I was reading the message board at Wine Berserkers today and came across a thread that was discussing people’s wine epiphanies. I’ve always loved this subject so I began eagerly typing out my answer but as it grew in length I realized that this would be better off as a blog post, so here it is.
My first epiphany wine was a strange one with somewhat a somewhat unusual context. I was very young and in late grade school or maybe early middle school and my father and I were driving one day from a visit to Sun Valley Idaho (a ski resort town) to the airport in Boise. There is a big truck stop along that route and we stopped to get some food and drink. My father asked me what I wanted and for a reason I cannot explain I answered “wine and cheese”. Why I said that, I am not really sure but I was very much what would now be called a “foodie” in those early years of my life and I am sure I read somewhere that cheese and wine went well together. Surprisingly, my father actually bought a chunk of cheese along with a single-serving of some plonk red wine for me and let me have a few sips as we continued on our way. To this day I can still remember what that wine tasted like. I was in heaven. I really was in love with the flavor and a switch went off in my head fully impressing upon me how delicious wine was. Also around that time I also had my first taste of white that a friend and I snuck from the box of wine his mom kept in the fridge. Again, I just loved the flavor of wine and it never has left me. These were cheap “bulk” wines but they were enough to ignite a lifelong love of wine.
During my high school years my friends and I mostly just drank beer when we were somehow occasionally lucky enough to be able to finagle some (If you want to know what my friends and I were like at that age, think Beavus and Butthead. We were not very cool). But once I went away to college I reawakened my interest in wine. My girlfriend and I were big fans of the Grateful Dead and we would often do the long drive between Humboldt county were we lived in Northern California and the San Francisco Bay area to see shows. Between those two points one drives through a series of wine regions and I was very intrigued to stop and wander around the vineyards. We were not quite of age to drink yet but we still were able to taste at some places and occasionally walk off with a bottle. It was not a “party” thing for me, but rather I was really intrigued by the wines we tasted and had a respectful curiosity-driven approach towards it to it.
When I finally turned 21 I really dove in head first. I read literally everything I could find about wine and visited wineries as often as I could. It was during this time I had what could really be called my first real epiphany wine. The first time I really experienced a “wow” moment was with a bottle of Audubon Society labeled zinfandel that I had procured during a visit to Napa. I am not sure what vintage it was but it would have been perhaps 1992 or 1993 when I tried it. I remember drinking this and being astounded at the depth, power and layers of flavor in that wine. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say it blew my mind. I remember excitedly calling my girlfriend at work and telling her how much I loved it. It was probably a “fruit bomb” type wine in retrospect but man did it make an impression.
My next major epiphany also occurred around this time. I was visiting my uncle for dinner at his house and he opened a number of wines for us to try. He was the first person I knew that was a “wine collector” and he had a pretty deep cellar of many older Bordeaux and Napa Cabs. One wine he opened was a 1970 Lynch Bages. It was mostly tertiary in flavors/aromas and it was the first time I saw how amazingly complex an aged wine could be. I just loved it. What was really brought home to me was that wines could have more than just fruit flavors and that this level of complexity could really only be found in wines that have been allowed to mature over time. Ever since that moment I was committed to someday having a cellar to age wine, though due to life circumstances (being in few crazy startup technology businesses) it would be years until I ended having a stable enough lifestyle to do it.
The next step in my palate evolution was the discovery of Pinot Noir to be my favorite red wine graoe. The wine that opened my eyes to how delicious Pinot Noir could be was a 1990 Foxen from Santa Barbra County. I don’t remember if it was a vineyard designate or not but those were not as common back then. Up until time I was mostly into bolder wines like Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon but that wine was definitely a pivot point in getting me interested in the more feminine and pretty side of red wine. The apex of Pinot Noir for me around that time were a couple bottles of Williams Selyem I was able to get my hands on.
I would say my next epiphany (and probably my most important one) was with a 2002 Bouchard Gevery Chambertin. At that time my favorite wines were definitely California Pinot Noirs but I was mostly into the “bigger” styled wines. Since I loved pinot noir so much I naturally was intrigued by Burgundy and every so often I would try one at a restaurant when dinning somewhere nice or perhaps I would pick one up at a wine retailer. To be honest I did not like these burgs at all and for the life of me could not understand why anyone would spend their money on these fruitless and shrill wines. In retrospect, I now realize these wines were likely just “closed” and simply needed some air to “wake up” but the idea that wine needed aeration to show well was a foreign idea to me. But then one day I got lucky and blundered into that 2002 Gevery that was being poured at a wine bar and luckily it was showing well as a “pop and pour”. DING! It was totally open and giving and I instantly intuitively knew that this is what I had been looking for in red wine. The lightness, elegance and beauty of it really spoke to me. It would not be an exaggeration to say it instantly changed what wines I appreciated. From that moment on, I simply could no longer enjoy the bigger styled Pinot Noirs like Kosta Browne anymore. The rapid nature of my palate change is remarkable in retrospect. It was literally one 3 ounce por of a village level wine that reprogrammed my wine preferences.
Interestingly, the next wine I had that I would classify as an epiphany experience was a domestic Pinot and it occurred after my almost instantaneous palate switch away from bigger styled pinot noir and towards red Burgundy. My wife and had visited the Russian River Valley a year or two earlier on a quest to try different Pinot Noirs. That trip was still when I was in my “ripe pinot noir” phase and I enjoyed a lot of what I tasted. One winery we visited was Joseph Swan. Frankly, I did not really enjoy the Pinot Noirs they were pouring. I am sure that the cold room was not helping but they seemed tight and acidic. The people serving us wine there were nice though so I felt compelled to at least buy something and picked up a single bottle the 2002 Trenton Estate Pinot Noir. That wine sat around in my wine rack for a while before I got around to drinking it. I hadn’t been impressed with it at the winery and I had already had by Burgundy epiphany so I wasn’t too enthused to open it and it was almost with a sense of annoyance that I twisted the cork when eventually got around to opening it. You know what? I was blown away by it. Maybe it was my palate change or maybe it just needed it sit around for a while but the wine showed amazing for me. It was so powerful and complex yet not over done or over ripe. It was a reminder to me to not ignore the potential of domestic Pinot Noir despite my new found fascination with red Burgundy.
The last red wine I’ve had I would mark as an epiphany wine for me would have been a 2002 Fourrier Clos St Jacques that I purchased after seeing it sitting in the temperature controlled section of a local wine shop. I had never heard of the producer but it kind of called out to me. Maybe it was the heavy bottle or the majestic label (yes, I am shallow). At $100 or so, I think at the time it was the most I had ever paid for a wine outside of a restaurant wine list. To say the least, I was not disappointed. It really rocked my world. While the2002 Bouchard village wine was enough to make me realize I loved the genre of red Burgundy this was the first Burgundy to really make me weak kneed and feel a sense of awe. For the first time I understood sayings like “power without weight” and “iron fist in a velvet glove”. What I experienced with that wine seemed to defy the laws if physics. How could something so powerful at the same time be so nuanced and delicate? This bottle was also the catalyst for me to realize that there were major stylistic differences between different producers and that perhaps producer is as important as vineyard when buying burgundy. I quickly sought out other bottlings from Fourrier and fell in love with the sophisticated yet almost understated purity of the style.
The last wine of any sort I would mark as an epiphany was a 2004 Donnhoff Spatelese. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the vineyard but I think the note still exists somewhere on Robert Parkers message board. Maybe it’s not totally fair to say this was my first epiphany Riesling as a couple years before I was dinning at a restaurant called Gary Danko in San Francisco and ordered a half bottle of some random German Riesling off the list and really loved the intense tropical fruit of it. I had no idea that Riesling could be so delicious and powerful. I had bought other Rieslings after that hoping to recreate that experience but none of them came close. But then one day I saw a bottle of the above mentioned Donnhoff and opened it at home. Aha! Here is that Riesling experience I was looking for again. Actually it was even better; much better really. It wasn’t tropical but rather more stone-fruit in nature. But what really caught me was the interplay between the fruit and the acid. And what acid! The wine seemed luminous in its energy, almost otherworldly so. I was also struck at the complexity. I had tasted aged wines with complexity but this is the first time I had seen it in a young wine. It was a delightful treat and a huge eye opener to how good German Riesling could be.
What has struck me as most interesting while voyaging down my vinous memory lane is that it has been a really long time since I have had a wine epiphany of any sort. Am I jaded? I have had some remarkable wines in the five or six years since the last of those experiences but nothing that has jolted me to a new realization or been the catalyst for a shift in palate preference. Perhaps I have simply reached my metaphorical enological home so new wines can’t point me in this direction since I am already here. The closest I have come to calling a wine experience an epiphany has been with Champagne but those awakenings didn’t have the earth shattering implications that the early ones did. I love and understand wine more than ever but part of me misses those moments of discovery and excitement.