Tuesday, March 14, 2006

It' Hard To Enjoy Wine's Bouquet With Your Nose In The Air

In recounting the festivities surrounding the 27th anniversary of her birth, Bobgirrl over at 1 Girl, 4 Martinis describes an unpleasant experinece at one California winery, A. Rafanelli, and a pleasant one at another winery, Unti. The crux of the difference between the two is what she calls the "Snootiness Factor".

It caught my eye because the "Snootiness Factor" is the main reason that it took me so long to become a wine drinker. My father was a pastor and a staunch teetotaller, so I didn't start drinking alcohol at all until my mid-20's, but it wasn't until I was almost 30 that I began to drink wine. Part of the reason was that I was intimidated by wine and wine culture. I would try a wine that was supposed to be good, and hate it, and feel like I just wasn't getting it. So I just stopped trying.

Then one day I had a wine at a wedding rehearsal dinner that I liked -- a Lambrusco. It was sweet, and semi-sparkling, and very refreshing, and I liked it. I also knew from comments I'd heard that it wasn't highly regarded as a "serious" wine. My dalliance with wine may have stayed limited to closet Lambrusco drinking if it hadn't been for a trip I took back here to Oregon (I was living in San Diego at the time). While stopped in my old home town, I made a visit to the Winery of Phillipe Girardet. Phillipe and his family had attended my father's church, and were family friends. I also knew from my interactions with the family in the past that their "Snootiness Factor" was so low as to possible be measured in negative numbers. These people were and are about as down-to-Earth as is humanly possible.

Phillipe and Bonnie met in college, where they were both students in a very demanding scientific discipline (which escapes me) at a very prestigious university (I'm inclined to say UC Berkeley or Caltech, but I'm not certain) when they decided to get into the wine making business. Phillipe pored over topography maps, geological surveys, and meterological studies to find a region with as close to identical an average daily temperature, rainfall, and soil composition as his home region in Switzerland as possible, and ended up in humble little Tenmile, Oregon. Over the years they've established a name for themselves, especially in local circles. But they and their kids still work in the tasting room, they still hire local teens to help harvest the grapes, and you can still see Phillipe out on his tractor or walking among the vines. The tasting room is small and rustic, and I suspect Bobgirrl would be at least vaguely reminded of George Unti if she ever met Phillipe Girardet.

It's also obvious, at least to me, that Phillipe engages in a very hands-on approach to monitoring the quality of his wines. His cheeks and nose are ruddy (and a bit weathered from the sun), and he is always smiling.

So on this gorgeous June day some time in the 90's, I decided to stop by and visit the Girardet's, and to give their wines another try. I figured that if anyone would be able and graciously willing to help me expand my palate, it would be the Girardets. I approached the subject after a few minutes of small talk and catching up on old times. I explained that I'd started drinking wine, but didn't know what to try next. I knew what I'd liked so far, and was hoping they could point me towards others I'd like to. I prefaced my naming of Lambrusco with an apologetic, "I know it's not the best wine, but..." Phillipe got a sly grin oin his face, leaned in to me, and in a conspiratory tone of voice said, (in that charming French Swiss Accent) "You know, Brian, the best wine is the one you like!" and winked.

Well, hell. Why hadn't I thought of that? It was the best piece of advice I've ever received about wine, and probably one of the best pieces of advice I've ever received period. It has informed my exploration into wine ever since. If I like a wine, I like it, and if I don't, I dont, and I refuse to be apologetic or feel inferior because of my subjective preference.

Now, to be sure, as time has passed, my tastes have changed -- my preferences have become drier, yet broader, my palate more discriminating, my ability to note complexity greater, and my understanding of things like pairing, etc. more advanced. But to this day, I abhor snootiness. The difference is, now, instead of letting it intimidate me, I blow off the snobs, raise my glass, and enjoy the wine.

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