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Sunday, December 23, 2012

Everything I know about wine I learned from Catholic school - Part I

It all started when I was tasting wine with a friend, Damon Ornowski, who is a master sommelier. We were taking apart some wine and I mentioned that I smelled ink. Damon looked at me knowingly, but we hadn’t yet made the connection. “You know like the ink in the Sheaffer Skrip ink cartridges we used to use in school?” Bingo. It was at that moment I realized, everything I know about wine I learned in Catholic school.

I’m talking grade school, 1st through 8th grade. I lived in the desert, in Palm Springs, California. It was a quiet life. But it gave me everything I would need in my adult life to muddle through a career.


Citrus – everywhere one looked there was a lemon tree, an orange tree, a grapefruit tree. We’d try to climb them, but they weren’t too much fun. I usually scraped myself on a branch or a leaf. Somehow the perfume of citrus implanted in my memory. It would be helpful in the future when tasting wine from Bordeaux (white), the Loire, New Zealand and Italy.

Mercurochrome and Band-Aids- When we fell hard and scraped our legs or arms, usually there would be an application of mercurochrome and Band-Aids. Suffice to say I am fully vested in the mysteries of brettanomyces, thanks to the miracle of gravity. Bring on the funk.

Pencil Shavings- We used a lot of pencils and we seem to have sharpened a lot more. The aroma of wood and lead would lead me to learn to evaluate wines from Bordeaux (red), The Rhone, Tuscany and Portugal, among others.
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Ink – I seem to smell ink more often than most people. Maybe it was from the many Skrip ink cartridges that broke when I was inserting them in the pen. I smell ink in Napa Valley Cabernet and Petite Sirah, occasionally Southern Rhone and some Sicilian reds that have gone “international”.

Jammy fruit – thanks to the proliferation of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, I have a full and complete understanding of strawberry, grape, blackberry, raspberry and orange. This comes in handy with wines from California, white and red, sweet and dry. As well, I am prepared for Zinfandels, cool climate Cabernet and Moscato.

Dust – Growing up we suffered with a preponderance of dust storms in the desert which usually announced themselves with the whirlwinds known as dust devils. This protracted experience gave rise to my ability to ferret out the minute quality of dustiness in a wine. You may have never detected the aroma or flavor in your wine, but it can be found. Believe me in small quantities it’s not a bad thing. Part of the natural flow of things, so popular these days.

Wood – Every Friday they’d head us over to church, for confession and mass. In the little confessional I would sit there awaiting my fate. Somewhere along the way I became indoctrinated in the grand mysteries of oak, birch, beech and any number of wood aromas. Lightly toasted in most cases, for if the heat turned on, there would be no way I’d be able to pray myself out of the previous weeks shortcomings. To this day, I am a light-toast kind of guy.

Incense – as an altar boy one of my favorite tasks (aside from filling up the water and wine cruets) was to be the one who lit the incense. When I smell those exotic aromas in a wine, they take me to a place that is transforming. Old Bordeaux wines, Sangiovese wines from Tuscany, Hermitage from the Northern Rhone. Once in a blue moon, a German Riesling. Fascinating stuff, eh?

Vegetal – I had a friend at school who came from Rome. Anthony Savarese had a mom who would pack lunches with some of the oddest things. I vaguely remember him bringing a broccoli sandwich to school (or was it eggplant?). In any event, I hope Anthony wasn’t scarred for life by the reaction of some of the non-Italian classmates. I asked my mom why she never made me sandwiches like that. It helped me better understand Monterey County wines and some whites from the Marche.

Blood- as a kid living in the arid desert, I suffered from more than occasional nosebleeds. When I smell blood in a wine, folks look at me like I’m some kind of vampire. No, just a person with a lengthy experience sitting in the bathroom with toilet paper plugged deep into my nasal cavity. After a while one begins to understand almost everything has an aroma. When I smell blood in a wine, it’s not a bad thing. But it had bloody well better not be an accident.

Chalk – one of the rotating chores in class was that of cleaning the chalkboards and erasers. I would bang and bang on those erasers, trying to get rid of chalk dust. I am now thoroughly captivated with classic French Chablis, Muscadet and Italian Verdicchio.

Budding womanhood – my girlfriend in the 8th grade wore this perfume that, when it came into contact with her burgeoning hormones, sent me over the moon. The dominant aroma was cherry, with tuber lilies, a sweet citrus note, and the scent of a woman about to bloom. I once asked her, when years had passed, what the name of that perfume was. She didn’t remember. Olfactorily, it is my “rosebud.” But even though I have not smelled it in over 40 years, and have yet to sense this aroma in a wine, I can still sit quietly and bring it forth in my mind. A wonderful experience, perfume and the essence of a female.

Yes, a lot has been said about a Catholic upbringing, but I never knew what I was being readied for, in those early days with the nuns.On our graduation day, Father Edwards pointed out the value of Catholic education through life. Who could have ever thought this was how it would turn out? What did we know? We were entering our teen years and our hormones were kicking into high gear.

All the while, the curtain to the interesting part of the 1960’s was just lifting…

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8 comments:

  1. Patty Wright-FerriniDecember 24, 2012 at 8:52 AM

    Fonso, This has to be my favorite of all your posts. One of my strongest olfactory memories is 50 sweaty kids in the classroom right after recess. Have you eve picked up that fragrance in wine?
    Merry Christmas my dear friend!

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  2. yes - it's what we call in the wine business "wet dog" ;^)

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  3. Alfonso,

    Great sensory statement. On thing: you did not identify that scent of a budding woman. How come?

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  4. Fine post, amico. Smells bring back so many buried memories. I had forgotten all about Skrip ink cartridges, but not the wood of the confessional, the oranges of my mother's cakes and the burnt orange peels on my grandmother's mammoth cast iron stove, mercurochrome, pencil shavings, peanut butter & jelly, incense in church ...To this day the smell of pine is the one smell that brings back all the treasured Christmas memories of my youth. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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  5. Lovely post, Alfonso and how I envy your childhood taste memory... As a sickly asthmatic kid, I don't really have these memories, except one from our annual visit to Switzerland for a ski holiday. I guess my nose was clearer in the mountain air at altitude and the smell that stayed with me was of the animals (cows, sheep, goats) that spent the winters in the lower level of the old farm chalets there. I rediscovered the smell in my own mountain village years later - I guess mature, old-fashioned red Burgundy or Rhône comes closest.

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  6. Wonderful post. I too have many childhood aroma memories, most from our lake house where we would pick blueberries and nibble on spearmint leaves in the woods. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

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  7. Ha! I do remember reading that a little while back...

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