If you ask a collector, a wine writer or a sommelier how they got into wine, the immediate inclination is to fish out an epiphany. It often begins with a bottle of very expensive wine that someone slipped into their glass at a restaurant or a dinner party, or that time a bottle of Chave Hermitage made them see unicorns and hear Bach. Taste is certainly powerful enough to fuel a love of wine. But the choice to collect it or choose a career in it is about much more than that.
I myself never saw unicorns. I grew up around wine, but not great wine by any stretch. My parents drank it every day, and we had a wine cellar, but they never did like the concept of expensive wine, let alone expensive wine they couldn't drink for a decade or more. So they filled the cellar with sparkling water, and I drank more Perrier than any kid in town.
In college, tiring of the endless stream of Bud Light forties and vodka sodas, I started stocking up on cheap wine at a shop on Broadway in New York City that was, and still is, a sort of Filene's Basement of wine retail. By junior year, I got a hostess job at a restaurant in the East Village and began attending staff wine training. During those weekly meetings, something lit up in me. I felt excited to learn in a way I hadn't since I took my first art history class in high school. When I graduated, I swore off law school, took all of the money my relatives had sent for graduation, and went to Italy to work the harvest. The rest, as they say, is history.
I've fallen in love with wine all over again in different ways and for different reasons since then. And I've learned that the way we drink wine, as well as what we drink and why, can be a great window into a specific time in our lives.
"When I got into wine in my mid-late 20s, it was about social class and status and climbing and trying to be ahead of the curve intellectually and among your peers," said Dan Petroski. "Wine was an intellectual pursuit, and I was looking to understand it and not be intimidated by it."
Petroski quit his job in publishing, moved to Italy and vowed to become a winemaker; now he's the winemaker and owner of Massican and the associate winemaker at Larkmead, both in Napa Valley. Over the years, wine's appeal has changed, from a way to climb a social ladder and impress the ladies, to a larger appreciation of context.
"It's about the terroir of consumption. It's how we consume wine, who we consume it with, where we consume and in the environment and ambience that leads to the enjoyment of the wine," he said.
Stephen Bitterolf left a career in art to take a job as stock boy at Crush Wines & Spirits in New York; now he's the wine director for the store and one of the city's top authorities on German and Austrian wine. What inspired him was the appeal of the weird little subculture of wine lovers and the beauty of wine as a socio-economic leveler.
"Money and social status often drive NYC," said Bitterolf. "But with wine, I can have people from a very different social strata to my house and I can go to theirs and there's nothing weird about it. There's something rare and special about that."
Wine is culturally significant enough that some of us, whether we are conscious of it or not, use it to say something about who we are—or want to be.
"Wine isn't always just something you taste and like; it's something you identify with," said Bitterolf. "Say you taste a Burgundy and a Beaujolais and you like them both, but you live in a penthouse. You're probably more likely to get into Burgundy because, one: You can afford it; and two: It matches that big picture of who you are."
How or why we identify with wine is also, lest we forget, a little bit about romance and imagination. Paul Einbund, a longtime sommelier and the current wine director at Frances in San Francisco, sums it up well.
"It's like that scene from Highlander when he says to this woman in a mysterious fashion, 'When you open up an old bottle of wine, there's a little bit of air in it, and that air comes from when the wine was bottled' and then he pops the cork and leans toward the bottle and inhales some of that air from 1940-something," said Einbund. "That's a beautiful thought."
Wine, from the moment I became truly interested in it, has been a conduit for ideas about place, culture, and history—but it's also about stories. Drinking wine is like collecting narratives, and the best wines tell a story about one person or family's idea of beauty and how they arrived at that idea. It's those ideas that keep me drinking.
Rich Mora — East Setauket, NY, USA — November 7, 2012 10:34am ET
Chris — Chicago IL — November 7, 2012 10:00pm ET
Leonard Cupo M D — Honolulu, Hawaii — November 8, 2012 1:27am ET
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