Oh, screw it; it’s 5 o’clock somewhere. Let’s talk about wine; everything else is too depressing.
In our many family moves during my youth, there were a few belongings, in addition to clothes, dishes and furniture, that always made the journey from one stopping place to the next: the Encyclopaedia Britannica set; the heirloom Christmas decorations; the melamine plates my sister and I made for Mother’s Day; and a bottle of 1962 Dom Pérignon, given to my parents as a wedding present or baby present or something. It was a treasure we would open someday, on some special occasion, my mother said again and again, from year to year, house to house.
We were not wine people, nor did we know any real wine people, especially then, back in the day of Ernest and Julio Gallo’s Hearty Burgundy, “affordable in price and approachable in taste,” that was my father’s drink of choice. My mother treated herself to the occasional bottle of Chablis, thoughtfully selected and carefully bought; but we never had much wine on hand at any given time other than the big glass Gallo jug and that iconic, luminous, dark green bottle of Dom, a symbol of life far removed from our grainy realities.
But wine was always part of our big family holiday gatherings on my father’s side. My great-uncle, Big Dave, served as wine steward and explained, without being showy, why he picked a particular Alsatian Riesling or, less frequently, a Gewürztraminer (too sweet for regular drinking, he said) to accompany our meal. When children in the family reached a certain age, somewhere around 13, we were allowed a thimbleful of wine to taste during the toast, after the blessing. We also received brief, simple instruction as to why the wine matched the food, with additional caution that overindulgence in either wine or food was ill-advised.
So this was my basic understanding of wine, from an early age: utility wine, used for taking the edge off of life, came in gallon containers; expensive wine, marked by heavy glass and fancy labeling, was reserved only for the most special occasions; and in between these two extremes there was a great mystery of wine from different grapes with different names and from different parts of the world.
When my parents separated and then divorced, my father took his jug of Gallo, and my mother took custody of the precious Champagne, destined for some as-yet-unnamed, very special celebration. The bottle moved:
from the bar tray in our house on Chuckwood Lane, where it sat on display next to the Baccarat decanter;
to the bar tray in our apartment on Perkins, minus the decanter, which had been liquidated for cash;
to the pantry shelf in the bungalow on Walnut Grove;
to the attic of what we thought might be a permanent house on Poplar;
to storage boxes during the temporary stay on Reese, my freshman year in college, after the fire on Poplar;
until it came to rest on the floor of the pantry, next to the spare baking trays and Reynolds Wrap, in the guesthouse on Shady Oaks Lane, where my mother lived for three straight years while I finished college and my sister finished high school.
Shady Oaks was our address when I turned 21, home for the summer before my senior year. According to my sister, who remembers this better than I, we popped the cork right smack on the day of my birthday. I remember opening the bottle, but not that it was any special occasion. We both clearly remember the reveal: a victim of poor handling over the many years, our container of what was once reported to be a decent, if overly dry, Champagne, held nothing but smelly vinegar, unsuitable for anything, even cooking. As I mentioned, we weren’t really wine people, not the collecting, cellaring, protecting sort, anyway.
But we were wine drinkers, believers that a touch of the grape made any meal more delightful. When I moved back to Memphis from Boston and lived with my mother for a year or so, there was usually a bottle of Woodbridge Chardonnay in her refrigerator, as fair a compromise as she would find, according to her friends at Arthur’s, between the French wines my mother preferred and the limitations of her pocketbook. She would branch out occasionally, ask for a recommendation, try something new – always within the self-imposed parameters of “drinkable and under $10.”
This was during the time in my career when I was working as a typist, trying to earn enough money that I could eventually pay rent on my own instead of living with my mother. While I was typing, and eventually coordinating trade show events, I developed a friendship with a colleague who loved wine (still does) and who thought I might enjoy the weekly wine tastings he frequented. And that’s how I met Shields Hood, who back then was schlepping around town teaching small wine classes on behalf of Athens Distributing Company, his employer.
I still have many of the handouts from these events, each on a different colored paper to help organize filing. They are faded now but still well-preserved, stuck in between the pages of my stained, much-loved copy of Beyond Parsley that my mother and I used as our primary inspiration for cooking dinner that year, dinner that we always served with wine.
Shields’s topics included things like, Wines of France, Bordeaux; Wines of Australia; 88 or Better; “New” California Wines. The classes were small, limited to 12 or 15 people, I think; and they left a lingering impression, not only of the wine discovery but also of how accessible French words sounded when spoken in a muddy Mississippi drawl. (I will never be able to look at a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape without thinking of Shields and his unique pronunciation.)
Wine selections ran the gamut of price and quality, with frequent emphasis on the fact that these two things, price and quality, were different, though often connected. There were, Shields showed us, perfectly drinkable California wines for $6.99 (it was the early 1990s), and highly questionable French ones for $34.99 and up.
Through the many pours, the objective, if wine tastings can be said to have objectives, was to help each of us isolate and identify what we liked or disliked about the different wines: green apple, sweaty socks, overripe cherries, honeydew melon. Did the nose match the taste? What were the clues that something might taste either delicious or terrible? Did the wine wash down clean and crisp, or linger for a bit on the tongue?
We learned about grapes and geography and grand cru, pondered tannins and residual sugar and temperature, all in the spirit of curiosity. There was little, if anything, snooty about any of it – and never from Shields himself. His answer to “would this wine be a good investment?” was always the same: depends on whether or not you like it.
I would tell you that the highlight in the years of classes with Shields was the four-course dinner tasting for ’89 Bordeaux, a lavish affair featuring smoked quail and aged steak and all the usual suspects – Chateau Margaux, Chateau Latour, Chateau Lafite-Rothschild. It was a spectacular event and highly enjoyable. But the truth is that, given a choice, I don’t actually like those big, manly, red Bordeaux wines; so there.
No, the highlight of those wine-tasting years, for me, came during a regular weeknight class titled “Champagne.” I had, by that time in my life, developed both an affection for bubbles and a very basic understanding of the difference between true Champagne and méthode champenoise (now méthode traditionnelle). I knew that Korbel gave me a headache but Moët did not; I knew that Perrier-Jouët was the prettiest bottle in the wine store; I knew that Dom Pérignon was considered, by some, rather over-rated.
If I saved the list from this particular class, I stashed it in such a safe place that I’ll probably never find it. I can’t recall precisely what wines were poured, because only one, the ’82 Salon, stood out. From the very first sip, the first whiff of yeast and tickle of tiny bubbles, I knew I’d met my perfect match. Truly, it remains in my mind the most delicious wine I may ever have the good fortune to drink. One day, when I grew up, I was going to drink nothing but Salon. In the interim, Shields suggested, I might look for an alternative, more affordable (and readily available) blanc de blancs made entirely from Chardonnay grapes. I made a mental note of his suggestion and then, for a while, forgot about it, still focusing more on the big title names than any of the other clues that wine labels held.
When our company was purchased by France Telecom and I traveled to Paris to meet our new colleagues, and I intended to use all of my newly acquired knowledge, thanks to Shields’s tutelage, to bring home the beginnings of a wine collection. Instead, I brought back a suitcase full of wine I knew nothing about, purchased at a department store three hours before I was to depart from the airport, selections made without much discretion because I’ve never really grasped the AOC system, not then, not now. I frantically scanned the rows of bottles, looking for any words I recognized, and then I grabbed at random and hoped for the best.
I saved not one single bottle. I invited company for dinner, drained every drop, made not a single note and preserved not a single label; not one. In all of it, the only detail I remember is that I showed my stash to Vincent, a colleague from Paris who was assigned to our office in Memphis. He said only this: most Americans are too stupid to appreciate Burgundies. To this day I don’t know whether his comment was intended as a slight or a compliment.
When I moved to Omaha, thanks to the wine-loving co-worker who had introduced me to Shields and who helped recruit me for this new job, wine was a small but important function of my actual work, arranging dinners for the Stags Leap set, coordinating a wine tasting reception on the rooftop of the Rome Cavalieri, procuring bottles of Dolce and artisan chocolates for VIP gift baskets. In many ways, it was completely obscene to me, drinking Opus One (on someone else’s tab) on a Tuesday night, just for the hell of it. However, I can’t say I didn’t savor it, all of it, down to the very dregs.
I suppose that I should have started collecting a bit here, bit there during these years. I should have developed a ‘drink some now, save some for later’ program. But I wasn’t the wine cellar type, then; I still am not, today. Maybe someday I’ll revisit that, though I rather doubt it.
When I left high-flying life behind to become a mother and wife, I retreated to the familiar intersection of drinkable and affordable, with an updated price limit of $12. Pressed for time, always, and trying to get dinner on the table by 6, I had little time or energy for adventuresome exploration; so I settled on two standards, Monkey Bay Sauvignon Blanc and Root 1 Cab, deciding that good enough was good enough.
Then, about five years ago for my birthday one of my dear friends, a fellow reader and writer and lover of both sparkling wine and Ina Garten recipes, gave me a three month membership in Joe’s Wine Club, something she knew I would enjoy and that she also knew I would never buy for myself. As I’ve since told Brad, the store owner who is also a long-time friend: I was perfectly happy drinking Monkey Bay until I remembered how much I love wine.
Really, I do love wine. I love the taste, the discovery, the stories, the history, the chemistry – all of it. I particularly love talking about wine with people who love it in the same way I do, simply for the delight of enjoyment. In this way, finding a good wine store has been like finding a good bookstore, a place where someone – a real person – with a wide base of knowledge and experience can listen and then steer you toward what you are likely to like. I love that Brad and Sisco and Richie and Michael (before he defected to the Pacific Northwest) are eager to talk about what’s happening in the Elqui Valley, thrilled to introduce the wine makers who come for Passport to Oregon, and never pretentious when asked to recommend a good $12 dinner wine.
In my five years of Joe’s wine club adventures, I learned something new each and every month. I’ve even taken a few notes and saved a flyer or two, mostly so I can remember what I enjoyed or didn’t. But still I’ve stored no bottles, made no scrapbook of labels. In that regard, I’ll never be a real wine person. I’m OK with that.
A couple of years ago when the 2002 Salon was released, Joe’s managed to acquire a couple of cases and offered bottles to wine club members on a first-come, first-served basis before putting any remaining inventory in the store. I must have said something, in the past, about my longing for Salon because Brad made a point of mentioning it to me, asking if I’d seen the email notification.
For a good minute, I thought seriously about snatching up one of those $325 bottles – blowing two weeks’ worth of grocery money on a single bottle of Champagne. I thought about acquiring that holy grail, saving it, carefully, for a very special future occasion. I thought about introducing my children, one day, to this wine I knew would be every bit as spectacular as its predecessors, marveling in the fragrance, the color, the tiny bubbles, the history. I thought about the build-up and then the great reveal.
And then I let it go, decided the burden of the mere idea was too much. Whether they grow up to love wine or not, if I want my children to know anything it’s that life is best enjoyed where it is, with a bit of moderation and thoughtful intent, in that abundant and wonderful and curiosity-filled space, somewhere in between a jug of Gallo and the pedestal of Dom Pérignon.
Food | Week of June 27, 2016
Kale and Peach Salad | Grilled Chicken
Blue Cheese Burgers | Mixed berries