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Notes on Some Wine-Review Books

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The late Harry Waugh (who died in 2001 at the age of 97) wrote in one of his earliest wine diaries, Pick of the Bunch (which he called “rather a mixed bag”), that he was asking his readers for “forgiveness” for his “concentrating on only the finer wines.” My own mixed bag—a series of wine-review notebooks I wrote covering wines I tasted in the period 1983 through 1996—certainly contains wines that would not be described as “finer.” Although there were many highly-regarded wines among these thousands of bottles, they were mainly everyday wines, from across the world, the sort I could afford to buy then, when I was but a humble worker, and before I became a wine writer and the wine-gates opened up to tsunami proportions and everybody, it seemed, wanted to send me samples, or to invite me to tastings and dinners at which truly “fine” wines were poured.

Why I began these keeping these reviews, in those hard-covered little notebooks with their blank pages that generations of diarists have purchased, I no longer remember. What was happening in 1983 that caused me to start what would become a thirteen-year practice? I look at the book now, with its gold-embossed black cover, and see, on the fly-leaf, an inscription:

For Steve, to hold your thoughts—John

Alas, whoever “John” was is long gone from memory. He evidently knew that I had “thoughts.” Knew, too, that I enjoyed writing. Putting two and two together, he bought me—for my birthday? Christmas? A token of his appreciation?—the little bound volume, thinking, I suppose, I would record a diary of sorts, or maybe poetry, which I was then into. Instead, I began keeping notes of the wines I was drank every day, the very first of which, on Feb. 16, 1983 (a Wednesday), was a Morgon from Georges DuBoeuf, vintage 1981, with an alcohol level of 13.1%.

Where was I when I reviewed that wine? In San Francisco, getting my graduate degree at San Francisco State University and working to put myself through school on-campus, where I was secretary to the director of the Career Planning and Placement Center. I was living with my boyfriend Eugene—long dead—in an apartment in Bernal Heights, on the fashionable (or so we thought) West End, overlooking the vast Mission District, with Twin Peaks walling off the horizon. Over those peaks, Eugene (I never called him “Gene”) and I would watch, while sipping wine, the fog pour into the city, giant white tufts of fluffy whipped cream that seemed like living, creeping spiritous amoeba. Eugene liked wine well enough, but he was mainly a Coors guy; he certainly never developed the insane passion for it that I did, although he enjoyed hearing my thoughts. As for why my first recorded wine was a Beaujolais, who knows? My review shows that it cost $6 retail, which wasn’t exactly cheap for me at the time (the third wine I reviewed, Kenwood 1980 “Vintage Red,” which was 65% Cabernet Sauvignon and 35% Zinfandel, with a California appellation, was only $3.50). Perhaps I’d read something about Beaujolais and wanted to find out. By then, I was a member of Les Amis du Vin, the consumer wine group, and I was (I think, if memory serves me) already subscribing to The Wine Spectator, when it was a tabloid still headquartered on Van Ness Avenue, in the heart of San Francisco. At any rate, I liked that Morgon a great deal. “Deep scarlet, purple highlights” I described its color. As for the taste, “Slighly fizzante” (where did I pick up that term? But it’s a good word) “fruity, soft and balanced—delightful!” No point scores yet—that came later—but the exclamation point was a sign of my esteem, a sort of puff or star. I even recorded the food I ate it with:

Cheeseburgers (!). Note: onions hurt taste

Another exclamation point, parenthetical this time! Probably I meant to express my surprise that I drank such a “delightful” wine with such an ordinary food. What did I think I ought to have had Beaujolais with? But the fact that I noticed how the onions clashed with the wine shows an early appreciation of wine-and-food pairing, a topic that interests me to this day, nearly forty years later.

I wish I remember where I bought the Morgon. San Francisco at that time had perhaps a dozen interesting wine shops, ranging from snooty Draper & Esquin, in the Financial District, out to The Avenues near the ocean, where there was a shop whose name I don’t recall. Inbetween were temples of vinophilia I visited and worshipped at as regularly as I could. I use the term “worship” not sacriligiously, but in the sense that I would browse the aisles, armed with my pocket guides to wine (Hugh Johnson, Bob Thompson, Charlie Olken), cross-referencing bottles with written entries, picking the brains of clerks, learning, learning, learning, caught up in a world of intellectual beauty so extraordinary that it became esthetic in its own right. But I would not have gotten the Beaujolais at Draper & Esquin; not upscale enough for them. Maybe it was at the Wine House, South of Market, or at Hennessey’s, on Upper Market, or the Jug Shop, on Polk, or Ashbury Market, above Haight-Ashbury. It could have been at the old Liquor Barn, in a questionable neighborhood on Bayshore Boulevard, where a friendly wine clerk would open any bottle I wanted (including Yquem) and let me taste, at no cost. It was my habit to visit all of these places at least once every weekend. No doubt I could have been doing other things, as most other people did on the weekend, but visiting wine shops was quite literally the thing I wanted to do most; and so I did.

The very next day (Feb. 17) I reviewed my second wine, a Macon-Villages, varietally labeled “Chardonnay” (for the American market?), from the 1981 vintage (it cost $4). Did I finish the Morgon the previous night? Did Eugene and I drain the bottle over those cheeseburgers? Certainly a half-bottle of red isn’t too much for me to drink even now; and, as I said, the Morgon’s alcohol was only 13.1%, which made it far less alcoholic than, say, a 15.5% Napa Valley Cabernet. And that third wine I mentioned, the Kenwood Vintage Red? I also reviewed that on Feb. 17. Was I actually finishing three bottles of wine in two nights? Eugene and I had neighbors. Maybe we had some over for drinks. But the fact that, of the first three wines I ever reviewed, two were French is interesting. Once I started as a California wine critic, the number of French wines I got to drink dwindled severely, which was, as they say, quel dommage.

At any rate, I hope, through these Notes on Some Wine-Review Books, to do a little writing that may be of interest and entertainment to readers. I have six of these notebooks covering, as I said, the period 1983-1996, but in addition I have notes on probably twenty thousand other wines I tasted at fairs, dinners, seminars and walk-arounds (as opposed to those I bought); and then there are probably 150,000 formal wine reviews I wrote for Wine Enthusiast during the period I worked there (1993-2012). That’s a lot of wine reviews. The title I’ve chosen, Notes on Some Wine-Review Books, is obviously an hommage to George Saintsbury’s Notes On A Cellar-Book (1920), of which I have a third edition (1933, The MacMillan Company). Notes On A Cellar-Book is considered one of the most important wine books ever written; although Professor Saintsbury himself called it “a little book,” it has gained in stature as a work of literary merit. As he explains, in his wine explorations he considered himself “Ulysses, steering ever from the known to the unknown.” As have I. The wines he drank made him a better man. “[T]hey pleased my senses, cheered my spirits, [and] improved my moral and intellectual powers.” One could not summarize more aptly a life dedicated to the study and enjoyment of wine, and the benefits thereby obtained.

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