The first wine I ever tasted was Mogan David out of the gallon jug that my great-grandmother got every year for Christmas. I was very young, so naturally it was really a tiny wine glass filled with 7-Up and colored with about 5 drops of wine. But I felt oh, so grown up. Whether or not Mogan David can really be considered a wine by today’s standards is beside the point. It was my first wine experience and it’s one of those memories that marks a point where I felt like I was growing up.
My dad made wine in the basement for awhile. He used things like beets and dandelions. I was young, maybe six to twelve years old during this phase. There is nothing you can do to a beet to make it edible; the idea of drinking it was even worse. Dandelions are weeds. Yeah, I know, they are survival food, or something served in restaurants where the price of a trendy dandelion salad starts at like $50 a plate but when you’re seven, eating or drinking a dandelion just seems wrong. I don’t know if dad ever got the hang of wine making. Sadly every time I remember taking a tiny sip of one it was always given with the comment “I‘m not sure if I got this one right or not.” I secretly thought the answer was no, but I hope I didn‘t say that to him. There are still a few bottles lurking on the shelves of the root cellar, but no one has the courage to open them up.
The next wine I tasted was communion wine, which everyone knows isn’t supposed to be enjoyed but endured. It is supposed to celebrate a growing up moment in faith. Nowadays they have a grape juice option. I wonder if those kids feel as grown up as we did as we choked down the strong (smelling and tasting) wine that the church bought by the case and kept in a cupboard for months (and months and months. Possibly years.) I can’t imagine that drinking Welch’s grape juice, even up there in front of God and everyone, feels quite as grown up as taking the tiniest possible sip of wine (while not breathing) and trying not to swallow till you get to the back of the church so you can cough without anyone knowing. Maybe they serve that kind of wine on purpose, coughing gets the communion wafer unstuck from the roof of your mouth.
In my late teens and early twenties, when I wanted to feel particularly grown up I would drink Boone’s Farm or TJ Swan wine, usually from a plastic cup. Something nastily sweet like apple or strawberry flavor. Really it was almost soda pop without the fizz. It wasn’t so much the wine, as my ability to choose which kind I wanted and to buy it all by myself that made it so exciting, I think. It also seemed much more sophisticated than beer, the other liquor of choice in the small town I grew up in. The invention of the wine cooler was, to my twenty something mind, sheer genius. They managed to get rid of that awful “winey” taste and you could drink straight from the bottle without looking desperate. My new heroes were Bartles and James, even if their commercials showed them to be two old guys sitting in rocking chairs.
Wine just wasn’t part of my life during my thirties and most of the forties. Let’s face it, buying wine at a liquor store for the uninformed is really just a shot in the dark. Shelves of wines from floor to ceiling. Clerks who can only ring you up, not tell you anything about the wine. Lots of colorful labels, weird names and descriptions that are confusing. Aromas of one kind, but tastes of another. I never had to guess with Boone’s Farm. Their strawberry wine smelled and tasted like strawberries. A wine that tells me it has the aroma of plums and red flowers and tastes like raisins and black raspberries with hints of chocolate is just plain confusing. Much safer to stick with rum and coke. If you always buy the same brand of rum the only thing that can change the taste of that drink is bad ice or generic coke. Why take chances on something that requires special glasses and might not taste at all like you think it should?
In my mid to late-forties my brother got interested in wines and wine tasting. Dinners at his house started to include wine and he would try to educate us on why a particular wine tasted good, and what to eat with it. I tended not to listen too closely, especially when he would start with “This one should be interesting. Got it in the bargain cart for 3 bucks.” We all share a frugal streak we learned from our parents. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes not. I am going to make a sweeping generalization here…keep your expectations low when purchasing wine out of the bargain cart. It’s there for a reason. But I do thank my brother for introducing me to (good, really good) port and the food that goes with it. First, because port has given me many enjoyable evenings with friends and second, because it sort of paved the way for my future understanding and appreciation of other wines.
I share these (admittedly) uninteresting facts about myself because I think you should know that before I came to Italy, Land of Wine, I didn’t know squat about wine. I didn’t want to know squat about wine. I didn’t drink wine unless there was no other option available. I didn’t know that wine should, really, be taken with the meal. That all those TV shows where people stand around at cocktail parties drinking wine and not eating is an American invention. When I came to Italy for a class two years ago I experienced wine the way it should be experienced. It was the beginning of something new for me.