My goodness, friends — let’s pull a cork and celebrate what we’ve had here, together, for the past three-plus years. This is my final column for Tribune Publishing, and before we settle in for one last wine story, I wanted to offer my thanks.
Thank you: readers, wine drinkers, seekers, poets, warriors and everyone else who has convened regularly in this space. Thank you also to Tribune Publishing for affording me such a singular opportunity and privilege. It has been my honor to write this column. I still plan to write about wine (among other things), but just not in this space and not every week.
So, one last time, imagine this:
I’m a young fellow in my 20s, and my girlfriend gets invited to a wedding in a posh suburb with a vague air of horse culture and lots of people with traditional last names as first names. The wedding is black-tie-optional, and I opt out, choosing to wear my only suit, a college graduation gift from my parents.
Early in the cocktail hour, I’m still fuzzy from a routine Saturday afternoon hangover, and across the room a server is making the rounds with a tray of flutes. Champagne is not my go-to, but OK — when in Rome. I lift two flutes from the tray and hand one to my date. I don’t initiate a glass-clink or even acknowledge the sublime affair I’ve been dropped into because, after all, I’m just a kid with a hangover, in a pair of stiff dress shoes that will soon be killing my feet. I won’t go so far as to say that I’m clueless, but you’ve always been good at reading between the lines.
I take a sip, and something happens. For the first time in my life, I have true clarity about wine. Zero knowledge, but full clarity. I say to my date, “I don’t know anything about Champagne, but this is really good Champagne.” I’m not saying, “I really like this Champagne,” though I do. I’m saying, “Even I can tell that this Champagne is really good.”
I have no idea why the Champagne is really good, and I can’t say anything more about it than I already have. I just know it’s really good the same way I’d know the Grand Canyon is awe-inspiring, despite not being a trained geologist. When the server comes back around, I tap his shoulder.
“Excuse me,” I say. “Can you tell me what kind of Champagne this is?”
“Dom Perignon, sir,” he says, also mentioning the vintage year, which I soon forget.
I thank him, pulsing with validation, and trade in my empty glass for a fresh, full one, probably saying something like, “Let’s get this party started!” either to myself or out loud.
The fact that a complete novice was able to identify a high-quality wine is not the point. The point is that a wine can be so obviously good that just about anyone can notice. Even more noteworthy is that countless wines fall miles short of Dom Perignon’s prestige, mystique and cost, and still have the potential to deliver such experiences.
That experience of mine, as surprising and satisfying as it was, did not change my life on the spot. Wine professionals and serious wine buffs will tell you about “the” bottle that changed them, the single drinking experience that set them on a new path in life. I’ve never had that — not even with that wondrous taste of Dom. You could draw a line from there to here, but it would be a very crooked line with lots of loops and knots in it.
Regardless of your wine journey’s route, if you travel it with joy and genuine wonder, it will lead you to a beautiful place. A single sip could bring you a few moments of happiness during a weeknight dinner or convince you to drop everything and devote your life to wine. It could help you understand why you like a certain wine style or a particular kind of food. Something in a wine’s aroma could motivate you to reconnect with an old friend or remember your parents in a new way. Or finally take that trip you’ve been thinking about for so long.
I’m in my 20s again — in the uncomfortable shoes at the wedding cocktail hour, probably in need of a haircut. I’m still celebrating my taste discovery, my victory, but now I’m wondering what I am going to do with the rest of my life. Where it might lead. I’m wondering what life is like for all of these people in tuxedos and ballgowns. I’m scanning the room for the server, trying to score one more glass of Dom before we sit down to dinner.
We’ve all been in that spot. In the uncomfortable shoes, wondering what comes next. And then wine comes into our lives, first in small ways and then in larger ones — and the colors get brighter, the memories seem more vivid, the aspirations become more believable.
And finally here we are, you and I. Good wine is at our disposal. The stuff is everywhere, and it’s affordable. Even the occasional great-wine splurge, while not exactly affordable, is at least possible. It’s an affordable luxury — like tux rental. Nothing wrong with a nice gray suit, though.
We know what wine can do for us. We are well acquainted with its heady and seductive charms, its ability to elevate the dining experience, its knack for summoning our hope and goodwill. We still have our aspirations, but we understand how good we have it. The way we gather now with family and friends to enjoy food and wine — and to share the stories of our lives? Honestly, what more could any of us ever have imagined?
Wine Pairings is a Tribune News Service column by Michael Austin, a freelance writer specializing in wine, food, beer and travel. He is the recipient of a Gourmand World Cookbook Award for his collaboration with chef Art Smith, and has been a James Beard Award finalist for feature writing.