I remember clearly my first glass of wine. A muscat, a sweet dessert wine. Dinner, at the home of friends. J. poured me a very small glass (I was very young, but I don't remember how old) and sent me upstairs to pore through his vast collection of photography books. I rather think my love of photography and wine began then. The muscat was sweet and a little syrupy, golden in the dim light of the upstairs landing. It tasted of warmth and sunlight, left me feeling as though I was wrapped in one of those fuzzy blankets my hosts always kept on the couch. Whenever I came over for dinner I was always sent upstairs after dessert, where I would lay on my stomach on the carpet and flip through the books, or curl up with a blanket and watch tv, or take a few books downstairs to the living room, where there were more leather couches and cozy blankets, until the grown-ups finished talking in the dining room and it was time to go home.
There have been many wines and dinners at that house, but the other one that stands out in my memory is the Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon, 1969, which we drank one night when I was in high school. Sixteen or seventeen. I love Cabernet Sauvignon, the weight of it, the texture of it. There has never been anything like it before, or since, although I have drunk many a glass in searching. It is impossible to say what I have loved best. There have been cool white wines in Italy, Burgundies at Rover's in Seattle (because they have an extraordinarily good selection), the occasional Bordeaux. I think there is a bottle of Château Margaux lurking somewhere in the cellar, if we haven't drunk it already. In Montalcino we drank the extraordinary local Brunello di Montalcino, and, of course, my father has amassed a fairly serious amount of Washington state wines, mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, perhaps some Merlot thrown in there.
I came across The Accidental Connoisseur, well, accidentally. I'm not sure when I bought it, but I was flipping through it recently and immediately realized that this is the one book on wine that I have been waiting to read. I find most people who write or talk about wine to be extremely tiresome. There is no point in standing around pontificating about what wine is better than the other, about France versus America, about oak and berry and flint and woodsy and flowery flavors and taste indexes and scores and whatnot. It's boring. Wine is wine. Good wine is good, and you should drink more of it. Bad wine is not worth drinking. The rest is bullshit. Osborne is not bullshit. He writes beautifully and clearly about wine in a way that I (as someone who only cares about wine in the sense that I like to drink it) can understand and even love. And then he gets into the heart of what I feel about wine.
Wine is about the moment, the way food is about a moment in time that cannot be recaptured. It isn't just about what you are eating and drinking, it is about the people you are with, where you are, what you are feeling at the time. If you are miserable, eating disgusting food with people you hate, even a 1982 Château Margaux may as well be grape juice. Unless you drink enough of it, in which case perhaps even dog food will taste like filet mignon and your dinner partner from hell will become Sharon Stone. That 1969 Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon is not just about the wine, it is about an evening spent with my parents and their friends, some grilled steak, much laughter; in that same way that cool nameless white wine is part of the memory of a dinner under the stars, somewhere south of the Cinque Terre, eating seafood and talking with my parents into the warm summer night. Those are moments of time, encaptured and enraptured by memory, and cannot be regained, although there will be new wines and new memories in the future.
Osborne observes that when Gerald Asher writes about memorable wines, he has to dip back into memory and not call forth, say, a Petrus '61 or a Lafite '29, but instead recalls a vino rosso he had at the Simplon Pass in 1962 or 1963. Asher says that he has searched for that wine for thirty years and never found anything remotely like it, before admitting that perhaps it was he who "created" it in the first place. "But the pleasure in any wine is subjective: we each bring something to what is there in the glass and interpret the result differently." What Osborne sees, and this is what I have come to believe after a decade of drinking wine, is that place itself is twofold: on the one hand, it is terroir; on the other, it is what is going on around you as you are drinking. The first is geological, the second psychological. And taste is presumably a high-wire act balancing itself precariously between the two. And this is why I drink wine, in search of that balance, that mysterious alchemy between my mind and my surroundings and my tastebuds.
Osborne, Lawrence. The Accidental Connoisseur: An Irreverent Journey Through the Wine World. North Point Press, New York, NY, 2005. pp 89-91.