I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing; how the sun was shining; if it rained. I like to think about all the people who tended and picked the grapes. And if it's an old wine, how many of them must be dead by now. I like how wine continues to evolve, like if I opened a bottle of wine today it would taste different than if I'd opened it on any other day, because a bottle of wine is actually alive. And it's constantly evolving and gaining complexity. That is, until it peaks…And then it begins its steady, inevitable decline.
- Virginia Madsen from “Sideways”
Writing about “wines of my past,” is a somewhat challenging task. Legally, I have only been able to drink for five years, which isn’t that long. This then takes me to wines of my childhood, of which there were few. The wines I remember most were those at church—I grew up in an Episcopal Church where wine (red, and champagne on Easter) is offered, as a matter of course, to everyone, every Sunday, without fail. At home, I remember my dad returning from his weekly business trips and raving about Paraduxx and other wines from Duckhorn. But in my family, wine was not a part of our nightly routine. Not that my family was opposed to it; instead, a glass of wine or bourbon (my mother is from central Kentucky, the area made famous by its bourbon) was simply more of an occasional or celebratory drink. Maybe that’s where the allure of wine began for me.
One of my first jobs, not counting my after-school dog walking, was helping open Sonoma on Capitol Hill (for those of you who do not know me, I am proudly a DC native). When I started with Sonoma, I knew three types of wine: red, white, and bubbly; I did not understand the big deal about having 48 different wines by the glass. But I had a manager who wanted to teach, so with him, I tasted and learned. Admittedly not much took hold at first, that is until I tasted the Argiolas Vermentino from Sardinia.
Now a brief note of context: Most wine lovers I know have that special wine that “did it” for them. This is the wine they will always remember and speak of fondly, almost like their first love. Mine is not a $5,000 bottle, not even a $100 bottle. The Argiolas might top out at $45 on a wine list (as a matter of fact, that is exactly what it is on mine), but it is a wine worth trying. When I tasted it, I had a Despicable Me moment of “Light Bulb!” I got the floral quality of the wine and then caught wind of a sea breeze finish, which left me completely confused and insanely curious. I knew at that moment that wines are indeed different and I wanted to learn more.
My junior year in college, I spent a semester in Italy where I had an internship making wine with the Frescobaldi family at their vineyard just outside Florence. There I discovered the meaning of wine culture—that each wine has a story, person, and place behind it. Some of the wines are made by families who have lived in the same town for generations, some since the 1500s. The notion of capturing history and personality in a bottle of wine really caught my attention. But even more captivating was how wine was so much more than just a drink to the Florentines; you opened the bottle and what you got was WINE—a vehicle for expression; a libation that helped the conversation run more freely (and sometimes more loudly); and most appealingly (or alluringly, in my case) a tradition that brought people together across the table and the generations. Before you think I may have gotten completely carried away or besotted by the more romantic aspects of the wine culture, I have to say, in my own defense, that I spent my fair share of time in the fields, pruning vines and picking grapes (not easy work for those who have done it). Still, from a macro perspective, based on my time with Frescobaldi, I believe wine is a cultural experience, not simply a drink!
My mission is to do through life with a sense of discovery through food and thought. As a sommelier, my tastes are continuing to evolve with every wine I try, so the discovery never really stops. This year alone, Italy defined 20 new wine regions and new wine makers are being discovered (by other means besides the newest Bachelor). Each bottle will contain its own personality and history for us to taste and discover, and in this process, I like to think that like Madsen’s wine, I am constantly evolving and gaining complexity. But this is the allure of wine. The sense of discovery never stops, so in that regard, we are all still in our childhood, open and ready to learning and growing with each sip.