Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Learning about Wine - a life-long class

It seems apt to speak of wine at a time when so many friends are working strenuously to bring in what appears to be a great harvest. Today wine is an integral part of my life. It just is. I don't necessarily drink it at every meal, but it surrounds me, enriches me, and tempts me in many a myriad of ways. It is a pleasure, and a staple.

When I first moved to France, I was not a complete neophyte, but almost. I'd been lucky to be raised by parents who enjoyed good French food (Julia Child, the Galloping Gourmet and Simone Beck), cooked it well, and accompanied it with wine from our cellar -- often brought back by boat (La France) after a trip to Europe--or purchased from a neighborhood wine shop. There were memorable meals throughout my childhood when my parents checked the Zacky's ads in the New York Times, saw that the lovely Montrachet or Vosne Romanée in the back of the closet was now listed as having a worth of $100, and chose it as the honorable partner to a feast of juicy steak, home-made sauce bernaise, buttery pop-overs, Mom's favorite blue or roquefort cheeses and a dark chocolate mousse. Or the menu might have been my mother's Canard à l'Orange, multiple vegetables, simple rice and a pecan pie laced with bourbon. Festive occasions these were.

My father had an ancient silver sieve handed down from his elegant mother (or grandmother?) to be used when ever so gently decanting the wine into the crystal carafe of similar origins. In those days, sediment at the bottom of a bottle was normal and far from shocking nor dissuasive, so we carafed old wines to remove the sediment. I mention this, as many of my vintner friends today are very concerned with filtering their wines so that no sediment appear and discourage wine buyers/drinkers. For me, this was always a normal aspect of old wines. But times change, and so have wine drinkers.

My parents weren't wine snobs, but they each proudly reinforced a European tendency in the other. Early on in their graduate student days they adopted the tradition of drinking this favored European breuvage at nearly every meal -- long before the health benefits of a daily glass of wine were being touted by the journalists.They were adept pourers of the large bottles of Gallo "chablis" and "burgundy," their choice (being modest and college professors after all) more often than their more valuable, cellared bottles.

When I headed off to college in the mid 1980s my father turned me on to the $3/bottle Trakia as a cheap and drinkable option. I believe it was Bulgarian... And my mother gave me advice for choosing a nice bottle to bring to dinner: beyond certain wine region names, look for mis en bouteille au domaine/au chateau. The advice worked, and upped my reputation amongst more avid wine afficionados in my social sphere (you can imagine, there were a few at Princeton).

My parents were, however, highly selective when serving their better bottles. The lucky few were not necessarily the people they loved best, though of course, this was the case for at least one couple. There were perhaps a dozen dignes de l'honneur, the primary requirement being a sensitive palate and sufficient wine knowledge to notice and perhaps applaud what was in their glass. In the 1970s, wine appreciation in the US wasn't particularly wide spread (particularly in Westchester NY); nothing at all as it is now. And so at our table a certain level of ceremony and carefully put together guest lists reigned.

I was encouraged to taste, but was too young to have my own glass. By the time I was of age (15/16), my parents were divorced and the quality of wine in the house lowered to mixed cases of anything under $10. This is not to say we didn't drink occasional, very good bottles, but those old Bordeaux and Burgundies are taste memories of a different time.

My time in Seattle led me to taste the wines of the Northwest, to wine-tasting evenings held by friends studying oenology, and to great feasts of salmon, shell fish and other local delicacies. Adult, I enjoyed and savored, but remained relatively ignorant.

And then, I arrived in France. My palate fifteen years ago was one that had been sensitized to the masculine, at times smoky flavors of those old Bordeaux, plus the rare Burgundy, but the decade since has been spent linked to the food and wines of Southern France. Here the fruit is ripe, the colors dark, the flavors rich and concentrated. I've been to dozens of wineries within an hour and a half radius of my home, tasted hundreds of wines, shared, poured and drunk many of each color. With Erick, I designed wine weeks, tasting at three wineries per day, pouring over the various nuances of the local Appélations, working our way through vertical tastings, and exploring the personalities of the local grape varietals, cépages.

My teachers are the vintners themselves. Passionate, generous, patient, they have answered every question, let us taste every wine in the cellar, including a number in the casks, tanks or still bubbling away. It has been an extraordinarily personalized and in-depth internship: from planting to harvest, from harvest to the bottle, from the cellar to the table; I've lived each of these steps and when possible, have brought clients and friends along with me.

And now, I'm dating a vintner, sharing his joys and woes as the harvest goes on (his main helper now has the dreaded Flu!), accompanying him to the wine fairs, co-hosting wine-tasting weekends at the winery, and assisting in placing his wines in North America. I'm there to assist, photograph, document and learn when he teaches organic viticulture techniques to his colleagues seeking to transition to organic. I'm there when he hosts an international intern hoping to get a feel for the craft. And yes, I'm there when the oenologists come to test, taste, and advise during the delicate moments of fermentation.

I'll not get a degree this way, but, I'm soaking it up like a sponge. Every glass of wine is now to be twirled, sniffed, tasted, swished around the mouth with an intake of oxygen, tasted again, and then yes, enjoyed with the meal at hand.

I stress that I've not become a wine snob, but a wine appreciator. Be the bottle at 2E or 100E, I will seek to discover its personality, aromas, flavors and mouth-feel. I know the work that went into these bottles, the pre-determined values set upon the various French appelations (Appélation d'Origine Controllée) , and I take it all in, withholding judgement, playing with hidden labels, open to pleasurable discoveries.

Drink on.

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