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 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.
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!”