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Memoir: How I got into wine

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We never drank wine when I was a kid. My parents, aunts and uncles might have a glass or two of Manischevitz for Jewish holidays, but that was it. When I got into college, there was a period when I drank cheap wine–Bali Jai, Ripple and Boone’s Farm–heavily. But I quickly realized I was becoming dependent on it and so my basic common sense made me quit.

I might never have discovered wine had not a series of coincidences brought me to California in my early 30s. Certainly nothing in my background or interests prepared me for what was to become an obsession. I was living with my cousins in Benicia, a little town northeast of San Francisco. We decided to barbecue that evening, so we went to the Safeway and stocked up on steaks, potatoes and all the trimmings. My cousin Maxine then pushed the shopping cart into the wine aisle and started doing what, to me, was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever seen concerning shopping behavior: she would pick up bottles, one by one, examining the front and back labels, reading silently, thinking.

Wondering what the heck she was doing, I said, “Just grab a bottle and let’s go.” Maxine looked at me with her famous arched eyebrow that is an unspoken indictment and said, in a low voice, “You don’t just grab a bottle of wine.”

There ensued a brief discussion about thoughtfulness in the purchase of wine, during the course of which I learned that not all wines are the same and that–evidently–there was a science or art behind the purchase that had to do with considering what foods the wine was meant to accompany. As these were entirely new concepts to me, I was flummoxed. I certainly wasn’t ignorant of good food: I’d worked in a series of cook positions at decent restaurants, including as sous chef at the Deerfield Inn, which had an old-style French restaurant located in Old Deerfield, Massachusetts, where the menu included beef Wellington, baked Alaska and Caesar salad, made tableside by me. But in all my years at the Deerfield Inn, where Kings and movie stars often dined because it was on the campus of the prestigious Deerfield Academy prep school where their children went, I cannot recall a single instance of wine being mentioned or even served. After my dinner shift was over, I would repair to the bar, for enough beer to recover from the mental havoc of the cook’s line. But never, ever was it wine.

That conversation with my cousin did something that, later, I recognized as my having been bitten by the wine bug. I began to collect books about wine, to read up on it in the San Francisco newspapers, to interrogate the floor staff of wine stores. When I moved out of my cousin’s home to my first apartment in San Francisco, out in the Ingleside, I would spend each weekend traversing the city in my old, green 1976 Datsun, starting downtown at Draper & Esquin and working my way west via Connoisseur’s Wines and The Wine House south to the Jug Shop, on Polk Street, Liquor Barn, down on Bayshore, Hennessey’s, in the Castro, the Ashbury Market, above Haight-Ashbury (where I first met Wilfred Wong, whose parents owned it), and so on, all the way out to the foggy Avenues where there was a liquor store whose name I can’t recall. Everywhere I went, I learned.

I joined the old Les Amis du Vin, a national association of wine-loving amateurs, and was asked to be the San Francisco chapter leader–an honor I declined after the then president told me how much work was involved: setting up tastings, inviting speakers and keeping track of members. I was very busy at the time–going to grad school fulltime, working fulltime, volunteering for the Shanti Project where I did household chores for very sick victims of the first wave of the AIDS epidemic, working out everyday at the gym, jogging 6 or 7 days a week, maintaining a relationship, and then trying to find a few hours here and there to sleep, read or watch TV. So running an organization just couldn’t be fit in.

I was especially fascinated by the concept of a structured approach to wine tasting. That was a new one on me. I knew all about structured approaches to other things–for example, writing a term paper, or baking a baba au rhum. But tasting wine? Yet I understood at the outset that, if you were going to get serious about wine, you couldn’t just willy nilly gulp it down. You could read about it, and I did; but in the end, you had to jump in and taste, and that required a methodology. In this, my master (whom I met only once or twice) was Michael Broadbent. His Pocket Guide to Wine Tasting (6th edition, 1979) was my indispensable helpmate. It formed the basis for the way I taste today.

Those years were some of the best of my life. Wine appreciation was an underground thing (this was the mid-1980s) even in as cosmopolitan a city as San Francisco. Not too many people were into wine: when you met another devotee, it was like coming across a fellow denizen of a secret society you recognized by signals only its members knew. I worked at the time on the campus of San Francisco State University, where I was also going to school, and I actually talked the boss into giving me $150 to hold a wine education class for the staff. I remember buying a Chateau Gruaud-Larose, but I don’t recall much else. I doubt the staff was very interested. But at least I got to taste a Second Growth St.-Julien for free.

I was lucky, I suppose, to get hired as a wine writer by the magazine I wrote for before Wine Enthusiast. Nobody wanted to be a wine writer in 1989. Nobody even knew what it meant. Everybody wanted to get their MBA and make a pile of money in the Financial District or in burgeoning Silicon Valley. So when I lobbied that first magazine to hire me, it wasn’t like there was a lot of competition. There probably wasn’t any at all. They hired me because I knew how to string a sentence together, because I knew a thing or two about wine, and because I convinced them I really wanted to write for them. Oh, and also because I obviously wasn’t some kind of nut case. But I don’t know if I’d be able to get a job writing about wine today if I was just starting out. It’s so much harder because so many people want to be wine writers.

“I’m not the world’s most passionate guy,” Ray Davies sang in “Lola,” my second favorite Kinks song ever (“You Really Got Me” is first). Neither am I. But I did get passionate about wine as a young man, and it still consumes me, albeit in a different way than it used to. For example, the writing is more important to me than it was in the beginning. Until I was paid to write about wine, in fact, the writing didn’t concern me at all; only learning, tasting and taking notes did. Once I got hired, I endeavored to write as best I could, and I think I displayed some talent for it. It’s the writing that still challenges me most today: not only the long article form (a kind of endangered species), but the short article or profile, even a photo caption or a snappy little 40-word review. But of all the kinds of writing, the blog format gives me the opportunity to write the most creatively, which is to say, the most happily.

  1. Interesting the you never had wine as a kid. I grew up in a conservative community where people didn’t drink alcohol. I wonder how many of us in Wine World come from similar alcohol free zones? Thanks for this post! I love that you still got into wine and discovered the intellectual, experiential and also relational aspect of it.

  2. Very interesting. Thanks for sharing. It is interesting sometimes to talk to others about those first wines we drank and those we especially remember. You know, Mateus and Lancers in the 1960s, that case of 1970 BV private reserve cab found at Anderson Pea Soup still selling at the original price, the duplication of the tasting in Paris and coming home with a case of that 1973 Montelena chard, or the first taste of a great red Burgundy after thinking you really didn’t care that much for Pinots. I also wonder what ever happened to Les Amis du Vin, Winos and the many other groups that were around back then. Thanks again. Fascinating.

  3. An interesting read. Thanks for sharing.

    Side note – A 2001 Chateau Gruaud-Larose was my introduction to Bordeaux about 2 months ago. I’m a Burgundy & Rioja guy. A great bottle for someone with my palate. Your mention of the chateau brought back pleasant memories.

  4. Mykha’el, I think people gravitate into wine from every conceivable background! Thanks for writing.

  5. Hi Steve,

    Thanks for sharing the experience, love hearing back stories, especially about that period. Hope to meet you some day over a glass and share more of these experiences.

  6. Sure thing Greg! If you’re ever in my neighborhood give me a holler!

  7. I had a very impressionable introduction to wine growing up in the East Bay near Sonoma, Back in the sixties, my family would take drives to Italian Swiss Colony in Glen Ellen where they filled jugs direct from the cask and my brother and I could expend some restless energy running around the head-pruned vines.

    In my early teens, I became the hunting, fishing and bourbon drinking buddy of my brother-in-law. On a Saturday night in Gustine (Califorinia’s Central Valley) after a day of dove hunting, nobody noticed the kid at the bar sipping a bourbon and 7, not even the CHP who came in to get their coffee thermos filled. I realized it was somewhat surreal, learning stuff most kids my age didn’t experience…

    When I got closer to 21, I switched to the plonk of the day, Strawberry Hill, Annie Green Springs, etc. but the first time I splurged to $2.99 a bottle, a light went off over a cork finished Chenin Blanc I had when I was 22 or so. I had been drinking the same wine from Almaden in 3L jugs (made great terrariums!) and in 750mL, it was just ‘different’ . Thus began my quest for drier wines and eventually led me to pursue a career in writing about wine. In between was a career in engineering consulting that had me eating on expense accounts (living near Paso Robles and the Sierra Foothills for about four years and exposed to some very solid wines that I would never have tried otherwise.

    My children took their own paths to wine and I am pretty confident they have good, self taught palates like me, which brings up something else. I have had a steady string of under 30year old long term guests in my SF flat the last several years, and they know they can open anything, as long as they tell me what they think about it. It challenges them and helps development. I wish I had the opportunity that they do. Those little snots!

  8. Mateus and Lancers in the 1960s, that case of 1970 BV private reserve cab found at Anderson Pea Soup still selling at the original price, the duplication of the tasting in Paris and coming home with a case of that 1973 Montelena chard, or the first taste of a great red Burgundy after thinking you really didn’t care that much for Pinots. I also wonder what ever happened to Les Amis du Vin, Winos and the many other groups that were around back Homeprotec gevelrenovatie en andere gevelwerken zoals schilderwerken, gevelreiniging, voegwerken en meer.

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