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.