I arrived in Strasbourg with great excitement as it was my first visit to France. After months in Austria and Germany drinking the best beer I’d ever tasted, for my first meal in France I thought I should try the beverage that France was famous for and ordered a pitcher of Edelzwicker in an inexpensive Weinstube. That was it for me. For the next month I drank carafe after carafe of, what I discovered later, was the most ordinary wine the French could make. It mattered not, I loved it.
That was 1973 and I was just a student “studying” in Europe. Lenn Thompson of Lenndevours has asked us to go back to our vinous roots for this fourth anniversary of his creation, Wine Blogging Wednesday, a monthly project focusing the wine blogging community on one topic. The roots of my love of wine run deeply back over thirty years ago to my first adventure outside the United States. After Strasbourg I spent a month traveling around France drinking wine, none of it of any pedigree, but that mattered not to my virgin palate, which, having been nurtured in the puritanical Mid-West had never been exposed to the tawdry culinary temptations indulged in daily by Europeans. The trip concluded with a week in Paris, where being essentially penniless, I subsisted by going to the store and buying the cheapest wine I could buy, which I took to the park surrounding the Eiffel Tower. That park was filled with hippies and for the price of a bottle of wine you could join in luscious communal meals of fresh bread, sausages and whatever people would bring. These simple repasts were the most exciting meals I had ever tasted. In some ways they still are.
Feeling quite sophisticated on my return to America I sauntered into a store to buy a bottle of wine and suddenly realized I didn’t know a thing. These wines had actual names! So I purchased The New Signet Book of Wine by Alexis Bespaloff and there was no going back. Soon I was blind tasting jugs of Almaden Claret and Burgundy and rating them: points and all.
Lenn’s topic taking us back to our roots caused me a dilemma. True to the saying, “you can’t step in the same river twice” I realized that the wines that were the roots of my lifelong love of wine don’t exist anymore. From the simplest to the most complex wines no one is making wines that taste like they did thirty years ago. The dramatic advancements in winegrowing and winemaking has transformed wines in the last decades. I’m not just referring to “spoofulated” wines here, but also to natural wines made with minimalist interventions. Even considering that many producers have taken this new knowledge to extremes and are producing exaggerated wines with no individual personality you cannot deny that overall today’s wines are superior to the wines of the past. Faults like Brettanomyces that were accepted in the good-old-days are now rejected by even casual wine drinkers. We are truly in a golden age of wine quality. Wines have never been better, but then every generation since the first wine was enjoyed can make that claim.
While wines may be better than ever, I confess I miss the naivety and openness with which we were able to learn to love wine. These were the days before wine became a big business, before distributor consolidation and before there was a 100 point scale to define not only what wines to drink if you’re in-the-know, but to precisely rank them. In those days a fledgling wine publication called The Connoisseurs Guide to California Wine rated its top wines with one, two or three “puffs”. It was a softer time indeed.
As I enter my fourth decade of paying attention to the wines I drink, I seem to find myself more-and-more drawn to wines that take me back to my roots and the style of the wines I learned to love in the 1970’s. I’m not talking about those simple country wines of my first visit to Europe, although they still have a soft spot in my heart, but to the wines I started to buy after reading Alexis Bespaloff’s wonderful introduction to the wines of the world. Elegant Cru Bourgeois Bordeaux, Côtes du Rhône, Chianti Classico and Dolcetto d’Alba are more likely to grace my dinner table than wines normally found higher on the point scale. I just can’t separate wine from the food I’m having and am more interested in bottles that enhance and elevate my dinner than those that can win blind tastings.
The greatest thing about the wines from my youth is that they aged beautifully, which is something that today’s cleaner, more fruit-driven wines still have to prove. I’m lucky to have a small collection and still have bottles from those days. Recent wines I’ve had from my cellar include a 1981 Girard Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, 1980 Fisher Sonoma Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, 1978 Monsecco Gattinara, 1978 Prunotto Barolo and 1981 Domaine de la Pousse d’Or Volnay 1er Cru Caillerets, which were all wonderful wines. For better or worse, not one of these producers makes wine today in the way they did when they made these wines.
The only way I can go back to my roots is to try to remember how these wines tasted when I first bought them. Yet, I don’t think my memory, filtered through all the wines I’ve tasted since then, is unbiased enough to remember them as they really were. That’s fine with me. I’d rather remember them through the rose colored glasses of nostalgia, just as I do those “wonderful” wines I drank under the Eiffel Tower thirty-five years ago. Those wines were certainly the most important wines I’ve ever tasted as they gave me the gift of every wine I have tasted since then.