Thursday, October 28, 2004

Spaghetti Red

I was a recent college graduate of 22 when I started to learn about wine. I took a job with Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) and, almost overnight, started to live a dual life. At home, the student loan paying me would try to buy a week's worth of groceries for $10. At work, the analyst me was introduced to the world of expense account-funded meals. My managers would pick up dinner tabs that seemed like small fortunes.

We also drank wines finer than any I had ever tasted. Until then, the only wines I had sipped were from $5 bottles selected at Trader Joe's. My timid requests for "just a glass of chardonnay, thanks" did little to enhance my professional image or my meals. One night at dinner, my manager--a foodie--ordered a bottle of pinot noir to accompany my salmon with tomatoes and his grilled tuna. The flavors exploded in my mouth. It was a defining moment for me: I learned that the right wine could make a good meal truly great.

I was determined to educate myself about wine. I borrowed books from the library. I read wine magazines. At first, none of it made any sense. These people spoke a different language that only insiders understood. Then it occurred to me that my analytical approach was just a start and that I should taste some of these wines. I started to set aside some of my grocery money for wines I had read about.

Over the next few years, I came to enjoy and appreciate wine. I also started to develop opinions. I realized that I didn't care for California's overly oaky and buttery chardonnays and that I liked reds with a little more oomph than Napa's unstructured merlots. I was utterly taken with elegant and supple cabernet sauvignons and pinot noirs. I was also thrilled to discover that just as some people have photographic memory, I was lucky to have good taste memory. I was able to recall characteristics of varietals, wineries and vintages.

About four years into my wine education, I was invited to spend the day in Sonoma's Russian River Valley with two friends with considerable wine knowledge. They were older, had lived in Europe, and had tasted wine in Italy, France, Hungary and just about any country with a wine heritage. I jumped at the chance to learn from them.

They scrunched up their noses and grimaced at soft pinot noirs that did not remind them of Burgundy. They denounced fruit-forward cabernet sauvignon as second best to Bordeaux. And jammy zinfandel was simply too rustic. Instead of a wine education, I was getting a diatribe. But I felt that I didn't know enough to disagree. I nodded along even when I liked the wine.

I was secretly overjoyed when we pulled into our last stop--Hop Kiln Winery, a restored ranch. I trudged up to the bar for a tasting and prepared myself for another earful. The attendant poured a taste of Marty Griffin's Big Red, a zinfandel blend with loads of juicy fruit. "What a fun wine!" I exclaimed. "This would be perfect with pasta."

I looked over at my friends as they took a sip. "Just a spaghetti red," they pronounced. "Nothing special."

That was another defining moment in my journey. I learned not to care about what self-proclaimed wine experts thought. Am I curious about what Robert Parker has to say about a particular wine? Or what the Wine Spectator has to say about the latest vintage of Rhones? Yes, but ultimately, it's my palette.

It was with this in mind that John and I sat down to a Thursday night dinner of spaghetti with roasted tomatoes and hot sausages. We opened a bottle of 2000 Simi Landslide Zinfandel, the winery's last vintage of zin. We purchased a case to have on hand for pasta, pizza and barbeque. John is still learning about wine and has come to appreciate small production pinot noir and fine champagne. But we both agree that some nights, only a spaghetti red will do.

I really hate when someone else spoils my enjoyment of a wine or opera or anything else by making condescending comments based on greater or "more sophisticated" knowledge.

Great post!!
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