C H R I S 'S _ V I N O_ H I S T O R Y

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I N T R O D U C T I O N_

Once upon a time, when life was simpler and bank statements weren't an object of fearful dread, I was a perfectly happy brew-n-soda kind of guy who resolutely passed every restaurant wine list to his lovely and far more worldly wifelet or, if pressed, simply pointed at the second-cheapest bottle (wouldn't want to look too miserly), hoped for the best and didn't pay much attention to whatever showed up.

Then one day like any other it came to pass that I crossed paths, in my capacity as a graphic designer, with the esteemed Mr. Director of Fine and Rare Wines, who needed a catalogue done for an upcoming auction.

Well, the kind Mr. Director turned out to be a veritable vinous John the Baptist, spreading the Gospel of the Grape to whoever would listen awhile, and through his generosity I had the pleasure of attending the highfalutin' pre-auction tasting, where, for the first time, I began to get an inkling of what all the fuss was about.

I had always thought that I was the type of clod that "good" wine would be wasted on, that my taste buds didn't have the requisite training or cultivation or something or other to discern these oh-so-subtle nuances and ethereal, namby-pamby, vaguely snooty (and, I darkly suspected, mostly imaginary) distinctions between one glassful of fermented grape juice and another. Here was a golden opportunity to see if I had been ever-so-slightly hasty in these assumptions.

I took a deep breath and surveyed the arena: there was a rush going on at the Bordeaux table, people were lined up three-deep, clamoring for thimblefuls of what I supposed were the most precious drops available, so I headed for the underpopulated zones, saw a friendly chap pouring generously from a bottle the size of an eight-year-old, and held my glass out as he filled it halfway with a curious, tea-colored liquid. My nostrils quivered slightly at the unfamiliar aromas wafting up over the rim of the glass, and as I bent down for a closer inspection I was caught as surely as a bluebottle in a cane spider's web.

For better or for worse the nascent wine geek in me traces his genesis to that night. I knew nothing about what I was tasting; my criterion for asking for a glass being mostly my level of confidence as to whether I would be able to pronounce the name correctly, but there were as many flavors and textures in those bottles as there were at Baskin-Robbins, and a precious few that were simply otherworldly, an entirely new and unforeseen experience in my mouth, if you will.

For those of you who are scoring at home, my wine epiphany was a 1972 La Tâche (heavens bless its short and euphonious name); but that really didn't matter, it could just as easily have been any one of many strikingly different and extremely tasty bottles on hand. The point being that, as the oft-murmured cliche goes, "I never knew it could be like that." No training was necessary, no equipment needed except stemware, taste buds and a nose.

From there I was a lost cause. I wanted to find out more about what I had experienced; if everyone had this reaction, and was it only the really expensive stuff that was this tasty, and why?

What I discovered was that every answer engendered a host of new questions, and there was a vast body of knowledge out there that nobody could ever hope to assimilate. A sea of books, magazines, reviews, websites, a tangled skein of names, places, dates, chemistry, botany, history, geography, biography. In other words, it sounded really fascinating. So, being a card-carrying autodidact in good standing, I bought a book or two and a bottle or three and I settled right down to work.

And so I fell into the clutches of the oenophiles, from whose terrible grasp few ever escape...




One of the most delightful aspects of my newfound hobby was that I soon discovered that simply trying to pay close attention to the messages my senses were sending me paid unlooked-for dividends in terms of really tasting food and smelling all kinds of things that had previously gone by unnoticed (not necessarily a blessing in Manhattan, but hey, you take the good with the bad...).

I have always loved to cook, and I noticed that I was becoming much more aware of the interplay of spices and the texture and color of food, and found that many foods seemed to taste better when complemented by the right vino. This, of course, is hardly an original idea, but there is no truth quite like an old truth that you discover for yourself.

I also found out that there is a community of oenophiles out there, both in the "real" world and in cyberspace, in the retail wine business and disguised as mild-mannered everyday citizens, that are always ready and willing to sit around chewing the fat about the grape, and more than happy to pass on recommendations on their favorite sauvignon blanc, or their thoughts on which wine goes best with Indian food and why.

The wonderful thing about something so subjective as taste is that no one is ever wrong, despite what some mavens would have you believe. To me the only important thing was uncovering my own tastes and preferences, but ideas and suggestions from those who had trod the same path before steered me in the right direction and saved me from wandering down a lot of blind alleys.



T H E _ V I N O L O G

One of the problems I encountered almost immediately with my plan to learn everything in the world there was to learn about wine in no time flat was that I very quickly realized that I had a hell of a time remembering what it was that I had already tasted. I would start to make a mental connection with a wine that I had at dinner last week, with Lisa, in the bottle with the curlicues on it, no, the gold curlicues, not the black and red ones ...um, you know, the RED stuff, the ... and so on. So unless I was willing to do everything repeatedly (and even with budgetary constraints aside, I wasn't), I needed to have a specific method of recording my impressions and building a reference for my taste buds to go back and look at when memory failed me. So I got myself a little notebook and started writing down my impressions of every wine that passed my lips.

Once I started this, I found that there was an even more important benefit to writing down impressions immediately: my focus on sensory input is increased dramatically if I have to record and quantify it. It's easy for me to just sort of sip something and enjoy it as it goes down and that's it (not that there's anything wrong with that...), but if I had to actually come up with and write down a series of descriptive phrases I found myself hunting down individual elements of the wine's aroma and taste with extreme prejudice, and the more specific I got, the better I remembered, and the better I remembered the bigger the body of experience that I had to draw from became and the more each individual tasting meant, since it could be compared, contrasted and put in context.

Perhaps this is starting to sound more like my biology class homework than a soft-focus meander down the fuzzy halls of "the good life," but I take great delight in the minutiae involved, as I find that my attention is well rewarded. As a fairly simple sensualist, I find most of the mysticism surrounding this fermented grape beverage to be fairly uninteresting. I'm not looking for a "lifestyle." What I want is a nice tasty beverage to drink with dinner or with good friends. Some people find breaking something down into component pieces takes the fun out of it, but I find a greater appreciation of the whole if I can have at least a tiny clue as to how the pieces all fit together and why the final product surprises or thrills or bores me the way it does.

So we behold the birth of a winegeek. Or two, really. Happily, Lisa, who always had a better sense of wine than I did, was easily infected with this bug, acquiring a taste for the classics to the point where she turned into a self-described Bordeaux Slut.

To finish making a short story long, I offer my heartfelt thanks to all those who have been instrumental in starting me out on it... you know who you are.

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