(Excerpted from my keynote address at this year's wine bloggers conference in British Columbia)
Comments, etc.: email@example.com. For my bio click on: http://cjonwine.blogspot.com/2013/02/heres-concise-bio-for-those-who-have.html
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I grew up in Memphis, in the long shadow of bourbon about whose vast penumbra danced the lesser shades of gin and scotch. My father and uncles all drank bourbon, often at odd hours, and although there was beer, too, it was a far less significant phenomenon. Wine there wasn’t, unless you included a sweetly sour beverage characterized as “Sauterne,” that appeared only at Thanksgiving to test your sophistication.
Generally, wine was foreign, weird, and more or less useless except for that sub-category, Thunderbird, which was both cheap and instantly transformational. A fraternity brother of mine used Thunderbird to make Tom Collins instead of the standard mix and one night rendered insensate a whole roomful of Tau Delta Taus and their dates at the Peabody Hotel.
Today when I think of the raucous, intensely alive, often violent ‘Fifties, I’m struck by the unlikelihood that I would someday write a book about proper wine and its social manifestations on the far side of America, that it would get the attention of the New York Times’s wine critic, the late Frank Prial, and make it onto the best-seller list; and that I would be accused of unfairly enticing stories from valley vintners with southern charm.
Now you might think the South and the vernal creases of northern California have nothing in common. If so, you’re mistaken. For openers, viticulture was first envisioned as an American enterprise in the South, by Thomas Jefferson who rightly predicted that wine could positively affect the culture of the country. But first, the journey.
My wife, Penny, and I came to wine like many of our generation, the stations of the cross being Blue Nun, Lancer rose, and a desiccated red in the proverbial Chianti fiasco with the straw base, a built-in lagniappe because you could use the bottle later as a candle-holder. Also, of course, Gallo’s Paisano in a jug with a metaphorical handle that helped launch many a climb to more ambitious heights.
We lived in San Francisco and New Orleans for a couple of years, and a few more in Europe. I worked briefly for both the Times-Picayune and then the Rome Daily American, where I had our wine jug filled weekly from a spigot in the Roman equivalent of a 7-11 up the street. Then in London I wrote a novel about New Orleans while buying cheap claret in an intimidating wine shop on Kensington Church Street.
We eventually settled in Washington, D.C., where I wrote another novel and drank my way slowly upward, like most everybody vaguely interested in the essence of grape, unable to afford the really good stuff. Figuratively speaking, wine was a large, hoary cask into which much disposable income was poured. However, the subject itself seemed almost infinitely varied, the people involved in it interesting, the landscapes lovely, the pastime mellow. After consuming too much wine – unlike with bourbon – one retained some reason and ability to speak. But wine could also be a bottomless trough of seemingly arcane knowledge, sensual obsession, and penury; the only way for a freelance writer to really take that plunge was to find a figurative sugar-daddy.
I found the Washington Post. Hired by Ben Bradlee to write profiles for the magazine and then the Style section, I also became the default wine critic after the real one quit and the editors had to fill a column every week with words like “approachable” and “buttery.” Now, for any writer worth his or her salt, that’s not too difficult. But to avoid terminal phoniness one has to then actually learn something about the substance in question.
To my great surprise, I discovered that many of those associations have a basis in chemistry. A wine really can have a cigar-box nose and a spicy middle palate and even a long berryish finish; it can be both approachable, and buttery. The best examples of all this cost a small fortune. Bradlee couldn’t have cared less about the wine column but, hey, the Grahams were buying.
The next stage in the development of all oenophiles is insanity. Fortunately mine was temporary, a kind of vinous Tourette’s Syndrome in which you shout out wine descriptors at dinner parties and hang around stores in bad neighborhoods stacked with wine boxes and attend tastings of inky east European liquid in misshapen bottles. Enabled by the Post, I followed my insanity to Napa Valley, and things were never quite the same again.
There was a genuine sub-culture where smudge pots and wind machines were advertised in the newspaper and the entire civilization rocked to the diurnal rhythm of wine. Oh, and ate really well, too. The seed was planted for a book, not about wine but about the people involved in making and promoting it and the incredible beauty and fragility of the place.
First I had to finish a peripatetic book I was already writing about the inter-mountain West, which I mention because it was financed in part by the wine column I continued to write after leaving the Post. (I must be the only person ever to write a column about Arkansas Muscat on a battered Remington typewriter in the back of a Dodge van converted to a camper and parked outside Clovis, New Mexico.) Then I moved temporarily to Napa, whose phenomenal story had never been told because most wine writers were more interested in the substance than in the convoluted back stories of the families involved, and ordinary reporters were intimidated by wine.
Delving into Napa, I was reminded of the South: many in the valley were related, if not by blood then by experience; they shared equipment and sometimes spouses, a love of wine, and a willingness to help each other. People inter-married with slightly less alacrity than in east Tennessee and raised their children to take over what was an odd combination of farming, high craft, and an almost religious belief in the god-given rightness of the cause.
The more established families were primarily agricultural, but the scions were rocketed into a sudden celebrity for which they weren’t prepared, the gusher syndrome like that evinced by Jett Rink in Giant. The Mondavis, for instance, Italo-Central Valley émigrés to Napa who made it with hard work and the old man’s uncanny promotional abilities, were replete with conflicts befitting Absalom, Absalom, if not Genesis: brothers brawling over patrimony in the vineyard, the expulsion of the eldest son, multiple matrimonial trade-ins, spectacular dissolution. And the valley attracted a few sun-struck iterations of Faulkner’s Snopeses, although unlike the environs of Oxford they often hailed from LA’s real estate salons or mid-Peninsula dot-comery.
Some of those I interviewed were actual southerners, like the man who today owns more vineyards in northern California than most anyone and arrived in the valley a milk-drinker; his son, who grew up in Napa, has a wife nicknamed Boo, after the character in To Kill a Mockingbird, and sells a wine called Hogwash.
Another similarity with the South was, of course, drinking. Wine may lack the immediate, stunning clairvoyance of bourbon but it does, I will now reveal, make you drunk if you consume enough of it. More expensive wine is required to do this than is the case with bourbon; getting hammered on the good stuff may build fortunes, but not yours. I saw in the valley impressive displays of sobriety among heavily-engaged cognoscenti talking about assault, balance, finish, but behind the gorgeous backdrop of Douglas firs and designer stressed steel inebriation was not unknown.
This I discovered most forcefully when invited to a meeting of crypto-revelers known as the GONADS (Gastronomic Order of the Nonsensical and Dissipatory) who met once a month at a different member’s house, ate wonderful food and drank fabulous local wines pulled from some of the best cellars in the valley, all on a patio high on the east slope of the Mayacamas Mountains. There must have been thirty different bottles, including old, legendary Stony Hill chardonnays and vintage cabernets from Stag’s Leap to Spring Mountain; we ate cheese and fettucini and veal scallopini and osso bucco and fresh-baked bread.
Business and politics had been banned from discussion, so there were games involving funny hats, thrown firecrackers followed by thrown crusts, wrestling, spilled fine wine, and jokes that included one about oral sex and eggs Benedict. Shirts came off to let burgeoning stomachs breathe free, and napkins were draped over heads to ward off the sun - another southernism. I had agreed not to write a column about the GONADs’ lunch, but the book was another matter, and I periodically sat in the bathroom to take notes and avoid expulsion, torn between totally abandoning myself to the grape and retaining some semblance of mind, aware that Tau Delta Tau would be thoroughly at home here.
(Next: Napa Redux)
To order my novel, Nose, click on: