Monday, March 26, 2007
A Bottle of Chianti and Me
I wish I had that moment in time that I could point to as my rebirth as a wine lover. All the great wine writers seem to. An old Bordeaux in some chateau. An unexpected local wine in some likely cafe. I remember a self-possessed fellow named Tad, one of my teachers at the International Wine Center, telling of a glass of something or other sipped in France that instantly told him his future would be in the wine trade.
But I can't fool myself. I don't have that clear-cut moment. My interest in wine was always there in the back of my head, but never actively fed until I reached my mid-30s. I probably took so long acting on it because nothing in my upbringing told me I should respect wine or be interesting in it as anything more than an intoxicant or as something to fill up prized crystal. My parents dranks a lot of Gallo, bought is huge jugs. White, mainly. Chardonnay, most probably. They weren't discerning. They just wanted some wine on hand in case their dinner guests were "wine-drinkers," as opposed to "gin-drinkers" or "scotch-drinkers." I tried it. It was awful and I was turned off. Later on, in the '90s, they turned to box wines. As for champagne—the fine wine that finds its way into every house, however unprepossessing—I don't remember every having a glass. Perhaps on New Year's Eve. Perhaps Korbel. If so, it was sour and acidic, if taste memory serves.
In college, of course, no one drank wine. It was beer, bought in kegs, or hard liquor of the cheapest sort. My roommate lined empty bottle of Jack Daniels up on the windowsill. Still, I harbored a need to know more about wine. I knew there was a world there. Literature told me there was. So did history. But how to find out?
I few isolated moments stand out as feeding my slow education. My wife Sarah's college friend David was a lover of port. He kept a beautiful carafe full of it on a table in his Greenwich Village apartment. When we visited, he would pour us each a small glass. I believe it was good quality. Anyway, I loved it immediately and began keeping a bottle of Tawny Port around my place. Later on, I made friends with a couple of young men at my workplace: one, Dan, a neurotic New England journalist type; the other, Andrew, a friendly, sax-playing soul from the mid-South. Both had a passion for single-malt scotch. And so I learned the difference between blended and single-malt scotch and quickly came to prefer the latter. Talisker evolved as my brand. That it was made on the Isle of Skye, a place I had visited and adored, certainly helped matters. (Also an influence was a story Sarah told me of a Brooklyn drunk who waxed poetic to her one night about the virtues of Laguvulin, saying it was "friggin' nec-TAR.")
My brother Eric treated me to a dinner at the Culinary Institute or America in Hyde Park the night before my wedding. I don't remember the name or varietal of the white wine we had that night—I wish to God I did—but I know it opened my eyes to what white wine could be: stunning, magnificent, transporting.
But the most inflential bottle of my formative years was one (or, rather, several) that I drank by the side of a pool in the small Tuscan village of Volpaia. It was May 1999. My family had rented a centuries-old villa there, perched idyllically above a sunlit valley. The best view was to be had by the pool. An impossibly breathtaking, postcard-like vista. Volpaia was small, about 44 residents, and was largely taken up by the workings of a single vineyard, Castello di Volpaia (a winemaker now fairly famous, but then rather obscure). Most of the old buildings housed barrels and winemaking equipment. The vineyard's headquarters were a short walk from the villa and we used to stroll there every day to sample and buy wine. At the time, the now-fabled 1997 vintage was all the talk. We tried to buy some, but it was not to be found, so we drank bottle after bottle of 1996 Chianti Classico.
I remember not particularly liking it at first. I realize now that I was probably repsonding to the wine's youth. It was still tight, the tannins too rough and not fully integrated into the wine. By I adapted quickly and I began to drink roughly a bottle a day, slowly, while I sat by the pool, legs dangling in the water. I had never been much of a drinker before then, so this was something. I was really drinking, and thoughtfully. Those hours were wonderfully peaceful and contented. I knew that had a lot to do with the scenery and locale. But I also knew that the wine was making its contribution. It was adding a new aspect of beauty and civilization to each minute.
Thereafter, I vowed to learn more about the liquid I enjoyed so much. I became more of a buyer and steady imbiber. It was still years, however, before I turned myself into a serious student. (More on that later.) But I was on my way.
And, thus, this blog. I plan to use it to express thoughts and musings about specific wines and general trends in the wine world. I may post some brief reviews of wines that really strike me as something special. I also write about wine for a number of publications and will post links to those articles as they appear. I hope to avoid pomposity and exclusivity, things I abhor in wine enthusiasts. I will also occasionally writer about spirits and cocktails, an interest in which has grown out of my wine pursuits. Hope you enjoy. Thanks for checking in.