Saturday, April 14, 2012

Coming into the subject

A reader asks how I got interested in wine, a common question often followed by: “Isn’t wine-tasting a marvelous excuse for getting smashed?… Isn’t the wine world glamorous?… And isn’t your real ambition to own a winery?”

And the answers are, in order: No, yes, and no.

I got interested in wine by drinking Gallo Paisano out of a gallon jug with a screw-off cap, a long time ago in California. I was living on the proceeds of a writing fellowship at Stanford, where my future wife and I also discovered the joys of eating in the company of this beverage - not just sourdough bread and pizza, but also such daring culinary leaps as lamb chops garnished with rosemary.

Next came New Orleans, where I worked for The Times-Picayune as a reporter and discovered that wine came in smaller bottles, with corks. Paisano was not to be despised with po’ boys, oyster loaves and steamed crabs, but even better was Wente’s “gray Riesling” with poached fish and crawfish tails.

Then we lived in Rome, where I worked for another newspaper. Our Italian whites were limited to Frascati, often drunk with huge mushrooms from the Alban hills that sautéed in olive oil and served like steaks. There is no food like Italian food, period, and the wines accommodated it in some mystical way. They were cheap and abundant; although we had little Chianti classico and no brunello or barolo, whatever the reds they were firm and memorable in their ways.

In Switzerland, where we lived on the top floor of a farmhouse and spent the winter skiing – believe it or not, that was once affordable – and those crisp Swiss wines live well in memory, served by our landlady with fondue and a slide show about the family’s cows. There was also cheese melted under electric heat and spread on little baked potatoes eaten with gherkins and spritzy white.

My first sip of burgundy came in Switzerland, too, from the Cote de Beaune. I can’t remember the village or the producer but I sure remember the taste. A French friend served it at a dinner party with veal in cream, on a very cold night, after placing the open bottles on the hearth.

After that, Penny and I made forays into France to smuggle lesser burgundies and Rhone wines back into Switzerland. Then, while working in Paris, we drank Bordeaux superieur, and inexpensive blends from the south - muscadet and, yes, lesser chardormay from Chablis, reasonably priced then and a great, steely wine for seafood and omelets.

In London, we moved up the wine list. “Hock" - West German wine in England - inevitably accompanied the first course. Then we got into the crus bourgeois bordeauxs and an occasional first-growth, and better burgundies. We were introduced to port and the ritual of the port decanter. (Don’t pass but slide the decanter, and if you do pass it you won’t be invited back.) Port with Stilton and walnuts was one of our great discoveries.

Finally, in Washington, I pored over Hugh Johnson’s World Atlas of Wine and began a long process of reading broadly about it and attending tastings. The subject appealed to me as a kind of index of the world, a small mirror of history and social values, as well as fun. I worked for a time for the Washington Post and ended up writing the wine column between writing profiles for the very politically and culturally engaged section Style then was, and in a few years tasted more wines than I ever knew existed.

Exactly how much I learned is another question, but I certainly learned a lot about human nature. Writing about wine isn’t a profession, really, it’s just an avocation that got slightly out of hand.

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