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Monday, May 15, 2006

Epiphany in a Glass

Everyone in the wine business has a story about THE wine. You know, the bottle that turned them into hopeless, spoiled grape juice junkies. Here's mine.

I'll set the stage for you.

It was 2002, sometime in late May. I was tromping around Florence, Italy (poor me) and had spent the entire day, from 0-dark-thirty until 8 PM with my mother, brother, nephew, sister-in-law, several cousins and two aunts. It was hot, in the low 90's. We'd already been to Rome and Siena.

The trip was strenuous. It wasn't so much a vacation as a forced death march of tourism. We often got out the door at 6 AM and rarely got to bed before midnight. We walked damn near 20 miles a day.

Most of the time, we ate our meals at restaurants scheduled by the tour. At most of these fine establishments, we were served what the travel agency thought was American style food. This usually meant a slice of overcooked pork, potatoes and some kind of boiled-until-all-molecular-movement-was-halted vegetable. No basil, no olive oil, no rosemary, no tomatoes, no crusty Italian bread.


That evening, while shopping for inexpensive but highest quality leather goods, we conspired to rebel against our itinerary. We asked where we could find real Italian food. Naturally, our destination required - you guessed it - more walking.

If you've done any traveling at all, you know two things about finding the best food: 1) if you want to meet natives, go to McDonald's**; and 2) if you want to feast upon genuine, local cuisine - you have to walk. Leave the city center. Hit the suburbs. You're probably going to only find local cuisine where the locals live.

We were already sweaty from walking the entire day, so what was another 45 minute stroll to a good restaurant?

We began a slow trudge to this Florentine culinary paradise. Of the 80 or so people on the trip, 20 of us were from my family. I got to meet some cousins I last met when they were infants. Some of them I'd never met. There was laughing and teasing and talking.

Mainly there was walking.

A million steps later, we realized we weren't going to the restaurant in question. My cousin Clark and his wife Pebble took the lead. They popped into a shoe store to ask where this place was. (Evidently, this is the way you find good restaurants, you know. Duck into some kind of leather related business and ask them where to eat. )

Turns out that the shoe store owners knew a much better place and it was - miracle of miracles - just around the corner. Our original destination might have been the best restaurant in the known universe, but man, but our dawgs were barking. We changed course.

The new restaurant was, of course, closed. We sat down at picnic tables in front of the place, pondering our next move, a man ran up and unlocked the doors. He hurriedly said the kitchen would be up and running as soon as he could get things started.

That gave me a chance to rest my aching feet and think about what wine we should order.

The red was easy. Somewhere during my first two months in wine, I had read that many wine travelers make the mistake of only buying wines they try at wineries. They often ignore the best wines they will ever taste, the wine you find in a pitcher on your table at local restaurants. I encouraged everyone to try the house wine - it's often made by the restaurant owners and will be fresher. If the wine isn't as good as the food they serve, their kids don't go to college. It's a sure bet in most cases.

My sister in law, Karen, wanted white wine. I knew whites better at this point, so I felt more confident. I had no idea what lay in wait for me. My life was about to change and I was clueless.

This was in the middle of the Great American Pinot Grigio craze, so I decided to order one from Alto Adige, a region in the northeast of Italy known for its cool climate and accordingly, good quality white wines.

When the glass arrived, it was perfectly chilled. I can't tell you what temperature it was, not Fahrenheit nor Celsius, but I know it was at Goldilocksian perfection. I could tell by the condensation on the glass. Of course it might just have seemed that way after several days of our Italian Long March. It was, after all, about nine o'clock at night and probably 80 degrees.

After looking at the color of the wine and dutifully swirling the glass, a ritual I had been taught some sixty days before, I lifted the glass to my nose. When I inhaled (I am the anti-Bill Clinton of wine. I'll sniff a wine for 5 minutes before I taste it), it was a bolt of lightning shot from the glass.

There were about eleventy billion different aromas jumping out of the glass. At first the wine smelled sweet, like Freesia flowers. I had tasted maybe 5 Pinot Grigios at the time and knew that the wine was known for its floral nose, but I had never smelled a sweetness like this from a dry wine. The floral aromas gave way to peach, apricot and pineapple fruits. Then, in the middle, there was a hint of a stony character, like a hot pool deck splashed with water or a sidewalk kissed by a sprinkler. When that faded, lime and lemon and grapefruit cut back in.

My brain said to me - "Don't drink this. There's no way it can taste as good as it smells. You'll only be disappointed."

Many of you know me. One thing you've probably already figured out about me is I don't listen to my brain much. Surprisingly, this time not listening to my brain paid off.

I can't really begin to describe the intensity of flavors I found in the wine. At the tip of the tongue, there was that Freesia thing I'd found in the aroma. But it didn't last long, just a fraction of a second. At the instant the flowers left, a rush of juicy key lime filled every surface of my mouth. Lime eased into sour apple. At the back of my mouth, I caught a little hint of white peaches and then a sprinkle of pineapple, just like I noticed in the aromas of the wine. Then, a tiny thread of minerality. That thread unraveled the fruit like a cashmere sweater caught on a single strand. At the end, I detected a flash of sweet earthiness, like you get in a carrot or an onion that was just dug out of the ground.

The whole time I'm trying to suss out all these flavors, I'm bombarded by the acidity in the wine. The acidity was so high, I thought it would melt my teeth down to nubs after the first sip. At the second sip, it only got stronger. With all that fruit, though, the wine was still in balance. It didn't taste tart or sour, but rather gave the wine a raciness that was literally tongue tingling. You may not really get what I'm describing until you taste it, but trust me, it's addictive.

In white wines, acidity also adds texture and that was the next thing I noticed. It was light. You almost couldn't tell you had liquid in your mouth. I'm talking light.

Neutrino light.

Yet, somehow, as light as it was, it still had a huge concentration of fruit flavors and minerality.

Finally, you mark a wine's quality by its finish, or how long the wine tastes like it did in your mouth after you swallow it. This wine lasted about 20 seconds, a pretty long finish for a light bodied wine like Pinot Grigio. The wine held all the elements it had in your mouth - fruit, acid, minerality through the time it took me to take another bite of the Tuscan white bean salad on my plate.

I had been struck down on the road to Damascus.

You see, I was genuinely at a crossroads. I had only been in the wine industry two months. I'd tasted maybe 20 different bottles of wine. Sure, I could tell you the technical differences between Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Brunello di Montalcino, but I hadn't tasted them. I had real ambivalence about getting involved in the whole business. I wasn't sure this whole wine thing was for me. I couldn't see it as anything more than a passing interest.

Reading this blog, you might wonder why I was so uncertain. Sure, now I'm the James Bond of the wine world, all cool and collected in the face of danger, ready for action, armed with my Walther PPK and Riedel tasting glass. 2002 was another story.

That glass of Pinot Grigio changed everything.

Now, mind you, I'm aware of three things. One, my memory might be playing tricks on me. this was four years ago. Two, I might be exaggerating just a tiny bit for dramatic effect. Three, I know that wine may not be very good, all things considered. That vintage and varietal is the only wine I've ever tasted from this producer. If you seek this wine out, you may wonder just what the Hell I'm talking about.

That's all irrelevant. I've never looked back. In that universal singularity, I was utterly, completely, totally smitten.

I'm sure it's not the only romance to find its start on a Tuscan Spring night.

So what's your story?


PS - Oh yeah, what wine was it, you ask? St. Michael-Eppan Pinot Grigio Alto Adige.

**Yes, I said McDonald's. That's right...from Indonesia to Portugal to Iceland to Patagonia, if you want to meet the locals, go to McDonald's.


At 6:06 PM, May 15, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, Mark! What incredible descriptions! The only time I can remember experiencing anything remotely as intense as your wine ephiphany is smoking a doobie in college and biting into a potato chip -- WOW! I was hooked! (On potato chips) But they never really tasted the same after that, and needless to say, passing the finals was more important than reincarnating the potato chip moment.

May we all have more epiphanies in our lives -- hopefully induced by stellar, sensational, and sensual wines (all recommended by you, of course).

Thanks for sharing your very personal moment and trip notes -- Ciao, Baby!

At 11:47 AM, May 16, 2006, Anonymous B said...

Now THAT is some fine description, bubby---I tasted it too! And relished it almost as much as you must have.

Good work, mister. You may just have made a Pinot Grigio fan of me... But mostly you reminded us all of how to really pay attention to the subtle swirl of the senses that can come in a thin-stem glass.


At 8:13 PM, May 25, 2006, Anonymous Lauren said...

That was some awesomely descriptive food (excuse me, WINE) journalism. I love that your love of taste shines through your writing. I would kill for such a perceptive palette. Keep it up.


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