Since my wife and I are doing some wine tasting tonight, I thought I would post an article that I once published in the now defunct "Small Winery Magazine." It's still accurate.
When people ask about memorable wines that I have drank, I think they expect, even desire, to hear certain names dropped, like Opus One or Yquem or Bordeaux first-growths or prestigious Napa Valley releases. If so, I disappoint them because the wines I remember most fondly aren’t identifiable by vintage or wineries.
The first wine I ever tasted was at a neighbor’s house, the man that everyone, even my father, called Grandpa Joe. A stone mason and carpenter, Grandpa Joe had helped build most of the houses, garages, and walls in the neighborhood. Every weekend, you could hear a bandsaw keening in his garage, and, when he was in his eighties, one day it sliced his palm to the bone. I remember that night he sat laughing on our porch and waving his bandaged hand around like a club. The next morning, at breakfast, we heard the saw screeching into more wood.
Each Christmas my family would go over to give him a holiday poinsettia and a box of chocolate covered cherries. He would invite us in to the small stone cottage that he had built, and, as we sorted out a seating arrangement, he would take out special glasses of cut crystal. Then he would get a bottle of wine he had made that year and pour some for each of us.
I don’t know what Grandpa Joe made his wine from, but it was orange, and it burned the throat. I didn’t realize for years these weren’t typical characteristics. I suspect that by almost any standards of taste no one would have considered this wine good, but even though it made me feel slightly sick, I loved it. At the time, I couldn’t have said why; I have figured it out since.
I was a shy kid who didn’t do much but read, and Grandpa Joe was an intimidating diesel of a man who seemed to be able to do anything. I was afraid of him, and yet he always shook my hand and talked to me like an adult. At Christmas he would give me a glass and include me in the toast without asking permission from my parents. He never condescended. He never winked at the other adults as if it was them against us. He treated everyone as equals who, when they were under his roof, had a right to share what he had made. As a result, my first experience with wine was as part of an act of generosity and inclusive hospitality.
A second memorable glass didn’t involve a glass at all. I was thirty and touring Spain with two women. None of us had known each other for long; we were all in the same exchange program in France, and we had decided to pool our money and take a road trip together. One day, we planned a visit to the Benedictine monastery Mont Serrat near Barcelona, and on the way we stopped to have a picnic. We had sandwiches, cheeses, a good bottle of wine, but we discovered that we had forgotten glasses. To me, the obvious solution was to drink right from the bottle. One women, however, suggested that we not open it. Her hesitation wasn’t because of health concerns, but etiquette. She felt if we didn’t have glasses, we shouldn’t drink. The other woman and I uncorked it anyway and began swigging like sailors. Eventually the first woman joined us, but each time her turn came, she would look around, then crouch beside the car door and quickly take a sip. She found it almost unbearable that people might see her drinking like this. We stopped hanging out soon after this journey, but the second woman and I continued traveling to other places together, including a trip to Las Vegas where we got married.
The third glass of wine involved a glass, but it wasn’t a wine . . . yet. My wife and I had stopped at a small North Carolina farm house that two artists were renovating and had converted into a winery. We walked around the grounds, and at the crush pad a man wearing dirty clothes and a backward baseball cap was directing grapes into a crusher. Without saying anything, he motioned us over, dipped a plastic cup into the just pressed juice, and handed it to me. It was delicious. We later learned that he owned the winery – Hanover Park – with his wife.My good memories of wine all involve people rather than flavor profiles. That, to me, is what wine is about. I often don’t remember the taste of a wine, but I remember the taste of generosity, adventure, improvisation, spontaneity, connection...