When I am dining out with friends or family or anyone lacking in wine-related gumption (and I am not talking about gumption derived from wine intake), the wine list is automatically handed to me. In my earlier, I-have-to-impress-everyone-by-my-wine-knowledge days, this was a dangerous act of trust. Hopefully, my ordering habits have mellowed like, well, something that mellows. Friends, please correct me if I am wrong. I am still feeling my way.
The road of wine education has been a long one, with lots of sharp learning curves. And wet, too. Wine tends to make everything slippery, you know.
And the scenery is not always pretty. There are photos to prove it.
I myself was introduced to wine at an early age. Sadly, my early experiences weren't shaped by early autumn harvests at my grandfather's vineyards in Piemonte. He was an auto mechanic from Philadelphia. He liked beer. Lucky lager-- the brand with the little concentration puzzles on the insides of the caps. My first taste of wine came with a threat from his wife. "You're not getting down from this table until you finish your wine." I was five. My grandmother didn't like to waste anything. I cut my Ernest (R.I.P.) & Julio Gallo with as much ginger ale as I could pour into my wine goblet-- the one with the etched glass grape vines-- and did as I was told.
My introduction to champagne was only slightly more romantic. At nine, I ran about the garden tables filling the hollows of plastic Korbel "corks" with "champagne" and sipping from them daintily-- pinky raised-- at my cousin Stephanie's wedding. I hope no one saw the pinky action. I have no idea who I was imitating. It just seemed the proper hand gesture for champagne drinking.
No wonder I preferred hard alcohol in my youth.
I mention these little snippets of my upbringing because I have the feeling I am not alone. I was not a wine savvy child. I didn't really know too much about it until I thirty-ish. Though wine drinking is becoming a fast-growing sport here in the United States, I believe that most Americans are intimidated by the stuff. Please take that "Oh, but we live so close to Napa" expression off your face. Admit it, most Americans still drink beer with dinner. Or coffee. Or ([big] gulp) Diet Coke.
Wine is (I know you still have that smirk on your face and that can stop right now, foodie) simply not part of our collective heritage. We are not comfortable with it as a nation as a whole. Thank you, Pilgrims. Thank you, Volstead Act.
It saddens me to watch people squirm when faced with ordering wine, because it is my job as a waiter to make people comfortable. Choosing a wine should not be a daunting task, but it appears to so be for many. Which wine do I choose? What if I pick the wrong one? What if I don't like it? When I ask people what they feel like drinking wine-wise, the answer is either Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc if they want a white and Cab or Pinot for red. No one ever seems to say the full name of either grape. Pinot? Noir, Meuniere, Gris, Blanc? One of these days I will blend all of these into one glass and present it to someone. One of these days. I often plead with my guests to break out of their neo-oenophobia and just try something different. Please. I suppose we may just have to wait for another sleeper-hit film to push people into trying another varietal.
I've been through this particular agony myself. The I don't-know-anything-about-wine-so-I-am not-even-going-to-try syndrome. Or even oh-God-the-waiter-and-all-my-friends-will-judge me-if-I-order-the-wrong-thing. My point, if I indeed do have a point today, is that drinking wine should be a pleasant experience. If anyone laughs at you, wine is the perfect thing to "accidentally" knock from the table and onto his or her lap. No one should make fun of you (to your face) when you order wine. Oh, that's my other point. Snobbish wine people are annoying, which makes me think of a certain Polk St. wine bar that needs a good investigation. Thank you for reminding me.
Over the next few months, I intend to drone on about wine varietals I think you should be drinking and why you should be drinking them. I'll walk you through the geeky horrors of blind tasting and, not surprisingly, I'll pair up some victuals I'd like to eat with some wines I'd like to drink. Isn't that exciting? Say yes, even if you don't mean it. I'm fragile.