Sunday, January 20, 2013

REFLECTIONS ON A WINE CELLAR AT MID-LIFE


I have to admit it…my hairline is receding, my waistline is expanding, my eyesight is going, my memory is gone, there is one less step in my gait, my first real girlfriend is a grandmother, my mother is now older than my grandmother was, and I most of my cultural references are lost on the younger staff where I work.

I’m getting old. But don’t let that fool ya. I’m still the same little kid inside. I’m still willing to make a fool of myself on the turn the flip of a coin. I’m still full of piss and vinegar. I can still make a fist and make it hurt. I can still lift cases of wine on my own, I still have hair on my head and all my own teeth….at least for now. My wife thinks I’m still useful (but more “in the way”, than actually useful, if you know what I mean). And I still have an eye for a well turned heel, though most of them tend to be dating my sons these days.

I’m not dead, just in mid-life.

And at this wonderful stage, I am lucky enough to have a wine cellar. Not just a closet or a small set of shelves under the stairs, but a full-fledged, spider-web and dust covered wine cellar. I have been drinking and collecting wine for more than 20 years. And seriously hoarding wine since I got married. And as I stare at the abyss which is 50 years old, I step into the wine cellar like a strange time machine. A land of bottles, and capsules, and labels, as good as any memory trick I have ever heard of, and I am transported through the ages of my life like a movie.

Like a diary, I can read the chapters of my life in the shelves. Relive mistakes and triumphs, re-experience sadness or contentment. I see now the folly and exuberance of youth, and the rare and brief exercises in better judgment. From a rambunctious young lad to an older man, whose passions and tastes are simpler and more restrained.

Some bottles that might be unimportant, or maybe even repugnant, to some wine writers or experts, are near and dear to me. Others, touted by experts and journalists alike, which I spent months or years acquiring, seem less important today. Wine has an emotional attachment for me. I am not a collector in the truest sense. I do not buy solely for quality or long term storage or investment. I buy for taste. I buy for memories. I buy it because it was something of the moment. Wine itself is a summer of flickering sunlight, caught in the prism of the grape’s skin, and transposed, and captured…literally time in a bottle. For those who do not see this, I am reminded of the painter who tried to paint a building brick-for-brick and was labeled blind by his fellow artists. Just because someone paints, doesn’t make it art. Wine is about friends, family, lovers, food, and shared memories. Every wine person I know has these kinds of bottles in their collection.

There is the DiGrazia Autumn Spice. This is a white wine made from pumpkins and flavored with slight amounts of allspice and clove. This is still a special wine for me. I remember like it was yesterday, driving through the Litchfield hills for the first time, in my parent’s old convertible, a baby blue Skylark, with white leather interior and white rag top. The warm summer wind blowing through my hair as we wound up the roads, with an old girlfriend and an old high school buddy. The wine was lovely, crisp and clean. I bought three or four bottles, and poured it for Thanksgiving two years in a row when my family had cheese and nuts before the dessert came. My father made a corkscrewed face and grimaced, but my mother and aunts loved it! I enjoyed it too.

This DiGrazia wine was one of the most important finds in my life time. My family drank a lot of wine. Wine was present at dinner every night. Not copious amounts, but at least one glass by each adult. Also, this was one of my first personal finds, outside the confines of my parents buying patterns of Bolla, Mondavi, and others. I had discovered this wine. And of course, it was one of the first wineries I had ever visited and had drank the wines. It was where wine not only became part of a memory, but spoke of a place as well.

As a teenager I had ridden by Cream Ridge Winery in Allentown, New Jersey, on my ten speed dozens of times, on lengthy bike rides I made at that time in my life. My Breaking Free period, as it were. But it was not the first one I tasted. That happened on the Connecticut wine trail, where I tasted the offerings of DiGrazia, Haight, and Hopkins. Visits to these wineries are still buried deep within my memory, and inspired a life time of interest in east coast winemaking.

There is a Taurino Salice Salentino. Salice Salentino is a small town and commune in the southern part of Apulia, Italy, in the Salento area. It is bounded with the province of Taranto to the northwest and the province of Brindisi to the north. It’s a wonderful light dry red wine, with bright ripe cherry, nice acidity and medium tannins. A great light Italian red. I had a half case of that under my bed in college. While many of my friends were drinking beer (I had my share of pitchers) I tended already to be drinking wine instead. I courted older women, and poured them inexpensive champagne. I thought I was Richard Gere then, but looking back I think I was more Johnny Stechinno.

One of my other favorite wines of the period was Hunt Country Red. I think I liked it as much for the label as he wine. I had bought it first at Union Square while I had my first job in New York City. Later I would buy it at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn at Prospect Park after a long morning’s walk with mdog and friends. I’d also buy milk in glass bottles from Ronnybrook. This was one of my first New York wines, and was one of the only serious dry red wines from the state in the market at the time that could be found in the city. It was an important bottle for me.

My first great wine – Mouton Rothchild. I started out drinking the 1979, 1981, 1982, and 1983 vintages. I used to collect them with a paycheck here and a pay check there. I remember I drank a half a dozen of them in a two week period one time, thinking the go-go 80s were a period which would last forever. Instead we drank the last few bottles of my first full case when we were flat broke, and could not afford cheaper bottles, and said, “Oh, well, what the hell, at least we have wine…I’ll buy more later on, when we have money again.” Today I hold on to them like they were stitched to my fingers…especially my 1982…which calls to me like a child locked in the cellar. Every time I come down I check it to see if it is still there, still safe.

And who could forget Chateauneuf de Pape? My first date with my wife. I had eaten garlic for lunch, and was walking to Central Park where we would have bread and wine and cheese before going to a reading by Paul Auster of Mr. Vertigo. I stopped at a kiosk and bought a roll of Wint-O-Green Lifesavers, and chomped an entire package only minutes from the park in a vain attempt to hide my lunch time transgression. There she was, in a quiet corner of the park, on a gorgeous September day, with a blanket spread out with an apple, grapes, cheese, and bottle of the magical elixir from Avignon. I popped the cork as we smiled at one another, they way people in love do. I poured us both a glass and we sipped. She closed her eyes, and said, “Mmmmmm.” I was entranced. “It’s really good,” she purred. I felt like Albert Brooks. Actually the experience was awful. With all the Wint-O-Green in my mouth, the wine tasted like Lavoris mouthwash. I didn’t dare disappoint her. I smiled and said, “Mmmmm, yes,” and did my best to try to hide my grimace in a smile. But it began a long love affair with the wine that has lasted ever since.

There’s my great discovery of California – Cakebread and Niebaum Coppola. I remember going to the Coppola ranch in the mid-1980s, when they didn’t have a tastingroom, looking for a single bottle of the then elusive wine, only to be told to vacate the property before I was arrested. It never occurred to me that the family living there (the actual Coppolas?!) might view me as a possible stalker. “I just want a bottle of wine…” I begged. A hand pointed back up the driveway I had come down was the only response. Today I have several estate wines I bought there in the 1990s.

And of course I recall the great delight in finding the first great Cabernet Sauvignon of my life – Cakebread – still among my favorites. I remember as a young man being stunned and disappointed then to find out Jack Cakebread actually owned an autobody shop, and that held had held onto it for many decades. Why, I pondered, if you owned Cakebread, would you do anything else? Why would you screw around with an autobody shop of all things?! Today, and older and wise man, I am horrified he ever closed the shop, as if one could ever trust a winery to deliver enough of a profit to live on. It was a time when I discovered Clod Du Val, Duckhorn, and Chateau Montelena.

I remember tasting my first Turley zinfandel, as I stare at a half dozen bottles. I remember going to the famous Wilkinson Spa and having a mud-bath, being buried alive in a clawfoot tub full of what seemed like boiling peat moss, and being thoroughly amazed and horrified by the whole process. On another trip I remember rewarding myself and my wife with a fabulous meal at the Wappo Grill with a bottle of Turley. I remember it being so hard to find in New York and New Jersey, that I would order bottles in restaurants whenever it appeared on the list, and ask the waiters not to open the bottle “just yet.” And then spiriting away the wine in my wife’s handbag before any damage could be done to my prize.

Those were the prize years of a young collector. My cellar still has many slots devoted to a slew of similar type wines like Kistler (Pinot and Chardonnay), Hanzell, Bond, Williams-Selyam, Sin Qua Non, Palhmeyer, and others. These were the ziegiest of big California wines with their heavy extraction and big alcohol. I bought in like everyone else. The fruit bombs. I was in it up to my ears. Still am!

It was also a time when I began remembering some of the great wine meals of my life time. A salmon and caviar lunch at Domaine Chandon with a vertical tasting of their sparkling wines. Dinner at Tre Vigne. Dinner at Rubicon where we met the legendary Master Sommelier Larry Stone. A fantastic lunch with Peter Kaminsky at Artisanal and a bottle of Plunigy-Montrachet. Dinner with Matt Kramer in LA with west coast Sauvignon Blancs and assorted oysters, tasting how different wines tasted with different oysters. Steak and Bordeaux with Kevin Zraly. And of course dinners with friends…New Years Eve dinners of 13 or 14 people with six courses. And a monthly wine dinner in Lambertville at the Hamilton Grill by the Delaware River with good friends. Sipping different experimental grapes with winemaker Steve Casscles or new releases with Richard Olsen-Harbich. Each experience taught me something I didn’t know about wine before.

There was the time I went to my first private tasting in Napa, when I rolled up to Michel Schlumberger, and pressed the buzzer at the gate. I was asked if I was with the Smith party for the 2pm tasting, and I lied, and said yes, only to be treated to my first California Petite Syrah. Wow!

The CVNE Crianza 1994 gathered dust only until recently. It was a souvenir from my first trip to Rioja. I remember driving through the winding hills of Rioja after racing across the brown flat plains that bridge the Pyrennees and Logrono.  I pressed my mother-in-law’s old Citroen, with her in the back seat and my wife in the front, dying to get to Rioja before they somehow ran out of wine. We were on a small, winding road, and suddenly came up behind a truck full of Spaniards and about what today I realize was about 3-4 tons of dark purple grapes practically over-flowing the side of the large ancient truck. We tailed the rickety bucket of bolts, which putted along at 15 or 20 miles an hour, rattling up and down, as the weary Spaniards hung onto the wooden posts that held in their prize. They smiled and waved at us (more my young, beautiful wife, I think than me or my mother-in-law) as we followed them. How enchanting we all thought, as the sun began to set. How beautiful. Until we realized it was the next five miles, and there was no getting around them.

I found the bottles of Rioja so many years later, gathering dust in our basement. How had we forgotten it? Crianza is a young wine meant to be drunk within a year or two of its release. When we drank it 14 years later, it was still bright and delicious, with cherry and nice tannins. This is when I began to discover the allure of European wines. Rioja’s Tempranillos have held sway over me like the sirens tortured Odysseus.

Chile was another one of our extensive trips. Our most value prize from that trip wasn’t a bottle of wine (though I brought home four cases) but a speeding ticket we received three weeks later, with a photograph if us arguing as we raced through a red light. That and a bill for $75 charged to my American Express for the penalty. We had white glove, 4-star service in Santiago, and watched the Sopranos in Spanish on cable in a hotel in Colchagua. We visited the red brick cellars of Cousino Macul holding wax candles for light (built before the American Civil War) like in an old Vincent Price movie. We drank red wine with red sauce fish stews in the old train station turned town market, and toured the Maipo and Aconcogua valleys driving from city to city and drinking big red wines like Coca Colas. I remember the wide open beaches of Vina Delmar and the hilly little city of Valpariso (where we also most made a wrong turn and drove off down a 100 foot cliff). My bottles of Montes, Almaviva, Casa Lapostolle, Los Vascos, Laura Hartwig, and numerous others remind me of those days.

And of course, we also went up into the Andes, only a mile or two from the Argentine border, and went to a hot spring region only open in late summer and early fall when the river beds run dry after the snows have melted, and the springs were exposed. The stars were so many and so close it seemed like you could touch them. My favorite Malbecs remind me of this moment.

And of course there are my wines from the east coast. Merlots and Chardonnays from Long Island. Red blends and Viogniers from Virginia. Lovely vidals from Sakonnet, Greenvale, Hopkins, and others. Sparkling wines from Sakonnet and Westport Rivers. Chambourcins from New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Baco Noir from the Hudson Valley. Our trip through the Brandywine, or visits to Maryland, and our constant afternoon drives through New Jersey. And of course one of my favorites – Bartlett’s Estate Dry Blueberry Oak Aged from Maine – one of the most surprising finds in a life time (so far) in wine. Experimenting and keeping and keeping an opened mind.

As I have gotten older, I have become more mature in my tastes. I like apple pie and vanilla ice cream. I do not seek out chocolate or super sugary things. And I have come to like Burgundy and by extension, Pinot Noir. Give me a bottle of wine with 11 to 13 percent alcohol, with flavor of bright red cherry or medium cherry, with some vanilla and spice, or a light to medium bodied Italian, and I am very happy. Santa Barbara, Santa Rita Hills, Santa Ynez, Nuits St. George, Burgougne, Cotie Rotie, New York Cab Franc and Merlot, Oregon and Hudson Valley Pinot and Baco Noirs, the list goes on and on. I like brighter whites, like Viognier from Virginia, Sauvignon Blanc from Long Island, and Riesling from the Finger Lakes. These are the new loves of an older man. I am reminded of my late grandfather who traded in his beloved, bounding beagles for a pointer who would hold on point until he could catch up. Or Sam the Lion who returns to the fishless fishing hole in The Last Picture Show, more content to reminisce than fish.

And of course there are always regrets. That I didn’t buy more first growth Bordeaux at reasonable prices before the prices escalated to beyond affordability. I still thank the Lord that I was able to drink dozens of them back in the day. I regret having left a couple chateauneufs and amarone’s go to long. I regret letting a dozen whites I’ve kept too long. There are bottles I wasted on the wrong friends, or the wrong women. There are friends and women I should have poured more generously for. More quiet moments I should have shared with my dogs. More importantly, there are those who have passed away that I look back on and wished I had shared more bottles with.

And of course there’s the realization that I need to drink a little more and collect a little less. I’m not afraid of dying. And I’m not a morbid person. I ain’t dying anytime soon. But one does realize that there’s only so much one can consume or accumulate. He who dies with the most wine in his cellar doesn’t win! As a young man I didn’t understand that. I bought with abandon, zeal. I would come home, having stopped at my favorite wine haunts, and leave the bottles in the car. Then later that evening, or sometime during the weekend, I would transfer my prizes down into the basement, before I could be found out by my wife. I would pay for the bottles in cash sometimes, so she would not see my debit or credit purchases reflected in the statements, lest she would know how much of our money I was “squandering” (her word) on wine.

But I am not asking for sympathy. I have a lot to look forward to. I have a shitload of wine yet to drink. I have many friends left to invite and drink with. There’s Sauterne’s and ports yet to be had. First growths to be plucked. Steaks grilled to match with those Cabernet Sauvignons. And there’s more and more Pinot Noir to discover. There's wines of Hungary and the Dalmatian Coast...and still more on the horizon.

The fun part of wine for me is the people I shared it with along the way. Family, friends, old girlfriends, my wife, winemakers, and other wine enthusiasts. There is nothing better than opening up a great bottle of wine for those who really appreciate it. Sometimes it’s a $15 or $20 bottle. It doesn’t have to be expensive. Sometimes it’s more. But it’s about understanding where it came from, the history f the grape and the vineyard. The point of view of the winemaker. The techniques they used to make the wine. And it’s about people. You meet so many damned interesting people who like wine. And it’s what makes it fun. I’m a wine geek. I admit it. And I love it!

So here, I am, with a cellar full of wine (not all of it for the ages), and a lot of good friends (I am blessed). And in the end, that’s what wine is really all about. Friends. Who wants to drink wine with people they don’t like? To my friends, new and old, gone and not yet met, I say, thank you for putting up with me, I am an admitted ass, and you’re welcome to share my wine. When shall we meet again next and share another bottle? Let the boatman wait on the shores of the Styx whittle away the hours a long time. To everyone else who doesn’t care about me or wine, including the Grim Reaper, I will rely on the sage wisdom of Alan Arkin, “Argo fuck yourself!”