Sunday, September 03, 2006

The Reach of the Grape

I was looking at the previous posting and the picture of my family, before I was born and wondering: What did they eat, what songs did they sing, what were their dreams? New immigrants with such high hopes for their America. What would they make of our America now, 70 years later?

My grandfather in his backyard with his brick bar-b-que and his grape arbor, lots of good times, always with the wine flowing, probably the first place wine touched my lips. Those grapes, their reach, always somewhere, on the wine trail, in those early California days.

It isn’t the same for me and my son. Those traditions of gathering and sharing a meal and a flask of wine are now changed, it seems, forever. Now we roll out the custom grill and fire up some exotic hardwood charcoal and throw on a couple of grass fed or organic steaks. The wine is better, the food is healthier, but it just isn’t the same, is it?

I was remembering some of my favorite wine moments in the past. Many of them had nothing to do with fine wine as we know it today. An ancient memory has me looking in the refrigerator of my dad’s spec house in the desert, the one next to Sinatra’s home near Thunderbird C.C. He drove a Thunderbird. Odd, I thought, at the time, because in the fridge was a bottle of Thunderbird. It was a Thunderbird world! It was summer in the desert and hot, and the water tasted antiseptic and chlorinated. In contrast, the "T-bird" was citric and spritzy, refreshing on that hot summer day, not quite as cool as those starlets swimming in the Chairman of the Board's pool. But a glimpse, a peak, over the fence into adulthood, and wine. I still remember that encounter. What's the word?

There was a hike on a trail I once took up to Tuolumne Meadows in the Upper Yosemite Valley. I hauled in a couple of bottles of Almaden Mountain wines, one red and one rosé. In those days 750ml bottles were available. At 8,000+ elevation, a little went a long way. But over the course of a few nights with friends, the soft, fruity, almost innocent naturalness of the wine has never left my memories. Not a great wine, but a great memory of an experience which wine played a part in.

I once brought home a bottle of 1975 Souverain Cellars Petite Sirah. Bill Bonetti, later to become famous for his role in the branding of the Sonoma-Cutrer wines, was the winemaker at the time. I remember pouring it in a glass beaker that was better suited to beer or water. But the aroma of the wine in that glass was so intriguing and so delicately perfumed that, to this day, I still look for it in other wines, what that wine gave me that night. It was a marker, something I will never forget.

One day one of my colleagues, with the authority to do so, decided to open a magnum of 1911 Lafite. It was a low fill, and we couldn’t sell it for much anyway. So he hauled off to Sonny Bryans BBQ, when Sonny was still alive and on the line, and gathered some brisket and ribs for the lunch back at the office.
The Lafite was interesting. It was 75+ years old, same age as the U.S. president at the time, without the benefit of lighting and secret service. It was brown and losing its fruit in the glass. But the elusiveness of the fruit made it precious. Here was a wine that was dying, and we were allowed to sip its last drops, breath its last perfume before it said adieu. Wonderful moment.

I was in Galveston once upon a time, working in a building on the Strand. Someone in our office decided we should open and try a bottle of the 1964 Giacomo Conterno Monfortino. At the time, the wine was young, not quite 20 years old. As we initially tasted it, the person who opened the wine decided we should go to lunch and come back to try the wine. Two hours later we returned to a wine that had opened all its petals and was waiting to show us its flower. Inside the glass I sensed a deep red rose and a pink one, too. There was also a bittersweet chocolate and a reduced, almost balsamic, intensity. It was thick and juicy and wonderful, and I’ll never see wine again quite like that.

Last year in Portugal we came upon a 1945 Dows Vintage Port. I have been very fortunate to taste a lot of great wine and a serious amount of Port going back into that beginning of that last century. But to be in Villa Nova di Gaia in the house of the producer tasting a wine that only came down the Douro once in the last 60 years, that was memorable. To taste the wine in the place where it spent its youth and all of its life is to give a sense of place to a wine that relies so much on that place. It is like being part of the wine in the glass when one has that kind of experience. The wine was still young and hopeful, having been born only a few years after the gathering of my family mentioned in the beginning of this memoir. Wine made before I was born by people who no longer are alive.

That is as close as I will get to being with my family on that autumn day in 1939, celebrating my oldest sister's 1st birthday, with my mom and dad and grandmas and grandpa and aunts and uncles and cousins.
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