Over the past few years I’ve been drinking more wine. Over the past few months, I’ve been learning to enjoy it. Here’s the story of my wine education.
I grew up in a home where alcoholic beverages were not a part of daily life. My mother and father may have drank when they were young, but by the time I came along they had joined a church that frowned on it, and it wasn’t kept around our house, except for a single bottle of whiskey to help with my father’s heart congestion from time to time. I can’t recall ever seeing him take a drink of it.
When I was a teenager, I remember my mother taking an occasional short glass of Mogen David mixed with 7-Up, and when we would get together with her siblings, some of them would have a beer or two – but opening a bottle of wine to go with a meal wasn’t something anyone in my family did.
One of my sisters kept a small rack of wine in her home. She was also a fairly serious “foodie” in the 1960s, decades before anybody used that word. Where my mother’s cooking (though delicious) was fairly typical Midwestern meat-and-potatoes fare, my sister would serve interesting dishes she learned about on ski trips, or on travels to other places that seemed exotic and distant to me. The first time I ever tasted ripe olives, it was in her kitchen.
I don’t remember her serving the wine, but the presence of that wine rack over in the corner seemed a mark of sophistication and worldliness.
In my twenties, I joined a wine club. For about $30 each month, they would send me two bottles of the same variety of wine from different wineries, along with a sheet of information about the wine and some recipes for dishes that were supposed to be good pairings. This was my first introduction to the idea that certain foods and certain wines went together, beyond the old saw of “white wine with fish, red wine with steak.”
Wine still didn’t become a habit with me. I considered it too expensive, but also felt that I didn’t know enough about it to truly appreciate it. It was too much bother. Much easier to grab a six pack of Budweiser to drink with the pizza or burgers that were staples of my diet at the time.
Thirty years later, as I gradually became a more serious cook, I became more curious about wine as well. My wife bought me a wine guide book as a gift, and I started learning, but still only opened a bottle once in a great while, with special meals or on special occasions.
When we moved into our home a few years ago, I discovered a wine cellar that had been built in the basement by the previous owners. It had little wooden plaques for each row of bottles, labeled “Burgundy” and “Bordeaux” and “Côtes du Rhône.” I still knew next to nothing about wine, so I removed the plaques. I didn’t want to feel intimidated in my own basement. But I did set about filling the cellar with wine.
I bought mixed cases from an online wine club to get a wider variety than I might choose in a shop. Picking a wine for Sunday Dinner each week (when my wife’s parents join us) became the foundation of my wine education. Through research on the Web combined with trial and error, I began to get a sense of which wines paired best with various dishes, and also started to note which wines we most enjoy. The process of trying to please others with a choice of wine pushed me to try ideas and suggestions that I wouldn’t as likely have picked for myself, and this has been significant. For instance, there are more white wines in the cellar now than there were in the past, and lo and behold, I like them.
My wine education continues, and I do spend (probably too much) time reading about it, watching video courses and such. That knowledge has certainly helped me to better appreciate and enjoy wine. Learning how to actually “taste” wine rather than just drink it, learning how to describe what I taste, learning how to compare one wine to another – all of these skills are useful. The more I learn, the more enjoyment and fun there is. The most important lesson, however, is that “good wine” is whatever tastes good to me and to the people with whom I share it. Although this should have been obvious all along, I wasted years thinking that people couldn’t truly enjoy wine unless they knew enough to pass some sort of wine exam. How silly.
From time to time, you may find more posts here about wines that we like, good pairings we find, links to cool wine resources and the like. I’d also love to hear what you’re drinking and to learn from you. Let’s take the compulsion and muddlement out of wine and simply enjoy it, shall we?