A reader has asked how I got interested in wine. The question is a common one, often followed by: What's it like to be paid to drink? Isn't wine-tasting a marvelous excuse for getting smashed? Isn't the wine world glamorous, and isn't your real ambition to own a winery or a cha~teau?
The answers won't help you find a bargain, but here goes. I got interested in wine, my friend, by drinking Gallo's Paisano out of a gallon jug with a screw- off cap. That was in California in the early '60s, when I was living on the proceeds of a writing fellowship at Stanford. My future wife and I also discovered the joys of eating in the company of this beverage -- not just sourdough bread and pizza, but lamb chops garnished with rosemary.
Next came New Orleans, where I worked for a newspaper and discovered that wine came in smaller bottles, with corks. Paisano was not to be despised with po' boys, oyster loaves and steamed crabs. But even better was Wente's gray riesling with poached fish and crawfish tails.
Then we lived in Rome. Italian whites were limited to frascati, often drunk with huge mushrooms from the Alban hills that were saute'ed in olive oil and served like steaks. There is no food like Italian food, period, and the wines accommodated themselves in a mystical way. They were cheap and abundant; although we had little chianti classico and no brunello or barolo, the reds were firm and memorable.
In Switzerland, we lived on the top floor of a farmhouse and spent the winter skiing. The crisp white Swiss wine has stayed in my mind mostly because our landlady served it with fondue, during a slide show about her cows. There was also raclette -- a Swiss dish consisting of cheese melted under electric heat, spread on little baked potatoes and eaten with gherkins and spritzy white wine.
My first sip of burgundy came in Switzerland, from the Co~te de Beaune. I cannot remember the village or the producer, but I certainly can remember the taste. A French friend served it at a dinner party, with veal in cream, on a very cold night, after opening the bottles and placing them on the hearth.
After that, my wife and I made forays into France to smuggle lesser burgundies and Rhone wines back into Switzerland. Then, while working in Paris, we drank bordeaux superieur -- the inexpensive blends from the south -- muscadet and, yes, chardonnay from Chablis, reasonably priced then and a great, steely wine for seafood and omelets.
In London, we moved up the wine list. "Hock" -- West German wine in England -- inevitably accompanied the first course. Then we got into the crus bourgeois, a few first-growth bordeaux and some good burgundies. We were introduced to port and the ritual of the port decanter. (Don't pass it; slide it, or you won't be invited back.) Port with Stilton and walnuts was one of our great discoveries.
In Washington, I used to pore over Hugh Johnson's World Atlas of Wine. Wine appealed to me as a kind of index of the world, a small mirror of history and social values, as well as good fun. In the last four years I have tasted more wines than I ever dreamed existed. Writing about them isn't a profession; it's an avocation that got out of hand.
On an average, I now swallow two glasses of wine a day, less than I once drank. I am grateful to wine for introducing me to the ongoing wonders of good food, and to wine writing for bringing about relative sobriety.
And, yes, parts of the wine world are glamorous. But the only thing worse than owning a winery would be to own a cha~teau. Then I would have to deal with bankers, marketers, consumers -- and wine writers. ::