Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Wine Memoir

I'm currently taking an 11 week course on food writing from the New York Times. There are just 10 of us in the class and the lectures and assignments have been very informative and fun. Our instructor is excellent. The breadth and depth of his work is remarkable. For week two of the course, we were required to create a food related memoir in 500 words or less. Here is my assignment.

My First Time

It was a business dinner with four associates at my favorite restaurant, D’Amico Cucina. November, 1998. I had been eating there for thirteen years. I had always ordered a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon with every dinner I ate there. First, I did that because I am pattern man. Second, because that was the only wine category that I considered myself somewhat knowledgeable (and that’s not saying much).

The five of us had all decided to order the braised short rib. As I gave the waiter my Napa Valley selection from the wine list, he stopped me and motioned for the sommelier to come to our table.

Bill Summerville was the new sommelier at D’Amico Cucina. He had just come on board three weeks earlier from La Belle Vie in Stillwater. He introduced himself and I gave him my wine selection. He paused and then asked “Have you ever had an Italian wine?”

My experience with Italian wines consisted of watery Chiantis in straw-wrapped bottles during my college days. I told Bill that I knew nothing about Italian wines. He went on to explain that his expertise was Italian wines and that he had spent the entire summer in Italy learning about the wines of the Piedmont region. He had just stocked the restaurant’s cellar with a large quantity of Piedmont’s best and he asked us if we would let him select the wine that would best complement our meal. “If you like big California reds, you will love Barolo.”

He brought a 1971 Poderi Aldo Conterno Barolo Riserva Speciale and a candle to our table. I had never heard of Barolo. He opened the wine and poured a small amount in my glass. I tasted it and was quite disappointed. It was very tight and showed none of the fruit that a big Napa Cab would have. Bill explained that it needed to decant for a good 30 minutes before the 27 year-old wine would open up. He decanted the wine and used the candle as a light source on the neck of the bottle to ensure that all of the sediment stayed in the bottle.

After we had finished our salads and Chardonnays, dinner came. Bill came over and poured the Barolo. I was used to the dark red color of a Cabernet. The glass of Barolo was almost like ink…a blue-black that turned orange close to the rim. I took a taste and was astounded. I had never tasted a wine like that in my life. Bold fruit…a trace of prune…smoky dried mushrooms…old leather…and an incredible chocolate aftertaste that refused to leave my tongue.

I was absolutely stunned, as were my four associates. We were all grinning ear-to-ear, but no one was grinning more than Bill, for he knew that he had just given five men the most incredible wine experience of their lives.

From that day forward, I became a Barolo collector. The Barolos in my cellar are my most prized and cherished wines. Thank you, Bill, for changing my life that day.

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