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Looking back, abroad and forward

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This being the last day of the year, I’m in a look-back mode. The first wine I ever tasted was a sip of Manischevitz from my Uncle Teddy’s glass. I must have been six or seven, and the event was probably a Passover seder. Uncle Teddy was one of those friendly, boisterous guys whom everyone likes and who’s always at the center of attention. I think he offered me a sip of his wine at the table because everybody was watching, and Teddy knew that no matter what I did, it would be funny. I guess it was, because all the adults laughed when I made a face and spat the wine out because it tasted so evil. That may account for the particular loathing I have to this day of table wines, red or white, that should be dry but have residual sugar.

Wine didn’t re-enter my life until my freshman year at college when, away from home for the first time in my life, I went on a rampage. Freed from the constraints of parental oversight, I did anything and everything I could to celebrate my new-found freedom, including drinking. Lots of drinking. I remember well the favorite libation of me and my similarly reckless young friends: Bali Jai. I think it was made by Italian Swiss Colony. Anyhow, it too was sweet, but as I was drinking, not for flavor, but to get inebriated, I didn’t care (and Bali Jai was the cheapest rotgut you could find). A step above Bali Jai were Mateus and Lancer’s. Already I was establishing a hierarchy of wine in my head: I knew they were better wines, but they also cost $5 more per bottle, which put them out of my price range, and besides, I had no need of better wines.

By my sophomore year, I had enough sense to realize that drinking Bali Jai, starting some weekend mornings at 10 a.m., was not a very smart thing to do. So I stopped. Disciplining myself with regard to my alcoholic intake is something I’m still good at (fortunately, given my profession), having developed the habit long ago, and being in possession of a pretty acute radar that warns me when I’m coming too close to doing anything in excess. So wine effectively passed out of my life for more than a decade until I moved to California and re-discovered it, a process I have previously written about.

When I think about my own wine journey, and then look at what’s happening in China with wine, I think of that old saying, “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”, which, if I may so describe it, means that the human embryo goes through successive stages of development, each of which resembles an earlier phase of human evolution. Thus, as the embryo grows in the womb, it looks, first, rather tadpole- or fish-like, then like some kind of small mammal, then finally assume a more anthropoid state until, on the day of birth, out pops a tiny little new human person. I think that in our (human’s) wine-drinking habits, we similarly go through stages, regardless of whether we’re Chinese or New Yorkers. You start off (in most cases) with hideous junk, like Bali Jai, then you realize that wine is inexorably connected with things we value, such as status, fun and the need for love and affection; and as this realization increases, so does your appetite for better wine. This explains why the Chinese, with their nouveau wealth, mix Coca Cola with Lafite–and it also explains why that bizarre phase probably will not last much longer, for the Chinese are fast learners.

At what point, though, does this upward spiral of our desire for better wine result in a tipping point that can blossom into snobbery and elitism? This is a question that deeply interests me, and has at least since my days writing The Collecting Page for Wine Spectator. There, I saw the Dark Side of a love for wine: the self-absorption, the insularity of the Old Boy’s Club and their membership of fatuously bragging egotists, constantly trying to one-up each other, piling up such massive collections that neither they nor their children or grandchildren could ever possibly consume it all. And to what point? I saw men who equated meaning in life with the possession of 19th century pre-Phylloxera Bordeaux or verticals of every vintage ever made of Mouton; but who then called their winetasting dinners with their friends “pissing matches,” a vulgarity but illustrative of their motive for gathering: Who could bring the oldest, costliest bottle, thereby winning the contest and humiliating the losers?

Why wine makes fools of some people, I’ll never know, but it does seem to accompany excessive income, especially when it has been accumulated quickly. Think of all those high-priced athletes and rock stars whose tastes, once they are newly riche, span the gamut from indulgent to merely offensive to downright vulgar. I’m sure they love their Cristal and Lafite, as much as my Uncle Teddy loved his Manischevitz. Yet somehow Uncle Teddy’s love of his wine seems in kind different. He loved his wine for the way it brought people he loved together, and made them laugh and be happy; not, as I have seen in some collectors, to satisfy some inner lack of joy.

Happy New Year! I’ll be back here on Monday morning!

  1. “He loved his wine for the way it brought people he loved together, and made them laugh and be happy…”

    Wow, that’s perfect. It’s what I’ve always found. Wine, no matter what kind, always tastes better with friends and family.

    (And what a fitting sentiment for the occasion.)

    Happy New Year Steve.

    ~Graham

  2. CA Winediva says:

    Dear Steve,

    Thanks for bringing back my first memory of wine. My Grandmother would have a small juice glass of Manischevitz every evening, and I got to taste it……I loved it, and I was about 6. We are Irish. Only she had it with a raw egg in the glass, and she would down it. Thank God that part didn’t appeal to me. I still like Manischevitz at friend’s Jewish Holidays.

    Like you said, wine is like a journey. Not many people have their first wine full of Rutherford dust, and go on to love reds. You start simple, and continue the journey with much more appreciation. The journey, if you’re lucky, will take you to amazing places in the world. And wonderful memories, of friend’s and times shared, over some incredible bottle. And if your really lucky the wine was made by your friend.

    Thank you as well for your great articles. Happy New Year!

  3. Thanks CA Winediva. Happy new year to you too!

  4. Graham, happy new year to you too. Thanks.

  5. “membership of fatuously bragging egotists” – man, I am TOTALLY going to steal that phrase someday! :)

    happy new year!

  6. To me it’s interesting to see how the mix of personality and this ‘wine drinking phenonmenon’ you speak of Steve affects each person differently. I’ve seen wineries close to me get bit by the “Prestige Bug” as I call it and the personalities completely change. In the way we view wine I think everyone could use a little “Uncle Teddy” in their personality!

  7. Happy new year to you too 1WineDude.

  8. Hi Steve,
    At the age of 6, I asked my grandfather what he was drinking as he carried his green bottle of Mateus. He gave me a sip and told me, “We are Portuguese! We drink this wine during the day and we drink Burgundies at night!” I’ll always remember that taste (and that was 34 years ago). I know Grandpa would be proud now as I’m releasing my own Touriga Nacional rose and two Pinot Noirs this month. Thanks for jostling my memories of that first taste!

    On the “Prestige Bug”, I know there are elitist wine drinkers out there. There are also elitist winemakers. I was talking with a winemaker friend last night who said to me, “Don’t you want to grow bigger as a winery, if you could afford to?” Bigger meaning, produce more wine, easier, if we had all the money in the world to buy the best equipment, stainless steel etc??
    Its the idea that money spent makes the wine better, whether you spend the money to buy the wine or spend the money to make it…is it the spending the money that makes it so GREAT? Or is it that the wine has to be great because they spent the MONEY?
    I don’t get it.
    My reply to my winemaker friend, “If I had all the money in the world, I’d still make the wines the way I do, even if I could afford all the fancy machinery….I would never push the button to turn on a pump, because the wines would never taste the same.”

    Have a great New Year Steve! I look forward to enjoying your 2011 posts!

  9. Dear Anna Marie, thanks. Have a great 2011!

  10. nick Gold says:

    we never had Manischevitz in NZ it was all about Blackberry nip.so goodness knows how I got into wine.
    I do think this china thing is interesting. They are uncharted in terms of their taste but I belive that since the French are awash in wine they will dump in China to their (french) benifit. The china pallet will become used to that style and it will be hard for us to then sell the “better” US wines
    Steve see you in the new year mate
    cheers to the new year

  11. Nick, have a great, happy new year and we will see each other when we do.

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