Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Secret Life of a Gateway Wine - Coming of Age in a Life of Wine

Living in a country that is geographically isolated from much of the world by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, many in America tend to live inside their heads. It’s funny that for those of us who love wine, the head is the receptacle for the precious liquid. If only it could occasionally be utilized as a way to flush our system and give us a more outward perspective. For some, I am sure it does. But the monkey brain inside of us, it chatters away.

I was talking to a group of young wine professionals last week, just relating the differences between now and then - then being the time when I was their age. Maybe younger. I was talking about wine and what my gateway wine was, a path which eventually led me to tables where an obscene array of aged and (often) great Barolo and Barbaresco were there for pure enjoyment. By chance, my gateway wine was a bottle of Thunderbird.

I was riding with my dad, must have been 10 or 11. We lived in the desert, Palm Springs. My dad was a real estate broker. He had a “spec” house in Rancho Mirage, coincidentally, within the Thunderbird Country Club neighborhood. My dad would go over there to check on the house, do a little painting or repair, generally putzing around, trying to stay out of trouble. The house was empty, not far from Sinatra’s house at the time. In fact we often saw their comings and goings from our house. And there was plenty of that in those days.

But on this day, it was hot. Over 100°F. And I was thirsty. So I looked into the refrigerator and saw what looked like a bottle of something that might quench my thirst. I thought it odd that the bottle said Thunderbird, same as the neighborhood. Maybe it was from the Club. So I opened it up and took a swig.

I still remember that moment. Cool, fizzy, fruity. Followed by a wave of unforgiving, burning alcohol. I took another, smaller sip. Same cool, fizzy, fruitiness. But the finish wasn’t as severe. Still, I longed to quench my thirst in the relentless heat of the desert. Thunderbird wasn’t going to quench it, not this day.

It wasn’t my first time to taste wine. Our Italian-American family had plenty of wine at the table. One uncle was a trader in the business and fancied himself an aficionado of the vine. And all these stories you hear about the Italians giving wine cut with water to their kids - not in my family. We never got the watered down version.

My grandfather was a fan of brandy. It was like a cure-all for him. Aside from warm water with fresh lemon squeezed into it, which he had every morning (he lived to be 97), brandy was the answer to everything. Upset stomach? Have a little sip. Can’t sleep? Here’s a spoonful of brandy. The kids are too active? “Go see Nonno”, Nonna would tell us. She liked a calm house.

So, it would seem Thunderbird was positioned in that time of my life when I started seeing wine as something other than that which our family would partake of on Sunday meals. It stood out, on several accounts. And it was a portal, albeit in a very small way, on my life’s journey in wine.

Later, when I went off to college, to Santa Clara, we were surrounded by wine and winemaker families. The president of Santa Clara was a winemaker. Wine was everywhere. But it was also not as cool as it is now – the era was late 1960-early 1970’s - there were other burning issues.

When I graduated and moved back down to Southern California, I think that was when my real wine education began. Aside from working in restaurants (the first one being a health food place, called the Loaf & Ladle – in Pasadena), wine education fell upon me and my own resources. I was poor. I worked three jobs, had a family and wine was a luxury. But, fortunately there was a Trader Joe’s (the  original one, on Route 66, in Pasadena) down the road from me. And they had stacks of wine, from all over the world, usually for $2 or $3 per bottle.

This was my “Promised Land.” Here was a Vouvray for $1.99. On the stack next to it was a Rheingau, also $1.99. A shiny, golden chrome-like bottle announced Sherry. Into the shopping cart it flamenco’ d. nearby was a Petite Sirah from Morgan Hill, a stretch at $2.99. Ok, why not? The place was rife with easy-entry doorways into the world of wine. And so it began in earnest, this life of wine, as an adult, now going into the fifth decade of such a life.

Can an industrial produced wine, such as Thunderbird, lead to other things? Did it, in my case?

In all likelihood, it probably started at the Sunday table of my grandparents, where I saw wine integrated in our life as an accompaniment to food. To this day, it is that. Not to say there aren’t times when wine isn’t brilliantly refreshing. The other night we opened up a 2016 Rosé of Sangiovese from Alexander Valley Vineyards. The wine virtually disappeared from the bottle in minutes. Leave a bottle of Cleto Chiarli Vecchia Modena Lambrusco di Sorbara in the fridge and it will disappear. (Note to self, always have two bottles of that, at all times). Riesling? Forget about it. I don't know how they all escape the fridge so quickly, like they all leave for the Italian Riviera with the Soave's, the Gavi's and the Greco's, through some secret door.

My Thunderbird experience didn’t lead me down some rosy gateway path – it didn’t teach me how to love wine - but what Thunderbird did was to leave an impression – it catalyzed a young soul and made a notation for something, somewhere down the line. Sure, it wasn’t an altogether pleasant experience. But it was something that I never forgot.

And while I have never had any inkling to go back and revisit that moment, I do look back upon it in a wistful manner. Last night, over a bottle of 2005 Brunello from Barbi (opened too early, by the way), I enjoyed the wine immensely. So, for however I got here, I have learned how to love wine.

And for all the good, bad and otherwise inappropriately positioned bottles along my path, I’m in a good place with wine.

My advice to anyone who cared enough to read this far: Don’t worry about how you got here. If Barefoot brought you, so be it. If Gaja was your gateway, count yourself lucky (and pecuniarily propitious). We are overwhelmed with commercially produced, industrialized wine. And as well, we are admonished, regularly, by influencers, to only place pure, organic, special stuff into the temples that are our bodies. But you have to start – somewhere.

The Trader Joe’s of my early adulthood doesn’t exist as it once did. What was then a clearing house, for unknown and apparently unwanted wines, was a universe waiting to be discovered. I was very fortunate. To walk into a supermarket today, where wine is sold, is to be assaulted with any number of outrageously labeled wines. Cute, at times. Offensive at other times. But somewhere on that shelf, might just be a wine that can lead to other things. If there is an independent wine shop, you might be luckier. This isn’t going to magically appear to you. You have to climb the hill, make the trek. Hey, you gotta do something to get your 10,000 steps in a day, yes?

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W


  1. I read your post after a weekend where the wine thought-police, on social media (mainly Twitter) ganged up on a young writer who did an op-ed in the NY Times. Did you read her piece, called “Ignore the Snobs, Drink the Cheap, Delicious Wine,” by Bianca Bosker?

  2. This post has been fermenting in the “inner-queue” for awhile. I read Eric Asimov’s piece on wine glasses - One Wine Glass to Rule Them All - and tried to buy the ones his paper’s panel suggested the best everyday wine glass is the Libbey Signature Kentfield Estate All-Purpose Wine Glass. Unfortunately the glasses are sold out/unavailable online, perhaps due to the influence of Eric’s article. I have a copy of the article in the paper today, the one you mentioned, and will read it while traveling to Austin today, thanks, Lili.

  3. I, like Lili, thought this was in response to the reaction to Bianca Bosker's piece. Regardless, I appreciate your detailed trip down wine memory lane.

    (I need to check on my inner queue, see how some fermentations are progressing as well.)

  4. I disagree with one assertion, I don't think keeping 2 bottles of Cleto Chiarli Vecchia Modena Lambrusco di Sorbara is enough. What if unexpected guests arrive?

  5. Hi Jameson,
    Thanks for checking in - yeah, you'll find anything on this blog, including the proverbial kitchen synchronicity...On the road in a few and will read the piece then, thanks. trying to avoid packing, but now I must go do that.

    Anon(Rob) - yeah, probably best to just have a case of 12 at all times in the back fridge of VM...

  6. Some of my best wine memories involve a campfire and a jug of Gallo Hearty Burgundy...before that was the ever-present bottle of Blue Nun kept on hand by my WWII vet Dad who got into wine while stationed in the Mosel after the war, trading farmers diesel fuel for cases of wine. The wine gets better as we get deeper into it (hopefully), but the memories old and new are really what it's all about. Wine is for sharing, for bringing people together.

  7. When I worked for the floor I often asked clients what wine got them started. For me, it was a huge fiasco of chianti at Il Latini in Florence. I was bored to tears by the banal chatter of my then girlfriend and her family. 1/4 of the fiasco into it, I was hooked. 22 years later, I know the gateways change, but the story is very familiar. The shifting components of myself are mirrored by the way in which new wines blend with the memories of old. The white whale of sublime pushes me forward, but those cheap bottles, those first corked bottles, and the few angelic gifts from clients with cold basements changed the course of my existence. This was a beautiful read AC. Thank you for writing it.


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