Discovering the pleasures of the grape
ASPEN “I’m not from the wine drinkers,” is a phrase I’ve heard my father say often. There’s a story, a favorite of a family friend, that illustrates the point.My dad was invited to a formal dinner given by a gourmet society. As each course, with a corresponding wine, was served, Pop excused himself from the table, went to the bar and got himself a Coke. But when a dessert wine was offered – no doubt, fine and expensive – it coincided with the arrival of a bowl of lemon wedges (for the tea) and a fruit plate. Surreptitiously, Pop sliced up some bananas and oranges, helped himself to a few lemons, plopped a few ice cubes into the glass and, to the bewilderment of his fellow diners, happily drank his concoction.”He sangría-ed it!” our old friend always squeals in conclusion, delighting in my father’s lack of couth.Needless to say, I, like my dad, am not from the wine drinkers. In fact, apart from a semi-serious fling with vodka in my early teens (Kids, don’t try that at home – or anywhere), and the normal college nights where one finds it necessary to test all the limits of alcohol consumption (quantity, variety, etc.), I haven’t been much of a drinker. I haven’t been much at observing Jewish customs either, but of all the traditions of the faith, the one I’ve stuck reasonably close to is expressed in the Yiddish proverb that translates as, “A Jew as a drunk should be dead.”
And wine – well, that was the drink I kept at the greatest distance. As a longhaired Deadhead playing in a rock band, and occasionally even living out of my car, I could understand downing shots of Wild Turkey, pounding a few beers, even mixing a summertime Tanqueray and tonic. Sipping wine was for a different breed of people. Plus, the stuff didn’t even taste good.I’ve been known to be narrow-minded about such things. For years, the only way to get me to a classical music concert was with a dire threat or the promise of a significant reward. I refused to eat sausage or see subtitled movies. And there was the column, early in my career, where I trashed the entire genre of jazz wholesale.A few years ago, right around the time my personal chronometer hit 40, it began to dawn on me that wine might have a place in my lifestyle, which, in most other ways, was culturally enriched. As with jazz, ballet and French films, I didn’t approach this realization on my own. Instead, as though in a scene from the Las Vegas branch of Aureole restaurant, a crew of wine angels congregated around me, tantalizing me with hints that wine could be a healthy addition to my cultural palette. None of them pried my mouth open and forced Barolo down my gullet (much as my teenage “buddy” Mitch did with a gallon bottle of Smirnoff vodka). But these were intelligent, hip people who took a noticeable delight not only in drinking wine, but also in sharing it, discussing it, getting into it.I’ve arrived at a place of determination. For three years or so, I’ve been embracing wine rather than shunning it. When someone offers to pour, instead of putting my hand over my glass, I ask for the bottle – to check out the vintage, the grape, the region, the winemaker. I swirl the glass (not to excess, I have learned. Swirling, like drinking, should be done in moderation). I sniff (always with the mouth open, the better to take in the aroma). I’ve been paying attention, asking questions, surrounding myself with people who know wine far better than I do.
Never mind that I can still barely distinguish between the taste of a pinot noir and a tempranillo, that I am bewildered by the fact that zinfandels can be either red or white, and that most of my snobbery toward merlot comes from having watched the movie “Sideways.” Or the fact that I still don’t really like white wines. I have been complimented on my coverage of classical music, even though I could easily mistake a Mahler symphony for a Mozart work. I competently write about ballet when I can’t even pronounce many of the terms I’m writing. (Remind me to tell you about my mistake regarding the title of the classic piece, “Après-midi d’un faun.”)So consider this my coming-out article. It’s been awhile since I started writing articles – in an outstanding newspaper, for an incredibly discerning, sophisticated audience – on a subject I know almost nothing about, and I’ve got a hankering to do it again. Look for reviews and features on wine regions, makers and trends, as well as expanded restaurant, food and chef coverage. And so, I give you: Stewy, wine critic. (Make that Stewart R. Oksenhorn, wine critic. Much more apropos.) I promise to read up on the subject. (For what it’s worth, I’ve heard from reputable sources that a great place to start is “Wine for Dummies.” No kidding.) I will keep my eyes, ears, mind and taste buds open. I’ll use the word “jammy” in reference to something other than a rock band. I’ll listen more than I speak.And I promise to drink a lot of wine, my gout condition willing.
••••The first major step in my wine turnabout almost didn’t happen. It was Valentine’s Day, probably 1998, and like the young romantics we were, my wife and I headed to Keystone to have dinner with my father-in-law, Bob.Now Bob is a lover of great food and an excellent chef. So the meal was enticing – osso buco, risotto. He is also a wine lover, and for our meal he had selected a special French red, a 1955 Calon-Segur, from the Bordeaux region. I was nowhere near noticing these things yet, but my wife pointed out the label, prominently marked by the outline of a heart.As Bob opened the wine, the cork, instead of popping out, crumbled into the wine. He mumbled something about tossing the bottle – I didn’t pay much attention; it was just wine – but next thing I knew, he had decided to salvage the wine by pouring it through cheesecloth. We toasted, raised our glasses to our lips – and I couldn’t tell you what notes I tasted. Cherry? Cinnamon? Clove? I don’t know, and it couldn’t have mattered less. It was, to this day, one of the finest sensations to pass my tongue. I had my eyes opened. Drinking wine could be as memorable as hearing the Dead play “Jackstraw,” eating a perfect barbecue pork sandwich, or seeing a Coen Brothers movie.The experience didn’t take hold instantly; I didn’t go out and join a wine club the next day. In fact, my routine regarding wine returned pretty much to normal – that is, watching my wife, who inherited her dad’s fondness for wine, drink her regular glass or two with dinner, while I stuck to water. I’d order an occasional glass when we were out, but my expectations were likely too high. No one was serving me decades-old French wine that had aged gloriously.
The universe seemed insistent that, as I turned 40, I would take wine seriously. (The fact that by 3 p.m. on my 40th birthday I was in a wine-induced coma can be chalked up to my own doing, not the universe’s. I should mention that my birthday that year landed on Thanksgiving, so large amounts of turkey and stuffing were also factors.) It was then that my three wine guides, my own personal sommeliers, came into my sphere.First was Richard Betts, whose wife and daughter were striking up a friendship with my wife and daughter. Dinner invites ensued, and wine is an inescapable part of dinner at the Betts household. When I first started getting to know him, Richard was merely the head of the award-winning wine program at The Little Nell, and a recently admitted member of the Court of Master Sommeliers. He has since become a star of the wine world, traveling the globe to make wine and speak on the subject, while also helping to build The Nell’s Montagne restaurant into Aspen’s foodie central.Betts was the first person who ever engaged me in conversation about wine, and the fact that he could also discourse on the NBA, jazz and running local trails made him most accessible to me. Had I known that he had been awarded the Krug Cup – for passing all three parts of the Master Sommelier exam on his first try, becoming the ninth person ever to have done so – I might have been more in awe. But Betts espouses the view that wine should not be intimidating, that an inquisitive drinker can get as much out of a $15 bottle as a snob can get from a $1,500 wine. Still, I fear I have been spoiled by my friendship with Richard. As might be imagined, really, really good wines – including those by Betts & Scholl, a company founded by Richard and part-time Aspenite Dennis Scholl – are the standard at the Betts house. Around the same time, I got a call from a gentleman named Harvey Steiman, who wanted to review Aspen Music Festival concerts for The Aspen Times. We struck up a friendship around classical music. What I would find out later is that Steiman’s day job is editor-at-large for Wine Spectator magazine, making him one of the more influential people in the wine business.
Finally, I met Kevin Doyle, a longtime Aspen waiter who took a gamble and ventured into winemaking with his Woody Creek Cellars. Not only Doyle’s raw enthusiasm for the wine itself, but his affection for Old World techniques, his descriptions of the dingy Delta County fruit-packing warehouse, the center of his operation, were infectious.It impressed me that people who know wines tend to also know other things. Betts has a vast knowledge of geology and geography, is an impressive long-distance runner, and is the finest home chef I know. Steiman’s grasp of classical music seems as extensive as his command of wine. Talking with Colorado winemakers, I’ve been surprised to discover that the local industry is filled with former engineers.With Doyle, who sees himself as the scrappy underdog in a business increasingly dominated by mass producers, it is his passion that impresses. He spends weeks at a time living in a tent in an otherwise abandoned, unheated warehouse so that he can make his wine. A devout lover of Aspen, he said he would be happy if all the wine he produces was consumed right here in the Roaring Fork Valley. His indispensable tool for making wine? A dustpan. His favorite expression: “It’s not about the wine. It’s the brotherhood.”••••
I have had a few small breakthroughs in my few drinking years. I have written a few handfuls of stories centered around wine; as far as I know, no one has picked up on my ignorance of the topic. I made my own discovery of a wonderful wine: the 2002 McNab, a blend of 70 percent merlot, 15 percent petite sirah and 15 percent cabernet sauvignon from the California maker Bonterra. (Made from biodynamically grown grapes, it sells for around $35.) I am learning which producers to rely upon (Ridge and Ravenswood, both from California, are consistently good at very reasonable prices), and which not to expect much from (at a dinner party, several wines from Mouton Cadet, a Bordeaux mass-produced by the Rothschild family, earned no fans).At a tasting at The Little Nell this past winter, Richard Betts said I made the most intelligent remark of the evening, for noting that a certain Hermitage wine had “total balance.” (Personally, I thought Laura Werlin, a noted cheese expert who lives part-time in Aspen, took the prize, for knowing that Raclette cheese got its name from the French word “racler” – to scrape. But, hey, Richard’s the expert, so I won’t argue.)I even have experience making wine. Last fall, my family went over to Delta County to spend a day under the guidance of Kevin Doyle picking grapes, stomping them (yes, with our bare feet), and putting the juice in barrels (and yes, we did use a dustpan). Sometime this fall, we will introduce to the world the Oksenhorn Chardonnay, from the up-and-coming Orchard City, Colo., region.L’chaim.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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