Arriving in California from the Midwest in the late 1960’s, I thought I knew about wine. My wine experiences were, well, here it goes: Rosé wines from Portugal, Lancers and Mateue; inexpensive French wines that were available at the liquor around the corner from the campus that knew what we students would drink (and our budgets); and, some California wines like Christian Brothers and Wente wines, Chinin Blanc, Barbera and an occasional Chardonnay. We thought it all very cool to have a bottle or two on the table, something our parents never did.
I expounded my wine wisdom to my new California friends, sharing my deep knowledge of the vine with them on every opportunity. These were people my age and probably knew less than I did about much other than jug wine and beer. To writ: we would share copious amounts Carlo Rossi camping or just hanging out in the woods zoning out on nature and each other.
Then there was my short romance with Green Hungarian. But the less said the better. The same can be said for my Boone’s Farm Apple Wine adventures. Except these were wines I could afford at a poor grad student and none of my friends complained when I’d pull a chilled bottle or two from the fridge as we all gathering around the tube to watch the latest episode of “Kung Fu,” dreaming of being a cool warrior like David Carradine between sips.
All that changed when my friend Lou, whom I learned later had out of friendship politely tolerated my pontifications about wines. I also learned he knew a hell of a lot more about wine than I did. What Lou did, probably partially to educate me as a friend and also to knock me off my pedestal, was invite me to vertical tasting at his home in Novato. I had heard these words spoken among others on occasion but really didn’t know what they meant. Did this mean wine was to be consumed in some sort of upright position, like a yoga stance perhaps? Or, was it a special way you held your glass when drinking? I had seen photographs of people drinking wine in hot tubs but quickly crossed this out of my mind. Lou just didn’t look like the hot tub type.
Arriving, I tried to look and act supplicated, like I knew what was about to happen. Which of course I didn’t. This now being the 70’s, I wore my coolest open disco shirt and my favorite pair of bellbottoms with my new Earth Shoes. In Lou’s large family room, where we were gathering, I noticed was a table with a lot of bottles in a straight line. A few minutes later Lou introduced a friend who represented a winery called “Grand Cru” (the Lasseter Family Winery is now at the location Grand Cru existed in Glen Ellen, Sonoma County, CA). Lou’s friend announced we were going to a vertical tasting of Grand Cru Zinfandel wines. “Oh well,” I thought to myself, “they’ll all taste the same.”
You see, I believed all wines were pretty much the same year after year. There were varietals of course. I did notice that French wines tasted different than, let’s say, Portuguese wines. And whites were whites and reds were reds. Best of all, that cute redhead to my left kept looking at me smiling. Even if the wines were a bust, I hoped I could at least hang with her and maybe we could go out later to Nepenthe’s in Sausalito and share a brew or two (and maybe something more).
Lou’s friend began droning on and on about how each of the bottles were different from each other, going into what was for me mind numbing details about something called “brix” and “sugars” and rambling on about the soil. I kept checking the redhead out and wondering when I was going to get my first pour. An assistant, probably from the winery, began carefully opening each of the bottles. “My god,” I thought watching her, “she’s acting like it’s a ritual or something. Let’s just start this bug juice flowing and let the fun begin.”
I noticed the redhead looking at then turning and me to face the group of guys she with, first smiling, and then laughing. “Yeah, I do look very cool,” I thought to myself, glancing again at my new Earth Shoes. The others, about a baker’s dozen, all wore casual dress- the women in pant’s suits and half-heel brown shoes, and the men wearing open collar striped Polo shirts and plaid dress slacks with Hush Puppies. Obviously, the 70’s hadn’t found this group yet.
Finally, Lou’s friend said, “Let’s begin.” His assistant took the first bottle on the far end and began walking around the room pouring what I thought was a way to wimpy amount in my glass. Lou’s friend said a few more words about the wine, something about “an early harvest” or something like that, and the year. I didn’t pay much attention. I wanted to get on the wine and then perhaps the redhead.
But then something happened. The wine I put in my mouth for a quick swallow seemed to want to linger there. I could taste the wine but within the wine there were more flavors. I detected a little of this and a little of that. The longer the wine stayed in my mouth more things began revealing themselves. “A little tobacco?” I thought. “No, that can’t be.” “Here’s some berry something or another and something sweet too and even buttery and what the hell is going on in my mouth?” I wondering, finally swallowing.
The next year was poured and year after that and the years after that. Till finally we reached a “Late Harvest” wine in tiny half bottles. By this time, I had all but forgotten about the redhead and was sitting down on Lou’s uncomfortable burnt orange sofa wondering what the hell had just happened? I was confused. How could the same wine taste so different each year? They all were basically from the same vineyard and the bottles looked all the same. I just could not wrap my mind around what had just happened.
Then, as the redhead walked by me with one of the guys she was standing with, smiling at me with an amused look on her face, I realized I had just had my first real experience with wine. There would be no turning back now.
Paul Rest lives in Sonoma County, California. He has been enjoying California wines and foods since arriving in California. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.