On Wine

At times, I can be that guy at a restaurant. I try hard not to be, but given that I like the stuff so much and actually read the magazines about it, it’s tough to keep from applying what I know.

I’m talking about being the guy who accepts the one ounce (or less) pour of wine, swirls it a bit, pushes his nose into the glass to take in the bouquet, and then says “alright.”

Back in early 2003, when I was 28 years old, I began drinking wine. I had no knowledge of the stuff whatsoever. I thought I liked Cabernet more than Merlot and I knew I liked red more than white. That was the extent of my knowledge. A good bottle, for me, was something in the $12 to $20 range.

My girlfriend at the time wasn’t a beer, or mixed drink, drinker. She liked Merlot. I was coming into my own professionally and emotionally. I had been through a 4 year relationship that taught me a lot about myself and I was feeling more, “adult.” I began reading, and still do to this day, Esquire magazine every month. You know how in their magazine in the MAHB section (Man at His Best) they have “The Rules” at the bottom of the page? There was one rule I read that stated “Know wine, but don’t say you know wine.”

It was then that I began watching Simply Wine, at show on Fine Living hosted by Master Sommelier Andrea Immer. In the 30 or so episodes I watched over the course of 6 months I learned SO much about regions, varietals, vintages, blends, and wine making in general. My girlfriend couldn’t stand Andrea. She could come off a little annoying at times, but that Andrea definitely knew her wine.

Simply Wine wasn’t the only thing I used to teach me about wine. I was reading Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast every month too. I began to understand what a vintage report meant and how to use it. I read them so often that after a few months I was able to walk into a wine shop and know without referring to the vintage report cards which region, during which growing season, produced what varietals, best.

The first bottle I bought that cost over $20 was a 1999 Silver Oak. It’s a Napa Valley cabernet aged in 100% new American oak barrels. I bought it on a wine shop on Beacon St. just outside Fenway in Boston. It was close to $70. I remember when we opened it up and had a taste. The difference could be said to have come from my mind as much as it was from the wine itself, but it was SO MUCH better than anything I had before. From that point forward I began buying bottles at an average of $45 to $60 per. Honestly, none quite lived up to that first Silver Oak experience, but the quality of the over $40 bottles was easily distinguishable from those under the $20 price point.

I won’t get into it in this post, but in 2005, about two years into my passion for wine, I wound up moving to San Francisco with my girlfriend. We spent just a smidge under 2 years there and we went to Napa almost every month. My wine education was catapulted, not into snobbery, but into a full-on hobby. I upgraded from a wine rack to a 20-bottle fridge, then to a 35-bottle one, and then onto a 50. Decanters, restaurant-grade corkscrews, Riedel stemware, all these could be found in my home.

Aside from my first sip of Silver Oak, my most memorable wine experience came in September 2005 in Las Vegas. My best friend and I went to Vegas together about a month or two ahead of his wedding. I brought with me a bottle of 1967 Chateau Latour. It was funny because I flew to LV from SF and he came from NYC. The bottle was at my sister’s house on Long Island and I made him pick it up from there to bring to LV for us to have with our big dinner at the top of the needle at the Stratosphere. He was so concerned about how “gay” we looked that every chance he had to put into the conversation with the hostess, the waiter, the sommelier, and even the chef when we met him, that “my best friend and I are in Vegas because I’m getting married to a woman in a couple of months.” It was hilarious.

What I remember about that wine wasn’t so much the wine as the experience. The sommelier came over with the bottle and said, “Wow, we don’t see many of these come through the door. Where’d you get it?” I told him about Wine Commune’s web site and how I bought it at auction. He hadn’t heard of it and so he wrote it down and said he’d def. go there to check out the auctions.

I had learned from my reading wine magazines and web sites that if you offer the sommelier a taste of your wine, they’re more likely to wave the corkage fee. Towards the end of our meal, I asked the waiter to bring the sommelier over. When he arrived I offered him, and the chef, a taste. He was so genuinely happy to accept that he rushed away to get himself and the chef a couple of glasses. They came over, chatted with us for awhile, and asked if we enjoyed everything.

When the bill came, no corkage fee was applied and the desserts were on the house.

What I’ve found in the last 7 years of drinking wine pretty regularly is that what I remember most about the great bottles I’ve had isn’t so much the wine as it has been the occasion… and the people with me during the occasion. There’s the 1997 Groth I had when I left Boston to move to Los Angeles. It was at my going away party and I had several friends there to drink it with me. There was the 97 point 2003 Sea Smoke Ten I drank on New Year’s Eve 2006 in San Francisco at One Market. The vertical of Sea Smoke Tens (2002, 2003, 2004) I had with a special someone on Long Island in March 2008 before I left for LA.

I guess the last thing to say about wine is this… you can buy really good, quality wines for less than $20 (try Cabs from Washington State and South Africa, Malbecs from Argentina, Pinots from Oregon, Chards from Santa Barbara or Long Island, and Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand), and you won’t really taste the difference between those and $50 to $75 bottles. The difference will come from the occasion surrounding the more expensive bottle.

One Response to “On Wine”

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