I was at college, working part time in a liquor store. One evening my parents called to say they were celebrating their 25th anniversary with about 60 friends at a fancy country club. "Our son, the wine expert," they decided, should pick the wine. The idea seemed very adult, and only one request was needed.
I arrived an hour early for the party and presented myself to the manager; he in turn presented me to the sommelier, a monsieur something or other whose name I can't recall but whose bearing is still vivid indeed. Since wine is not an everyday occurance to many Americans, most restaurants or clubs do not need a wine specialist. Only the very expensive and elegant restaurants, usually French, can afford a sommelier. To the uninitiated, sudden confrontation with a wine steward can turn the spine to aspic. It need not, but I was not prepared for my first sommelier.
He was in full regalia: black tux and trousers with silk stripes, black bow tie and a silver pendant that looked like an ash tray on a ribbon around his neck. I, too, was in full regalia: red turtleneck, tan Nehru jacket, and a vari-colored Indian-bead pendant. I usually wore cutoffs and sandals and was not comfortable in my dress clothes. He was not comfortable with my clothes either, but he smiled, and tentatively offered his hand. I offered a pleasantry. He replied in French.
My parents had sent me the club's wine list and I had already made a selection for dinner, choosing an eight-year-old bordeaux from a good vintage, and I had practiced the pronunciation. The sommelier said there was a better choice for only $1 more per bottle, but I would not be intimidated. He shook his head.
He led me down a steel spiral staircase into an old brick foyer, and face to face with a wrought-iron gate, which was chained and locked.
Beyond, there were steel racks to cradle the resting treasures. The sommelier took a key from a chain around his neck and, after it clanked and rattled like Marley's ghost, the gate creaked open. At the back of the cellar room on a worn Spanish oak trestle table were a single brass candle stick, a brass matchbox, open and ready, and a brass cradle in which reclined the dusty bottle of my choice.
He nicked the lower edge of the lead foil around the neck of the bottle with a thick thumbnail that looked more like a toe nail. Pulling the tab he had just made, in one movement he peeled off the foil with a circular motion.
He took a cloth from a brass hook on the wall, moistened it with some brandy from a crystal decanter kept on a shelf above the table. With the saturated cloth he wiped the bottle top and cork clean of molds and dried wine while he held the bottle firmly in his hand. Not a word was uttered.
Then he took a standard waiter's corkscrew from his pocket. Nothing fancy, just a folding pocket model with a good long coil and a small knife, which he used to scrape from the lip of the bottle some lead oxide that might affect the taste.
He touched the tip of the helix with his thumb to make sure it was sharp and sighted down the worm to make sure it was straight. Then he placed the point about 1/8 of an inch from the center of the cork, and in a few firm but gentle turns, inserted the metal, stopping just short of poking through to the other side. He adjusted his grip and stance and eased the cork out -- Arthur extracting Excalibur from the rock.
He wrapped his cloth around the cork to keep his hands unstained, twisted it off the worm and presented it to me to inspect. Unaware of that ritual, I put it in my pocket. He frowned.
"The lights," he commanded, after lighting the candle.
He raised an empty decanter to meet the bottle a few inches above and in front of the flame. He stared at the shoulder of the full bottle and aligned it between his eye and the light so he could see when the clear wine had ended, and the cloudy wine had begun. He rested the straight neck of the full bottle into the funnel shaped neck of the empty bottle and transferred the brick-colored fluid from one to the other.
The liquid trickled very slowly down the inside of the decanter until only a few ounces of cloudy sediment-laden liquid remained.
"The lights," he commanded.
Setting the decanter down, he took a glass hanging upside down from the shelf and dumped the murky sludge into it, candled it and passed it to me to observe. I nodded.
He poured an ounce into the ash tray he wore and scrutinized the tint of the liquid in the reflections of the candle, swirled the cup, rested it on his thin moustache, closed his eyes and sniffed loudly. I took a step backward.
Eyes still closed, he poured the entire contents of the tastevin into his mouth, sloshed it around, chewing it and squishing it like Jell-O through his teeth. The noise stopped, his lips formed a narrow vertical slit, air whistled in, more gurgling, and his Adam's apple bounced twice.
Making no audible pronouncement he poured a glass half full, and holding it by the base between his thumb and forefinger, presented it to me.
I had been working fully six months in the liquor store and had learned what I liked and didn't like. So, I knew full well that it was my duty to swirl, sniff, scrutinize and sip the wine and then make an intelligent remark about its qualities.
Nevertheless, all I could do was clamp onto the bowl of the glass, not the stem, move it quickly to my mouth, not even stopping at my nose, and down about half its contents in one gulp. A trickle ran down the corner of my mouth, which I wiped away with my sleeve. Without even noticing the wine, I nodded affirmatively.
He looked at me with the same gray gaze he used to peer through the pouring wine at the unwanted sediment, "You weel need nine bottles, Monsieur?" I nodded. "You weel excyooze me, zen, I must decant zem." I left, quickly.
When I resurfaced, the guests -- kissing aunts and crunching uncles -- had begun to arrive. All through the reception, I visualized the sommelier huddled over that candle in his dungeon adjusting his grip with the studied concentration of Arnold Palmer huddled over his putter.
At last, at dinner time, the roast was served and, finally, my wine was poured. I had acquitted myself reasonably in my first encounter with a sommelier, I thought. I had not made a fool of myself. I had made a good choice, and, most importantly, I had not been intimidated, especially when he had tried to switch me to another wine.
But, recognizing that I could do better than I had in the sommelier's lair, I plucked the glass around the stem, shifted my grip until the base was clamped between my thumb and forefinger, swirled, sniffed and sipped. Then I coughed and spat little red droplets onto the white table covering. The sommelier had been right; the wine was terrible.
Wine Find Kenwood 1983 Cabernet Sauvignon, Jack London Vineyard, Sonoma Valley, Calif.: Here's what California cabernet is all about. Nothing wimpy about this one. Gobs of fruit, deep, rich flavors, complexity, but not much subtlety (yet). Don't get me wrong now, this is no Rambo. It is by no means a caricature, as are so many of the big-style California cabs. Solid tannin, enough to guarantee that you'll open a better wine if you wait 10 years.
The grapes for this wine come from a vineyard once owned by Jack London (Call of the Wild, 1903). London owned more than 1,400 acres of agricultural land in Glenn Ellen in the Valley of the Moon (also known as Sonoma Valley), was a conservationist, and an avid farmer, specializing in wine grapes and livestock. "Next to my wife, the ranch is the deare8QUICK,SUGARMAN,LI,ACT,LI/WIRE,,,quickcook/velox
LEE BLACKWOOD'S HOT AND SPICY SHRIMP (2 servings)
Lee Blackwood, a real estate agent from Olney, needs a quick meal to prepare when she gets home late after her evening appointments. This spicy shrimp and rice dish fits the bill.
2 slices bacon, chopped
3 tablespoons butter or margarine
1 tablespoon dijon mustard
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon seafood seasoning
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon oregano
Several grindings fresh black pepper
1 garlic clove, crushed
Couple shots hot pepper sauce
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 pound shrimp, shelled and deveined
Rice for serving
1/3 cup white wine
Fry bacon in a heavy frying pan. Drain fat. Add remaining ingredients except for tomato paste, shrimp, rice and white wine, and stir over medium heat, letting the spices cook well, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add tomato paste, mix well. Add shrimp and lower heat. Stir to coat shrimp well. Cook until done, about 3 minutes.
Just before serving, put rice in pasta bowls and place shrimp over. Pour white wine into frying pan, and scrape up spices and bacon bits. Heat through and pour sauce on top of shrimp and rice.
Send original recipes that take a half hour or less -- refrigerator to table -- and name/address/phone number to Quick Cooks, the Washington Post Food Section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.