Most of us wine geeks have a seminal moment in our wine-drinking careers that we can pin down and say “That’s when I got hooked, that’s when I really caught the wine bug.” I bet most of us didn’t have silver spoons in our mouths, and this moment was probably not borne out of some pretentious snobbery involving a $1000 bottle of Bordeaux that had aromas of gunflint and wet saddle leather. I’m willing to bet that, for most American wine geeks anyway, these wine beginnings were much less formal. For my brother it was during his college years at Ithaca when he visited several local wineries in the Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York. For my friend Sean it was when he and his wife travelled to the Napa Valley on their honeymoon. Wine geeks love to tell their wine stories, and it is these stories, these personal connections and experiences that make wine so special to so many people. I thought an appropriate initial column would be to share with you the experiences that got me hooked on spoiled grape juice.
Just after I graduated high school I was fortunate enough to travel to Europe with an international youth orchestra (I played, and still play, the trumpet). The trip lasted three weeks and consisted of several one to four-night stays with European host families. One part of France that we were scheduled to visit, Alsace, is known for making world-famous dry white wines. I was intrigued by this, and, having literally never had a single drop of alcohol in my first 18 years of life, thought I’d better keep an open mind and try the local culture. Well, I really didn’t like it at all. The vineyards and the scenery were spectacularly beautiful, but I just couldn’t figure out why people liked alcohol so much.
Fast forward to my freshman year at The Ohio State University. Basically, drinking happened a whole lot more often in college! Near the end of my freshman year I got my first “beer buzz” and finally understood what the booze hype was all about. That summer, I went with the same orchestra to Europe again, only this time I was armed with a palette that could now tolerate (and was maybe even thirsty for) the taste of alcohol.
As it happened, our first tour stop was Thann, a small village in the aforementioned region of Alsace. I was excited to go back there, and thought I might do a little more tasting this time around. There’s no way I could have anticipated the kind of dumb luck fate had in store for me. After the eight-hour flight from Detroit to Frankfurt, we took a three-hour bus ride southwest to Thann. We arrived, exhausted and cramped, at a small church where our host families were to pick us up. After about a half hour, two other kids and I were smashed in the back seat of an old VW Rabbit with some old French guy who spoke no English--and evidently spoke no “shower,” either. One of the other kids, Charles, studied a little German in school, and was able to communicate with our host enough to determine that we were on the way to his house to await his daughter with whom we would stay.
After about 45 minutes in the car we arrived at a very quaint house in the middle of a small village called Orschwihr. From the outside there was nothing remarkable about this house other than its distinctive Alsatian quasi-Germanic architectural nature. Our old French guy took us inside, sat us down at a small table, then, without saying a word, went through a rather large door to our left. Through the open door I could see two huge wooden casks that looked like giant barrels, and the old French guy returned a few seconds later with a slender green wine bottle. He casually set four green-stemmed wineglasses on the table, popped the cork and poured us each a glass of wine as if it were the most natural and obvious thing he could do. I was shocked. By dumb luck alone I had travelled almost directly from Detroit to what Californians would consider a “garage winery.”
The liquid in the glass had a delicate pale straw color, and smelled quite unlike the $1 pitchers of beer you could get at Sloopy’s on Thursday nights. I couldn’t believe how refreshing the cool glass of Muscat was after the stiflingly hot car ride. While our host didn’t say much, his message was clear: welcome. That moment was it for me. Wine had suddenly changed from a simple beverage to an elegant tool for dissolving social barriers. This is what does it for wine geeks like me: lifelong memories built on a simple glass of wine.