It's all pretty unusual, when you really think about it. First off, you've got this exclusive fruit (the grape) that grows only in special regions. And then, the whole time that it grows, it’s fussed over and pruned around and prodded and worried about. Subsequently, every season, when this wonder fruit is finally picked, it gets crushed and sweetened and leavened, whereupon some expert in a cold basement slowly oxygenates its dead remains. After that, the strangely treated remains are sealed into bottles and shipped to rich folks who foster them further, these protected ghosts of grapes. And finally, of course! After years and years, the rich folks drink the stuff. And they claim it tastes like what? Candied cherries? Saddle leather? Smoked meat? Black licorice? Yellow flowers, flinty stones, toasted oak, and garden herbs? Is everybody serious?
Growing up, I believed that wine was simple swill: just another alcoholic beverage. Back then, I also thought that coffee was dirty water and that all beer tasted face-scrunchingly bitter. For a long time, I preferred my grape juice from Welch’s.
But today I sit here realizing that I’ve imbibed and integrated a few of the most monumental molecules that could ever touch a tongue, and those molecules have changed me: 1982 Léoville-Las-Cases, 1988 d’Yquem, 1990 Pétrus, 1986 Cheval Blanc, 1982 Margaux, 1975 Lynch-Bages. Those molecules are mingled now with my molecules, part of my mind and my body.
So I guess you can call me a wine lover, or if you prefer the snobbier and more affected term, then you might try to pronounce oenophile. For me, it’s easy: I just love the stuff — reading about it, talking about it, collecting it, imagining the tastes of some of the greatest vintages, and, of course, sitting down to drink a bottle or two. To me, wine is poetry, a private enjoyment that can become, at the same time, a communal passion. And just think of the pedigree: before stamps, coins, books, butterflies, plates, cars, dolls, knickknacks, and maybe even before dust, wine was the original collectible.
Moreover, if you have even half a palate, and good appreciation skills and some disposable income, then by now you’ve probably discovered that wine can help you transcend your senses. The mere act of tasting takes on dimension and weight. Perhaps I’m being over the top, but I’m not embarrassed to call the drinking of fantastic wine a religious experience.
Then we might ask, o grapes, how do you do what you do? But it’s some kind of natural mystery. The fact is, grapes are almost as racially diverse as human beings. And every one of them, every varietal of grape, thick-skinned or thin-, is like a supersponge, like the best nerve endings of the earth. They soak up hints and tinges of everything in the soil where they grow. Billions of years’ worth of what’s been in the soil. And the sun, rain, and wind determine how well they absorb this earthy information. Grapes are just immensely sensitive. And if a person’s palate’s sensitive as well, then these humble grapes can bring along shells, stones, woods, spices, fruits, meats, leathers, and other echoes over the bizarre paths they shuttle from branches to bellies. It’s like a literal game of grapevine, many vineyards long.
In the game there are the masters and the makers, cellars and sellers, corks and consumers. And wine also boasts dedicated missionaries, esteemed stewards of the bacchanalian faith. These attendants are usually referred to as sommeliers.Sommelier is a formal title whose etymology bears close ties to the word sumpter, which is an archaic term for the driver of a packmule or packhorse. But the respected job of today’s sommeliers is more specific: to pack wine, and to guide the bottles and the knowledge directly to the consumer. To do this, sommeliers become experts in beverage-department management, wine tasting, wine theory, and practical wine applications. Most of them work in restaurants, where wine is, of course, a staple.
Although I sell wine and talk wine almost every night of the week, at the restaurant where I work, I am not officially a sommelier, not even a first-level one, because I haven’t taken the test. The test to become a sommelier is itself a grueling endeavor. But more about that later. Officially, there are three levels of sommeliers, with the Master Sommelier (M.S.) diploma being the highest distinction a professional can attain in fine wine and beverage service.
In the past year, I have been lucky enough to meet and drink wine with three official sommeliers, including the original master sommelier in the United States. They are normal people, of course, these stewards of wine, except for the unusual degree to which they have pursued their passion. All sommeliers have at least two distinctions in common: an enormous base of dedicated knowledge and a thoroughly talented palate.
Another thing that my three sommelier friends have in common is they all tell wonderful stories. I don’t know whether this is coincidence or if it comes with the territory. It does occur to me that, to sell wine, one has to be able to persuade people. And what an artful method of persuasion it is to spin simple narratives.
Which is to say that it’s almost time, after brief introductions, to turn this wine article over to the artful words of the sommeliers themselves. But first…
Dustin Jones, 26, is the newest member of the wine fraternity. He passed the introductory-level test just a few months ago. I’ve waited tables for more than two years with Dustin Jones, and I think that the only accurate way to describe him is this: he’s rather full of himself, but in a good way. You could err on the side of caution and grant that he’s self-assured or self-possessed, but then you’d miss his essential capacity for his own personality. One time I called Jones a likable jerk, and he’s really so likable that he didn’t mind at all the pejorative portion of the epithet. When you meet him, you’re drawn in by his confidence, by the blend of boyish enthusiasm and somewhat rakish charm. In wine terms, you’d exclaim that his youthful tannins don’t conflict with his stylish fruit, and yet he’s got extensive proportions of both.