For British wine writer Steven Spurrier, the epiphany came on Christmas Eve 1954, when he was 13. Spurrier, who died in March at age 79, organized the Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976 that showed California wines could stand proud among the best of France. As he recounted in his memoir, “A Life in Wine,” his grandfather gave him a glass of Cockburn’s Port, vintage 1908. The wine was “quite extraordinary, and the impression it left has lasted a lifetime.” He doesn’t otherwise describe that impression, which was obviously quite personal — no need for fanciful descriptions of fruit and spice flavors.
“That was my Damascene moment,” Spurrier wrote, “the moment when the seed was firmly planted for my life in wine.”
My own Road to Damascus was more Birkenstock than Downton Abbey. While vacationing with my wife in the Bay Area in August 1988, friends took us to Napa Valley. We toured Robert Mondavi Winery and scarfed sandwiches from the Oakville Grocery on the grass in front of Inglenook before touring that historic property, then owned by the Heublein drinks conglomerate. (It’s now owned by movie director Francis Ford Coppola.) We ended our day at Silver Oak, which soon would burst onto the scene as one of Napa’s first cult wineries.
That experience was not just about the wine, but about seeing where it is made and meeting the people who make it. When we returned home to the D.C. area, we started frequenting wine stores and visiting local wineries just as Virginia and Maryland were beginning their impressive growth in quality wine. Joining that ride from the beginning helped shape my perspective and my writings. I’ve championed local wines and urged readers to explore “wine from around here, wherever here happens to be.” But for me, it all started in Napa Valley.
To hear more stories about wines that changed people’s lives, I put a query out on social media. Several people mentioned Boone’s Farm, which I took as less-than-serious responses. Here are some of the others.
Bill Curtis, chef/owner of Tastings of Charlottesville in Virginia, recalls that in 1971 he “bought a bottle of Kallstadter Saumagen Riesling Spätlese” from Weingut Koehler-Ruprecht “to compare with Blue Nun,” the ubiquitous and innocuous German wine that was the rage at the time. “The Kallstadter was 10 cents cheaper and 10 rocks closer to the sun,” he says. “My path into comparative wine tastings became that car on a cable, my life that hourglass glued to the table,” he adds, quoting from the lyrics to Anna Nalick’s song “Breathe (2 AM).”
Kimberly Charles was studying history at Georgetown University in 1984 with dreams of a career in world diplomacy. While working part time at the wine bar in the Sheraton Carlton hotel in D.C. she tasted a 1982 Château Calon-Ségur, a leading wine from Bordeaux’s Saint-Estèphe appellation from what would soon be considered a “vintage of the century.”
“I realized the 3-D effect of wine past and present, and decided to join the wine business, not the Foreign Service,” she says. Now based in San Francisco, Charles leads her own public relations firm, Charles Communications Associates, specializing in representing wineries.
Zora Margolis of Edgecomb, Maine, recalls a 1973 Stags’ Leap Winery Petite Sirah from Napa Valley that she tried at the French Laundry, before it was purchased by Thomas Keller and transformed into one of the country’s most iconic restaurants.
“Up until that point, we had been Gallo Hearty Burgundy drinkers, and for me the Stags’ Leap was a kick between the eyes,” she says. “When we returned home to Los Angeles, I immediately went out and bought a case — I think it was $3.50 a bottle — and subscribed to the Connoisseur’s Guide to California Wine.” The 2017 vintage of the petite sirah costs about $26, and is still considered by many to be among the best of that variety.
These are stories of wines that transformed our perspectives and even altered the course of our lives. Over the years, if we’re lucky, we will experience similar wines that resonate because of their quality, their history or the occasion — preferably all three. I’ve written about several in this column, including a madeira vinted during Thomas Jefferson’s lifetime and a Bollinger champagne made by women and children in 1914 after their husbands, fathers and brothers had marched off to war.
Wines will resonate with you not just because they’re good but because they capture the moment and your mood. Always be on the lookout. Every glass holds a potential revelation.
So I ask again: What was your epiphany wine?
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