowed the emergence of “New World” wines (not just American, but also from Australia, Chile, South Africa, and an ever-expanding list) was wine democratization. Mirroring the personalities of the aw-shucks Napa and Sonoma winemakers, wine snobbery itself became declasse. And there’s really not much you have to know, because if you like it, then it’s good. I popped the corks I could afford, started writing down the ones I really enjoyed (yikes: St-Emilion’s not a brand, but a place!). A little later I had a job that took me to Marin County frequently, and I hooked up with my old high-school buddy Lew Perdue, who was publishing wine industry trade mags from Sonoma. He took me around, and I got to see first-hand the gorgeous countryside that was able to transform its visual majesty into “bottled poetry.” I got on the mailing list of one winery, the lavender-studded Matanzas Creek. (They have different winemakers now, but the lavender is still there.)

I’ve never lived in a place where you could buy wine in a grocery store, but I travel to those states all the time. It seems so naughty. (I’m looking at you, you hedonistic libertines of Arizona!) But, of course, that’s part of the mind-set which has to change, probably by slow attrition, before wine takes its place at the table as just another food item. For several years, greedy New York liquor wholesalers prevented out-of-state wineries from shipping directly to my house, using desperate, ludicrous arguments. But there were ways. A winery in Indiana packed caselots for shipping in unmarked boxes, and the local post office branch looked the other way. I never had a problem. A friend was on the Williams Selyem mailing list and we’d split cases. He’d drive to the one store in New York state that served as a “branch office” and thus could receive shipments; they still couldn’t forward the wine to you, so you had to pick it up. But the jammy, fruity Pinot Noir, some of the finest anywhere, was worth the trouble. And all the time, as Napa Valley turned into one of the country’s leading vacation destinations, more and more New Yorkers were becoming outraged when the nice man in the tasting room declined to ship a case or two home; it was illegal. Finally, in a highly anticipated 2005 decision, the Supreme Court found that if in-state wineries can ship direct (as New York’s could), then others must have that right too. Now we’re a “reciprocal” state again — if we can ship to you, you can ship to us. Battle won — but didn’t Coors lose a bit of its taste once it became available east of the Rockies?

I’m very glad I was a wine innocent up in that balcony in college, for that’s how I was able to enjoy humble Gallo Hearty Burgundy without shame or irony. As in Eden? Naw, let’s leave that metaphor back in the second paragraph, where it belongs. There’s so much we can learn, so little we need to know. Robert Parker, the most influential wine critic there is, recently produced a tiny 16-page booklet, and damn if there’s any more info you really do need beyond what’s in there. If I could keep only one comprehensive wine reference, it would be Karen MacNeil’s THE WINE BIBLE. But the book I use the most is WHAT TO DRINK WITH WHAT YOU EAT by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page. It’s a reverse “dictionary,” pairing food to wine, then wine to food. I consult it several times a week, and once I read something five or six times, it begins to stick. When I’m in a restaurant these days, I don’t unwittingly embarrass myself like I used to (now it’s all witting), but I find that the more I discover about wine, the more I’d rather just ask the server’s advice and try something I’d never have thought of on my own. If the kid I used to be had known to do that, he would have impressed any young lovely within reach.

12/9/14: But if you are actually suave, my friend Doug Ross can help you amalgamate the info on new Bordeaux vintages.

11 Responses to Spo-Dee-O-Dee

  1. Lewis Perdue says:

    Yes, St. Emilion is DEFINITELY a gateway wine to the harder stuff (harder to pay for, that is).

  2. Tom Dupree says:

    It’s much cheaper when you think that’s THE ONLY DECENT WINE THERE IS.

  3. Stanley Graham says:

    Tom, you took me back to the Sixties to a “wine first” I wanted to share with you.

    Lance knew Margaret and I were going to New Orleans and staying at the Royal Orleans on our honeymoon. He couldn’t attend our wedding because of a long standing commitment; so, as an extra special treat he shared his favorite meal at the Royal Orleans’ Rib Room with us – the rare Prime Rib with popover accompanied by #100 on the wine list – a Sichel Fils et Freres, Gevrey-Chambertin, Vintage 1961.

    That was to be our first encounter with a real sommelier that came to the table with a vintage bottle of wine from an actual wine cellar. He initiated “the wine ceremony” after an eyebrow gave him away – he knew we were rookies at being grown-ups. He announced the vintage, name and varietal of the wine, cut the foil, removed the cork, offered it to me for my inspection, and carefully poured just the right amount in my glass. Not being a chauvinist, knowing what I was expected to do was no barrier to my offering the lead to Margaret, somewhat embarrassed for me she declined. I declared the wine suitable and the sommelier gratefully left our table; possibly wondering how I came to order the Gevrey-Chambertin instead of the Paisano.

    The meal was more than memorable for us; it was a beautifully coordinated production with the wine as the star and the newlyweds as the audience. Back then the Rib Room was a top flight restaurant with wonderful food, the best wine list in New Orleans, and impeccable service. Our mentor, the head of our theatre department at Millsaps College, had yet again shared something dear to his heart. November 29th it will have been forty years since that meal and we still remember it vividly. The very next morning we met Lance, Winnifred, and Kevin at the brand new Royal Sonesta Hotel for a fabulous New Orleans style breakfast. He didn’t come to our wedding; he came to our honeymoon – with his best friends!

    Years later while I was interviewing Peter Mondavi, Jr. for an ETV foodie show I hosted, he picked up the cork from a freshly opened bottle, took a bite, chewed it a bit, and wondered aloud exactly what it was you were supposed to do with the darn thing. He added that the new screw top technology was already superior to the cork and would, despite its lack of ready acceptance by wine snobs, eventually replace the cork.

    And Tom, as far as Tokay goes, make mine a Tokay d’Alsace and I’ll feel kinda trendy, though I may still sit on a curb.

  4. Tom Dupree says:

    Beautiful story! Lovely!

    Believe you’re talking about *real* Tokay, from Tokaj, which is perfectly respectable. I was referring to Gallo “Tokay” — a horse of a different color indeed. (In fact, it tasted a little like a horse smells!)

    Re screwcaps: I too believe they’re superior, and over time will take over everything but the snootiest first growths. (Some people still prefer vinyl, after all.) The only time I can’t say so is when we visit our dear friends who live in Portugal. But you know what I hate? Synthetic corks! The worst of both worlds!

  5. Stanley Graham says:

    I am guilty of being obscure again… apologies. I had this mental image of a disreputable mendicant who had gotten “Okay with Tokay!” sitting in the gutter clutching a bottle of Pinot Gris.

    The explanation: In 1993, an agreement was reached between Hungary and Europe to stop using the name Tokay unless it was in reference to Hungarian wines. The Alsatian wine Tokay d’Alsace became Tokay Pinot Gris as an intermediate step with Tokay to be eliminated in 2007. Outside of Alsace the grape is now referred to simply as Pinot Gris or in Italy as Pinot Grigio.

    Don’t you just hate it when you have to explain a joke; means it wasn’t a very good joke. I’ll try again tomorrow.

  6. Tom Dupree says:

    Hokay!

    Yep, the Pinot Gris would definitely disappoint our man of the streets. But Gallo’s jug definitely deserved the quotation marks I gave it in my original post: it was “Tokay,” and it was grim.

  7. bob says:

    The Kiwi’s make great Pinot Noirs and most are screwcaps. You don’t get corked wines with screw caps. The problem with cork apparently has to do with harvesting too much to meet the demand, the trees can not take the stress and are not producing the quality of bark needed.

  8. Tom Dupree says:

    The cork trees I’ve seen in Portugal are all prominently numbered after they’re stripped, and the harvester can only take the crop that’s ready this year. Maybe they’re underestimating the growth cycle, but I doubt it: cork is a very important industry to them. If I knew how to upload photos here (I’ll find out), I’d show you a couple.

  9. bob says:

    Thanks, my info is 2nd hand, not sure where it came from, probably from Busters’ (Memphis wine shop) sales person in discussion of screwcaps.

  10. Tom Dupree says:

    I’ve finally learned how to post photos, so, bob, check out the one that leads this entry.

  11. bob says:

    Great shot, They look like “poodle cut” trees. lol

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,687 other followers

%d bloggers like this: