Quelle Horreur!

August 18, 2016

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On May 24, 1976, nine French experts sat down at the InterContinental Hotel in Paris to taste a flight of wines that included some of the most revered products of their own vineyards along with new, little-known bottles from little-regarded California. What happened in that room changed the world of wine forever. JUDGMENT OF PARIS is the last word on this earthshaking event and its profound ramifications, written by a knowledgeable eyewitness. It’s one of the best wine books I’ve ever read.

The shocking effect of the “Judgment of Paris,” as the event has wryly come to be known, struck like a lightning bolt. It could hardly have been anticipated: such tastings happen all the time. The organizers, wine retailer Steven Spurrier and his colleague Patricia Gallagher, simply put together an amusing way to acknowledge the American bicentennial — and “the role France had played in that historic endeavor” — by introducing French super-palates to some of the interesting wines coming from the New World, both reds and whites. For comparison, Spurrier told the judges, he had also selected some French wines crafted in a similar style. Like many tastings, this one would be conducted “blind,” meaning the judges would not learn the wines’ identities until after they had rated them.

The Paris tasting was a watershed event for two reasons. First, the highest-rated wines, both red and white, were — spoiler alert, though this is not a book of suspense — from California! Second, a correspondent for Time magazine was present, and he sent the news to the world in the following week’s issue. Nobody is better qualified to write about this event, because despite Spurrier and Gallagher’s best efforts, only a single journalist could be roused to attend: our author, George M. Taber. Even Mr. Taber remembers idly brushing off the invitation in his mind: “it seemed almost absurd to compare the best French wines with California unknowns.” But when he saw a judge swirl, sniff and sip from one glass and pronounce, “Ah, back to France!” he double-checked the list in his hand with Gallagher. It was really a Napa Valley Chardonnay! Later, another judge dismissed another white wine: “That is definitely California. It has no nose.” Mr. Taber again had to make sure that the list he held was correct, for this was a 1973 Batard-Montrachet Ramonet-Prudhon, one of the best-regarded white Burgundies on earth. He realized, “Spurrier’s Paris tasting might just be an interesting story after all.”

At the 1976 tasting, from left: Patricia Gallagher, Steven Spurrier, and I don't know.

At the 1976 tasting, from left: Patricia Gallagher, Steven Spurrier, and I don’t know.

This book is wonderful not so much for its account of the event itself — the blow-by-blow description is only twelve pages long — but for helping us laymen understand what came before and after. While it’s perversely thrilling to watch pompous, patronizing worthies brought low (the EXPERTS SPEAK effect), this is really an uplifting, human-sized story featuring the Napa pioneers Mike Grgich, Warren Winiarski and Jim Barrett, who was portrayed by Bill Pullman in the underrated film inspired by the white-wine competition, BOTTLE SHOCK. We get to know these quirky, obsessed guys and watch how they manage to craft wines superb enough to stand up to the best France had to offer.

After introducing Spurrier and his little Parisian wine shop, Mr. Taber draws the bigger picture, beginning with a concise history of the wine industry in both France and California (which was awash in everyday wine before Prohibition). It’s hard to imagine this some forty eventful years later, but keep in mind that at the time of the Paris tasting, France ruled the wine world to the exclusion of most others. Fine wine, as opposed to jug or table wine, was considered to be exclusively European: if not French, perhaps Italian or Spanish. That’s where premier wine was made, and nowhere else. To most aficionados, California wine was nothing more exciting than a giant jug of Gallo “Hearty Burgundy.” But out of sight of Old World wine devotees, things were rapidly changing.

The terroir — climate, soil, slope, everything that gives a place its identity — of Bordeaux and Burgundy, the most prized viticultural regions in France, has been producing distinctive wine for centuries. Generations of winemakers — often literal generations as progeny take over the longstanding family business — have learned over time how to exploit their land, coax out the most useful grapes, and deal with the vicissitudes of weather that make each vintage unique. California winemakers couldn’t count on the wisdom that comes with long experience; they had to improvise. But they did have some advantages. Without being tied to rigid tradition, they felt free to experiment with new techniques and technologies. And their growing season of warm days and cool nights, with relatively predictable rainfall, was far less volatile: the range of quality between good harvests and poor ones was thinner than that of their French counterparts. What they were doing was under the radar, which is why the idea of a world-class wine from California was “almost absurd” in 1976. But the visionaries had known for years that this place — the Napa Valley and Sonoma County — seemed just perfect for making fine wine. Now they had to learn how to use it.

A great winemaker is a combination of farmer, chemist, artist and salesman: a practical dreamer. Sometimes it takes more than one person to nail down all these qualities. Mr. Taber repeats the probably apocryphal but famous exchange between Modesto’s Gallo brothers: Ernest is reputed to have said, “I’ll sell all the wine you can make,” to which brother Julio responded, “I’ll make all the wine you can sell.” The runup to the tasting shows the many roads traveled by its American principals, who were devoted to quality, not quantity. Warren Winiarski discovered the conviviality of everyday wine while spending a graduate-school year in Naples. Mike Grgich was a Croatian who grew up in a casual-wine culture. And Jim Barrett had his first taste in law school but graduated to finer wines after his real-estate law practice in Los Angeles flourished. However it happened, each man became enthralled with the idea of producing wine, each inspired by the great growths of Bordeaux and Burgundy. But they needed each other to put together the total package.

They also needed practical experience, and Mr. Taber details the winding paths that led Winiarski to found Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Barrett to revive Chateau Montelena (Grgich was its chief winemaker), makers of the red and white wines which won the Judgment of Paris. Stints at various established wineries, and the breakthroughs generously shared by other obsessives like Robert Mondavi — a natural-born marketer who became the face of Napa wine — allowed them to collapse the European centuries into years. Although Mr. Taber pays the most attention to the two victors, with precise reporting on the making of both individual winning vintages, he also goes into detail on each of the other wines presented at the Judgment. Six California Cabernet Sauvignons were tasted alongside four Bordeaux reds, and six California Chardonnays with four white Burgundies. At last Mr. Taber arrives at the main event, as the unlabeled, pre-decanted bottles are brought in while the judges chat merrily.

When Barrett and Grgich’s 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay was announced as the highest scoring white, the reaction of the judges “ranged from shock to horror.” As the reds were poured, Spurrier felt they would not let that happen again. They knew the French reds forward and backward. But, incredibly, Winiarski’s 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet won as well. It was incontestable: fine California wines could now rival the finest in the world.

WinePouring_1-CREDIT_Bella_Spurrier_Paris-1976Actually, it was contestable, and the French judges’ grapes immediately turned sour. Mr. Taber’s report appeared in the June 7, 1976 issue of Time in the “Modern Living” section, a one-column note following a story on a new theme park in Atlanta. But the buried notice seized the wine world instantly, and the French started walking back the results. Mr. Taber summarizes their main objections and even concedes one, that the tasting was mathematically stacked against France by presenting more American wines. But Spurrier hadn’t been thinking of the event as a contest; in fact, he was certain the French wines would score highest. He was simply trying to showcase some interesting bottles from the New World.

Speaking of the New World, ask most winelovers about the significance of the Paris tasting of 1976 and they’ll say it put California wines on the map and forced serious oenophiles to take them seriously. But as Mr. Taber shows, that wasn’t the largest consequence. Winemakers all over the world realized that if they found the right spot, used the right methods and brought the right passion and taste to bear, they could also produce world-class wine. The Judgment of Paris demystified Europe in general and France in particular. It led to the globalization of fine wine. In the book’s longest chapter, Mr. Taber takes a globe-spanning tour three decades later to a few great wineries outside France and Napa/Sonoma. The world’s best Sauvignon Blanc comes from New Zealand. Its best Syrah is made in Australia (in “Strine” it’s “Shiraz”). There’s a fabulous single-vineyard Chardonnay produced in South Africa (now the rest of the world can actually buy it in good conscience), and a real Burgundian is making dazzling Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. And so on and on, for these pioneers represent many hundreds more. In wine terms, the “New World” now indicates everywhere but Europe.

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The finest French wines — if one can afford them — can still be mind-blowing, and the great chateaux are a deserved source of national pride. But France’s share of the worldwide wine trade has inexorably slipped in the years since the Judgment while newcomers like Australia and Chile have been on fire: they’re unafraid to target a specific promising market. For example, Yellow Tail is fairly-priced everyday wine specially crafted for the American palate and marketed under a brand name that’s easy to remember; it’s hugely popular, and it doesn’t come from Modesto, but from Down Under. France’s — and now California’s — competition is everywhere these days. Mass marketers like Yellow Tail aside, there has never been a better time to enjoy respectable wine at an affordable price.

My hardcover copy of this book was published in 2005, and I just now got around to it (so many books, so little time…). Click on the jacket art up top, or the book title in the first paragraph, and you’ll link to a revised and updated paperback reprint, about a year later. The further passage of time hasn’t really changed Mr. Taber’s conclusions. The wine industry, like so many others, continues to consolidate. But the Internet and the inevitable dissolution of remaining laws preventing interstate shipping (it’s up to each individual state legislature) are enabling smaller wineries to reach far-off customers without the permission, or the fees, of middleman distributors. Mr. Taber writes clearly and vividly, and assumes you don’t know a thing about wine. By the time you’re finished, he’s given you an excellent idea of how “bottled poetry” is created, and a front-row seat at the thunderous event that changed everything.


10 Things I Learned In Argentina (With A Bonus!)

April 8, 2015

1) You know you want a slab of lean Argentine beef, right? Order the sirloin, called in most restaurants the “Bife De Chorizo.” They also have ribeye, filet, even succulent tenderloin, but this New-York-strip-steakish cut is not only cheaper, it’s also exactly what you want and is their best expression of mid-day, siesta-inducing beef. Tell them to cook it however they would enjoy it best themselves. Get the steak frites.

This is it.

This is it.

2) The famous Malbec grape, star of the Mendoza wine region, is more versatile than you may have imagined, especially in blends with Cabernet and Franc or yummy Tempranillo. The stuff we get in the States is generally the mass-produced dregs, hence the low regard. It’s like being in the Duoro: these really beautiful wines are so good that the locals drink them all up! But this could be changing as French winemakers move into the region and marry two styles, with international sales in mind. There are now pure Malbec bottles that can make your hair stand up, but the blends are still the absolute grooviest.

The tank room at Bodega (winery) Alta Vista near Mendoza.

The tank room at Bodega (winery) Alta Vista near Mendoza.

3) Eva Peron is tucked away in her famous cemetery, La Recoleta in Buenos Aires; it takes some footwork to find the memorial to her mortal remains. Fortunately, Airbnb led us to a great place in the charming Recoleta neighborhood, so we felt like we had plenty of time to wander around.

Evita and family.

Evita and family.

4) If you want to go to Uruguay, it’s a simple ferry ride, which we took, to Colonia del Sacramento. Some people on both sides take this ride for visa reasons: you have to leave the country every few months, etc. We were thrilled to be in another country. It looks like Cuba b/c of all the antique American cars passionately (and otherwise) maintained.

IMG_06545) US$ are more prized than AR pesos. This is because there is an official exchange rate and a “blue market” exchange rate. “Blue” instead of “black” because airbody knows about it, and individual stores will even offer the “blue” rate to your face if you’ll only pay in US$.

6) Mendoza is primed to explode. It’s like Napa a generation ago. They’re even selling plots wherever you go. The main problem is WATER. Don’t buy a plot unless you know you have this problem nicely solved, but if so, you’re betting on one of the world’s next trendy wine regions, so the dice would seem to be loaded in your favor.

This is the cellar at O. Fournier in the soon-to-be-trendy Uco Valley. You may peg it as a sanctuary. You would be correct.

This is the cellar at O. Fournier in the soon-to-be-trendy Uco Valley. You may peg it as a sanctuary. You would be correct.

7) The Vines Of Mendoza is a great place to settle down and taste. They know what they’re doing there, and although they’re obviously promoting, they listen to you too.

First thing you wanna do in Mendoza is head down to Vines Of. They are great.

First thing you wanna do in Mendoza is head down to Vines Of. They are great.

8) The non-tourist-serving Argentine people know just enough English: maybe a tad less than Europeans, but they make up for it in friendliness. You can communicate in a pinch with flailing hands and pointing fingers. Waiters and such are by and large fine: they have menus in English so all you have to do is point. A typical taxi driver may speak just a few English words, which matches my Spanish precisely. I made a couple of ’em laugh with my pitiful attempts. Write down your destination ahead of time and you’re bueno.

The first few days of fall were just perfect for al fresco steak snarfing.

The first few days of fall were just perfect for al fresco steak snarfing.

9) The stars are all different in the Southern Hemisphere. I should have noted this in Australia twenty years ago. We stayed in a top-floor place in B.A., but I never got a really close look at them. I imagined seeing the Southern Cross — or maybe I actually did! — and took a swig of Malbec. It was as if I had, so I was happy.

10) I turned on my pad and saw a Google Doodle made up of gourds: squash, pumpkin, etc. Curious, I clicked to get the significance, and — in Spanish — found it was the First Day Of Autumn. In other words, Sergei and Larry and Eric, along with the entire Apple staff, knew exactly where I was.

IMG_0645That is molto creepando, but I still owe a hearty muchas gracias to Ricardo (Mendoza Wine Tours), Andreas (The Vines of Mendoza), Alejandro (at our B.A. apartment), and all the other terrific people who made us feel right at home. Note to self: quit falling in love with these places. The return list is getting too long!

The actual second course (of seven) at our i Latina dinner. Don't miss it.

The actual second course (of seven) at our i Latina dinner. Don’t miss it.

BONUS TIP: Before you go to Buenos Aires, check out http://www.ilatinabuenosaires.com. This was the best place we ate in the entire Southern Hemisphere. Go all out for the wine tasting menu.


Everything’s Coming Up Rosé

June 10, 2010

Summer’s here — at least in New York it is! — and for me the season is the color of rosé wine. I’m not talking about the horrid Mateus that we all used to drink back in the days of candlewax dripping down fiasco-shaped bottles of cheap Chanti. I mean lighter, drier bottles that suggest a break from the heavy red wines of the rest of the year, but are every bit as refreshing as a Chard or Sauv Blanc – in fact, even more so, because the taste is unexpected. It’s like drinking flower petals, and you don’t have to pay a fortune to do it. The New York Times’s wine columnist, Eric Asimov, even extolled rosé’s virtues recently.

The girls are checking out what everybody else is having. Doug’s digging the wine list. I’m about to order rose.

Most people my age turn their noses up at rosé, probably because of that too-sweet Mateus experience (it was so popular in North America that in its heyday, Mateus accounted for more than a third of Portugal’s wine export business). So it was that, during a vacation on the French Riviera (hey, we had a free place to stay!) with our dear friends Doug and Kathie Ross – winelovers supreme – at a sun-drenched but wonderfully temperate lunch outside by the seashore, I surprised them by suggesting we order rosé. It turned out to be perfect, and that lunch remains one of my most treasured memories: I can’t crack open a bottle of rosé now without thinking of Doug and Kathie, who were skeptical at first. “Bottled poetry” is like that: you make lifelong connections, just like you do with a favorite song.

A typical spread on the terrace. Everything you see, including wine, was bought on the fly.

There was a terrace outside our apartment in Monte Carlo. During the days we’d explore (one day we rented a car and Doug negotiated the stick shift around hairpin turns that would have challenged James Bond; of course, we weren’t going 100km/h), but we tried to make it back for mid-afternoon. We sat out on that terrace for hours, watching the sun set, talking about cabbages and kings, and enjoying cold cuts, fruit and cheese, and lots of wine, imbibed over so many hours that I never became intoxicated with anything but the magnificent setting. The others felt the same way. Over food, friends and the grape, we were only pretending to be Europeans. But it was so much fun.


Cork Torque

May 28, 2010

Gotta recommend a wonderful book to you: THE BILLIONAIRE’S VINEGAR, by Benjamin Wallace. What a read. It’s a forensic mystery, a slice of history, a funny look at obsessives and oddballs, and, just maybe, the story of a truly audacious “long con.” And it’s all true.

The bottle in question.

On December 5, 1985, at Christie’s in London, a single bottle of wine was sold at auction for the equivalent of $156,000, making it far and away the most valuable bottle in history. It was a 1787 Chateau Lafite (later dubbed one of the “first growths” of Bordeaux, among the most ageworthy and expensive wines on earth) with this engraved on the glass: “Th. J.” The auction catalog noted that these “are the initials of Thomas Jefferson.” The wine was discovered, it was claimed, by workers tearing down a house in Paris who found a false basement wall and, behind it, bottles that had been preserved for nearly 200 years.  The auctioneer was Michael Broadbent, one of Britain’s most respected authorities on wine. The consigner was a German named Hardy Rodenstock, who traveled in the most rarefied circles of wine collecting. Both men staked their considerable reputations on the authenticity of this incredible find.

The bottle’s buyer was Malcolm Forbes, of the eponymous business magazine, who had no intention of opening it. He would display it alongside other Presidential relics in the Forbes Galleries, a small “museum” in the company’s headquarters building on lower Fifth Avenue in New York. These galleries were one of the city’s least-known but most enjoyable destinations; I took visitors there all the time. I saw the Jefferson bottle, displayed behind glass under dramatic lighting. Then one day it just wasn‘t there. Skeptical people were challenging its provenance, along with other similar bottles; the doubters’ ranks grew as more of them came to market.

The ol' tippler himself.

This book recounts the fascinating attempts to date the wine and true it up with Jefferson’s own obsessive records. You meet him, one of America’s first oenophiles (he tries bravely to establish a vineyard at Monticello), touring Europe’s vineyards and shipping case after case to other Founding Fathers during his five years in Paris. You swirl and sip with the many eccentrics who make up the rare-wine elite, and look over the shoulders of the scientific community that tries to bring technology to bear on the tantalizing puzzle. And you follow Broadbent, whose VINTAGE WINE is the greatest collection of tasting notes ever published; if the Jefferson wine turns out to be phony or adulterated, that would call into question many of his notes on other 18th- or 19th-century bottles, most of which had been served him by Rodenstock.

You don’t have to know a thing about wine to enjoy this book. The author gives you everything you need, and nothing extraneous, in a clear, concise narrative. It is as propulsive as an intense mystery, for that’s what it essentially is. It will make you laugh at times, recoil in horror at others. It could inspire a terrific movie, and one is in the works. Don’t pass this one up.


Spo-Dee-O-Dee

July 28, 2009
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 the top 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 couldn’t yet tell — had ever touched my tongue. It wasn’t the taste of the wine alone. It plus the steak produced a third taste in my mouth, a glorious flavor that made it both the best bite of steak and the best sip of wine I’d ever experienced. Many wine lovers have had similar epiphanies. This 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; less patient imbibers might 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 shoulder, 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, Argentina, 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 what Robert Louis Stevenson called “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.)

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Um, this is Saint-Emilion, as it looked on a lovely 2017 Bordeaux visit.

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 wittingly), but I find that the more I discover about wine, the more I’d rather simply 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 might have impressed any young lovely within reach.


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