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Still in love with wine

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It was on this day, Dec. 26, exactly 31 years ago that I fell in love with wine.

It happened in the Safeway store in the little town of Benicia, some 30 miles northeast of San Francisco. I’d just made one of the biggest, riskiest moves in my life–coming to California from the East Coast, to go to graduate school. (That’s a whole different story I might tell one of these days.) My cousin, Maxine, and her husband, Keith, had invited me to live with them until I got settled. I’d flown west out of Logan Airport in a blizzard, only to arrive in sunny San Francisco where the mild temperature, leafy trees and flower-choked gardens blew my mind. I mean, roses and magnolias in late December? I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto!

We drove to Benicia. I was shown my new room. Then someone suggested barbecue for dinner. Maxine went out into the garden to pick lettuce (another mindblow) for a salad, and then we drove up Main Street, past the little park with the gazebo, to the Safeway. Threw a couple steaks and potatoes into the shopping cart. Then we headed over to the wine aisle. This is where “the incident” occurred.

Maxine’s steering the cart slowly down the aisle. I’m trailing after her. I don’t remember Keith in the picture; maybe he’d stayed at home, starting the fire. Maxine picks up a bottle of wine, examines the front label, turns it around, examines the back label. Puts it back on the shelf. Picks up a second bottle and goes through the same ritual. Then a third bottle. And a fourth.

Me: “What are you doing? Just grab a bottle and let’s go.” [I was sooo New York in those days.]

Her: [arching an eyebrow of disapproval] “You don’t just grab a bottle of wine. You think about it.”

What? I can remember my reaction as if it were yesterday. What is she talking about? I know my cousin has her “ways,” but she is, for the most part, a sensible, rational human being, not subject to whims or emotional fancy. I simply could not understand why buying a bottle of wine was any different from buying a can of peas. They were all the same, weren’t they?

Things happened very quickly after that. I needed to understand. Not wanted; needed, as if understanding were as important as breathing. I bought a couple wine guides: Bob Thompson’s “Pocket Encyclopedia of California Wines” and Olken, Singer & Roby’s “Connoisseurs’ Handbook of California Wines.” I started haunting wine shops.  For sure, I didn’t have much money to spend, but I remember the pride I felt when I bought my first varietal wine: Wente’s Grey Riesling (or was it spelled Gray?). Shortly afterward, I moved out on my own, to Concord, where I shared a house with a young Diablo Valley College kid, Tim. I shared with him my passion for wine, which he quickly adopted. Together we would go to wine shops, looking for suitable bargains to drink with the dinners we cooked. That’s when I began my career as a wine educator, teaching Timmy: as long as I knew a little more than he did, I was mentor, he mentee.

I’ve thought often of Maxine examining those wine bottles. I observe the same behavior today, when I loiter in the wine departments at Cost Plus or BevMo, watching people. They’re so confused, most of the time, so apprehensive, so clueless. I don’t say that judgmentally, just objectively. Lord only knows what’s going on in their heads. I am reading now the 1950 article, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” by the great computer pioneer, Alan Turing, who came up with the concept of the “Turing test,” in which a human observor (you or me) has a “conversation” with an unseen interlocutor [in, say, another room], through a teletype screen or similar digital device. The idea is for the observor to determine whether the unseen interlocutor is another human, or a machine [computer]. The theory is that, if the computer were programmed sufficiently well, this determination would be impossible. It was Turing’s conjecture that someday computers could be programmed so that there would be no way of telling the difference. All theories of artificial intelligence begin, and end, with Alan Turing.

Watching those wine shoppers, I try to imagine what’s happening in their brains. I can’t, in that particular situation, because I know too much about wine to be confused in a wine aisle. But I get confused in many other situations: for example, anything that involves mechanics defeats me. So I can recall my confusion when dealing with automobiles and imagine it inside the head of the Cost Plus wine shopper, and I feel empathy. Could a machine ever feel empathy? Is that what makes humans different from machines? I don’t think that’s the case, because I can imagine a computer behaving in such a way as to simulate empathy; and since I can’t crawl into the computer’s brain, any more than I can crawl into yours, I would just have to assume, based on its behavior, that the computer actually was empathic.

I would have loved to ask Turing, who died in 1954, if a Turing test could ever determine if a computer liked wine. Actually, he anticipated such a question in his article. Can a computer “enjoy strawberries and cream?…Possibly a machine might be made to enjoy this delicious dish, but any attempt to make one do so would be idiotic.” That’s how Turing dismissed the idea of programming a computer to have esthetic or hedonistic preferences: that it would be “idiotic” to do so, presumably because the effort involved would be vast, whereas the payoff would be meaningless. Why not use the same effort to program a computer to find a cure for cancer?

Maybe it’s idiotic for us humans to fall in love with anything–strawberries and cream, wine, each other. Yet Mother Nature gave us that capacity. It happened to me on that long ago winter day, and you know what? I’m still in love with wine.

  1. Carlos Toledo says:

    Steve:

    Interesting to see a different type of story. Many people in your shoes would have simply said/thought: “oh god, these wine snobs are so full of it. That’s why i hate wine, this is so gay [we say this is so gay a lot here]“.

    Was it just your nature/genetics/hardwiring that drove you into wine? Why didn’t you just go to the corn flakes aile while your relatives spent 5 of the suckiest minutes of your life choosing wine?

    The first time i drank wine for real, with girls and all, my friend poured wine up to 1/3 of that cream cheese glass cup, to what i said :”are you kidding, fill it up!!”.

    Wine was then just something else to get drunk.

    Wanna know a sadder story? Some 15 years later i went to Borgogne and i had the best wines i could afford. All i cared about was to get wasted. I drank very fine wines just to run the sewer…

  2. Dear Carlos, thanks for sharing your stories! Here’s wishing you a happy 2012.

  3. I loved hearing how you got started. I remember the first good bottle of wine I bought. It was a Grgich Chardonnay. I don’t remember the vintage. But I bought it in 1986 and I treasured that bottle.

    Since moving back to CA I shop at BevMo for most of my wine. I love their selection and all the descriptions they offer on every single product. It’s my favorite place to buy wine.

  4. Carlos Toledo says:

    Steve, when i was your FB friend ( i shut down my account, that thing makes friends grow apart, stupid crap) i told you in private that you’re a different, much better type of wine critic and (it makes sense) person.

    Many things that you think, write and share makes me think. Think. I learn gig-books by reading much of what you put onto my screen. As a wine blogger junior wanna be i somewhat (to a much lesser degree) emulate your style. Don’t bother trying to find my poor blog as i write under a very sarcastic and foreign nickname.

    Sharing some dumb stories of mine won’t pay the debt i have with you.

    And the good thing between us is that we have no commercial links of any kind…i don’t have to lick the floor you walk on just to try to get one or two better reviews for my wines…

    I’ve tasted many more californian wines of late and some are really exciting, to say the least.

    Best wishes.

  5. Thank you very much, Carlos. You made my day. Best wishes for 2012.

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