Growing up in an Italian family in Northern California, I cannot recall a time when wine was not a part of my life, as bottles of it always graced our expansive family table. In the mid 80s there was not much in the San Joaquin Valley besides dirt farms and drive-thrus. Now, one cannot throw a dirt clod without hitting a vineyard, and people recognize the name of Lodi from more than just a CCR song lyric. Chances are, if you pick up a bottle of Zinfandel, it will be from the part of California I called home as a child.
My father was a man ahead of the times. I recall on one hot summer day, a truckload of grapes backing up to our barn. Perhaps in an effort to mitigate the cost of consuming it, Dad had decided he was going to try his hand at making wine! In the category of "go big or go home" he had several large barrels that soon housed his vintage tucked into a "cool" corner of our barn. Mom had her doubts... And I am pretty sure that he still blames her "sour grapes" take on his pet project for the outcome. As it turned out, Dad lacked the know-how to create a viable vino. We did however, end up with multiple gallons of fairly decent vinegar. And our barn never smelled the same again!
Fast forward a decade or so, and I found myself employed at a quaint wine and tapas restaurant here in Fairbanks, AK. It was at Cafe Alex that I truly received my (albeit informal) education in wine. Owner and visionary, Alex Mayberry, was determined to feature fabulous and affordable wines on her house list. That list would also change with the seasons, and every time the list changed, Alex would host a private tasting for her staff.
It was at these tastings, typically hosted by either Mark Winans or Paul Rossi, that I learned the language of wine. Prior to this time, my wine lexicon was limited to expressions like "yummy." While accurate, this term was hardly expressive of the multi-dimensional art of enjoying wine. I quickly learned that my tips were directly proportional to my knowledge of the wine I was selling table side.
So I paid close attention to the terminology used by the pros! What I found is that describing wine was very similar describing a love affair. Terms like "rich", "decadent," "well-balanced", and "full-bodied" were used with enthusiasm. I decided to be more bold and even sexy with my description of wines, and my customers loved it!
During this same time period, I was fortunate enough to take some weekend wine classes with a couple local wine aficionados that sadly, are no longer with us. The first was self-professed "cork dork," Paul Rossi. You may recognize the name since LaVelles posthumously honored Paul by naming their expansive cellar after him. Paul always had a sparkle in his blue eyes that came from his genuine love for life. This joy definitely came through in his lectures on wine.
The second gentleman that I was lucky enough to learn a thing or two from also has a name that is very recognizable, since our cancer center here in Fairbanks bares it. Dr. Michael Carroll had a private cellar that was a bit of a local legend. I was never invited to any of his infamous wine dinners, but I did spend a weekend tasting wine under his tutelage out at Two Rivers.
There has been nothing formal or fancy about my wine education. There has been a long string of experiences though, with family and friends, opening and emptying bottle after bottle over the years. Every one of those empty bottles represents love, laughter, and the joyous celebration of life. As I wrap up my introductory blog, the thought I want to leave you with is this: one does not need to spend a fortune on a bottle of wine to enjoy one of the finest things in life. The people we share it with and the memories made over those glasses of wine are the true treasure.