La Jolla-based wine educator Barbara Baxter counts among the highlights of her life the time Robert Mondavi kissed her on the cheek. "I didn't wash my face for a week," she says, mock-swooning at the memory. California's great wine ambassador is something of a hero to Baxter, and it's easy to see why. She carries a similar enthusiasm for the grape, and a similar desire to impart that enthusiasm to others.
But not simply enthusiasm. "I want people to stop and smell the bouquet," she says. "I want people to have a multifaceted appreciation of wine. When I lived in Napa, there was a bumper sticker that read, 'No Wimpy Wines.' I'm opposed to that gestalt; it's playing into Robert Parker's hands. I want to put the magic back in the bottle. It's not just about 'no wimpy wines;' it's not just about fruit-forward." And it's certainly not just about scores and trophies. "I think that for a lot of people, wine is either fashion or stamp collecting. I think it's for enjoyment. We have to get back to the visceral love, pleasure, seduction, sensuality of it."
But not only the sensuality. "Wine is so much more than 'I taste stony fruit,'" she laments. "If I hear another person say, 'I taste stony fruit...'" Remember, Baxter is after a multifaceted appreciation, and she suspects others are, too. "I think people really have a desire to learn. That's what being an American is all about: we want to improve ourselves — so people can go at the appreciation and enjoyment of wine with a knowledge base." Call it an informed enthusiasm, an educated sensuality, a love affair that finds its assurances outside the 100-point scale.
Baxter's own affair began in Paris, but wine had been "bubbling in the background" since she was a little girl, drinking wine diluted with water at her parents' table. "Their idea was always 'Learn to drink at home.'" After college (and a lifetime moratorium on beer), she started buying Burgundies. Then she spent five years in (wine-happy) Italy, and then she met her husband Robert on a Christmas vacation in Sri Lanka. "We had this wonderful seafood banquet on the beach on New Year's Eve. He disappeared for a moment and showed back up, in the middle of the tropics, with a bottle of white Graves. I just looked at him and fluttered my eyes — that was the moment I knew I was in love."
Robert's work took him to Paris, where "we stayed in the house of the cultural attaché of the American embassy. He has a wonderful wine library, and Frederick Wildman's Wine Tour of France put me on the path I'm on today." The book led her to endure a highly structured French wine education in "the technical side of winemaking." From there, the two moved to Napa in 2000. After training at Sterling, Baxter got a job at Niebaum-Coppola. "I organized their tours, and it was there I got to the teaching side." A stint at Opus One rounded out the Napa years, and Baxter came home to La Jolla in 2004, ready to begin heading up her Planet Wine educational seminars.
Napa had taught her the worth of courting the corporate client. "I was doing a lot of private tours — Microsoft would do an R&R for its people." Beyond that, Baxter determined that wine could be made to join Shakespeare and cooking schools as a tool for corporate team-building. "They'll do a play or make a soufflé together. For ours, we do blending. We'll have the five Bordeaux varietals, and we'll talk about what a classic Bordeaux is — Right Bank, Left Bank. Each team will make a blend, and then we'll all taste around and see who's the winner. It's a way for people to work together to communicate using vocabulary that they don't typically use. Business vocabulary is very knee-jerk; this way, people are out of their normal element."
Other classes catered to the simply curious — those "thirst for knowledge" types she mentioned earlier — and Planet Wine spun happily along for two years or so, now at one location, now at another. Then the couple "took a small hiatus out of La Jolla," and when they came back, "Erica Torri at the La Jolla Athenaeum suggested I do a series on The Art of Wine." Baxter dug into her library and took as her model Mark Kurlansky, author of Cod and Salt. "All he's doing is tracing a segment of history by following one foodstuff." That fit nicely with her own view: "I consider wine to be a prism through which you can view whatever it is you choose to view. I've chosen history and trade. You can follow the development of commerce through wine," as well as the development of any number of other things — sticking only to wine, you might cover advances in farming, in enology, even label regulation. Baxter's first series took its attendees through Egypt, Greece, and Rome, and she's considering a second lineup covering the Rhone, the Church, and the Duchy of Burgundy — the next steps along her historical Ascent of Wine.
Photos of ancient art and artifacts serve as her graphics. "Here you see a classical drinking vessel from Persia — a round bowl. We have to think, 'Why did they use that?' The wine came from a very sunny region; that means that it would have been very strong and also low in acid. If you believe in the argument put forward by Riedel crystal, which uses differently shaped bowls in its wine glasses to wash the liquid over different regions of the tongue — this bowl would bring the liquid in contact with the sides of your tongue, which is where your appreciation for acids lives. So they knew what they were doing." And of course, there is wine to be sampled. Muscat, for example. Baxter says it's the oldest known wine varietal, having been mentioned by Pliny in the first century, and it's still being grown all over the world and rendered into varied styles of wine. "It can be an apertif, or something you can dip your biscotti in at the end of the meal."
It is Baxter's hope that such series will help bring about that informed enthusiasm she admires, something to counter the rise of mass-market branding. She points to Dana Thomas's book Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, which chronicles the fashion world's shift from exclusive makers of excellent products to marketing masterminds selling an image to a starry-eyed public. "What does this tell us, class?" she asks, slipping into educator mode. "That there is a market for 'deluxe' throughout the world that is not being served, and on the flip side, that everybody wants a piece of 'deluxe.' How is this going to affect wine? Obviously, Asia is driving up the prices — there's not going to be enough Premiere Cru wine to go around for you and me at prices mere mortals can afford. What we have to do — and not only in wine, in life — is look for genuineness. How does genuineness occur? Is it vintner-driven, consumer-driven, a little bit of both? But if we have more informed consumers...People buy XYZ wine the way they buy XYZ car, bag, whatever. They feel comfortable buying a known brand; their friends will know they are not cheap. Wouldn't it be wonderful if you would just step outside the box and say, 'You might not like this, but I love it. It's different, and it's got history, it's got character, it's got culture'?"