Food Gal’s First Contest: Whine, Wine, and Thine

Rosé -- the perfect sip for warm weather.

Wine Story #1:

I remember my first taste of wine. It was not a good one.

It occurred when I was not yet even in my teens. I was visiting my Uncle Harry in San Francisco’s Chinatown. I was feeling parched, so I rummaged around in the refrigerator for something cool to drink.

I spied a bottle of Welch’s Grape Juice, and poured myself a big glass. I eagerly took a gulp. Then, I nearly gagged.

This was definitely not grape juice, as I spat it out in the sink, and poured the remainder down the drain.

I later learned it was jug red wine my uncle had poured into the container instead.

Needless to say, I never drank anything out of that refrigerator again.

Wine Story #2:

I remember my first taste of wine that I loved.

I was not yet 21. (Shhh, don’t tell.) I was still in high school when my best friend and I decided to celebrate our birthdays together by going out to a French restaurant by ourselves. Yes, when you grow up in food-centric San Francisco, this was not uncommon for teens to do.

It was an old-school French restaurant on Geary Street, the kind where they served little bowls of pâté with cornichons at the start, and flaming Crepes Suzette at the end.

Our waitress was an older French woman who was as kind as can be. When she heard we were celebrating our birthdays, she said we must have wine with dinner. My friend and I looked at each other anxiously, knowing full well we weren’t 21. We knew the waitress had to know, too. Still, she insisted. She told us there was a particular wine she knew we would enjoy. She raced off to get it.

She opened the bottle, and poured us two glasses. It was a blush pink wine, a rosé that was fruity and sweet. We both smiled when we took our first sip. And our server grinned, too, at our delighted response.

I’m almost afraid to tell people nowadays what the wine was that I first fell so hard for.

It was Mateus Rosé.

It may have been the epitome of a cheap red wine. But at that moment, nothing ever tasted more sophisticated and special.

Wine Story #3:

I remember my most embarrassing wine moment.

A few years ago, I was enrolled in a wine course at the Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone Campus in St. Helena.

The class was made up of people like myself who just wanted to learn more about the finer points of particular varietals, as well as career-changers who planned to someday open a wine bar or to work at a winery.

Whether we were taking the class for fun or in total seriousness, we all dreaded blind-tasting tests. It was where you were put on the spot, where you really had to prove what you knew.

On test days, we’d walk into class to find two filled wine glasses at our desks. We’d have to sip, swirl, and figure out what each glass held. We’d also have to write down our reasoning for our conclusions. When we were done, we were told to go outside and wait until all of our classmates had finished.

Of course, once we were mulling around outside waiting, we started discussing what each of us thought the wine glasses held. Invariably, almost every one of us had a different guess, which didn’t do much for our confidence levels whatsover.

I remember one white wine in particular, where the guesses were everything from Riesling to Gruner Veltliner. I thought it was something else. I thought for sure it was a Sauvignon Blanc. It is one of my favorite varietals to drink on a regular basis, so I should know it, right? I even went so far as to write down that the wine in question had the particular aromatic characteristic commonly — if uncouthly — associated with Sauvignon Blanc. I wrote: “It smelled like cat pee.” And yes, that is a real wine descriptor.

As we filed back into the class, the instructor passed our tests back with his corrections on them. I eagerly scanned mine until I came to the white wine part. Today, I don’t even remember what the wine actually turned out to be. All I remember now is the comment my instructor wrote: “Do you even HAVE a cat??”

Uh, no.  But obviously, I need to go around sniffing more of them.

Wine Contest:

I’ve just told you three memorable wine stories from my life. I’m making it easier for you, though. You only have to share ONE memorable wine anecdote in the comments section below.

The funniest, most touching, most original, or in other words, the very best one will win a shipment of four wine- and/or food-related books from my collection. If I get enough responses, a second-place winner will receive three wine- and/or food-related books; and the third-place winner will receive two said books. Disclaimer: This contest is only open to those in the continental United States. Sorry, but when you’re only semi-employed as this Food Gal is, you can only afford so much in postage.

So go pour yourself a glass, and think up your best entry.

Deadline to participate: The end of the day, May 29.

Winner(s) announced: June 1 on FoodGal.

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  • Great stories, and what a generous give-away! I don’t have a great story, but I admit to liking white zinfandel way back when. I used to order it with pizza, and the colder it was the better. At some point, my tastes graduated. A few years ago, we attended a luncheon as part of a wine and food festival during which particular wines were paired with each course. Reps from each wine maker were there and were seated at different tables around the room. At our table, was a rep from Domaine Ott, and one of their reserve wines was served with the first course. So, the white zin would probably taste like a glass of sweettarts to me today, but a well-made rose is a lovely thing.

  • As broke as I was in college I was working four part-time jobs to make my rent. One of them was in a liquor store/wine shop. I spent slow nights reading every book in the store and teaching myself about wine. I learned about a wine course at Windows on the World taught by Kevin Zraly. Of course I couldn’t afford to take the course, but ever the resourceful girl, I discovered I could volunteer to pour for the course and that would get me a full set of course materials and all the knowledge I could scribble down in between pouring.

    I used to get off work and bomb down the Thruway in my old car, fast as I could to park in the basement, zoom up the elevator, don the jacket and begin pouring as Kevin began his lecture.

    It was about the best introduction I could have gotten and that old binder is still with me, packed in storage. I remember one class where we were allowed to finish a very expensive Musigny. I happened to be wearing the very first well-made expensive silk blouse I every splurged on. You know where this is going, right? Of course I spilled wine on the blouse and ruined it. But the wine was so memorable, I never had a moment’s regret!

    Jacqueline Church
    The Leather District Gourmet

  • I enjoyed your stories and what a great contest idea! I have a family story about wine that is pretty funny.

    My late father-in-law was quite a foodie and loved wine. He was also very adventurous and once tried to make his own homemade wine. This white wine was a great attempt but it tasted pretty awful and was named by the family as Chateau de Urine. He made about a dozen bottles of it and stored them in his basement. He had no idea how to get rid of all this bad wine and it was a big problem.

    This was when my husband and his sister were still children and my parents in law were out for a date night. A teenage babysitter decided to throw a party and invite a bunch of friends who found “Chateau de Urine” wine and drank all of it! My parents-in-law found out and the babysitter was never invited to their house again, but the problem of Chateau de Urine was solved!

  • A couple of years back, a group of our friends went on a Napa Wine Tour. The bus picked us up at 10am in the morning and knowing that we didn’t have to drive and it would be an 8 hour trip, we decided to do a Safeway run. We picked up snacks and beer and SOMEBODY decided that a couple of bottles of Vodka would be a good idea too. Needless to say that by the time we got to our first winery (which happened to be Champagne tasting!) we were all JUST slightly tipsy! I don’t really remember the remainder of the tour but I know that we hit 2 more wineries and were back in the city by dinner time. Someone came up with the good idea to go eat sushi in the Marina and all I remember is one of the guys passing out literally onto the table as we’re eating and we got kicked out. I’m not sure if this is the funniest and definitely not a touching story but it’s the most memorable wine story in my book!

  • Two years ago, my husband and I met our two best friends, Todd and Chris Ann in Italy. It was in Tuscany that I had a bottle of nectar that I promise you, was a gift from God!
    It was unlike anything that has ever touched my lips! We actually ordered a different bottle of wine then the server brought us. It was the best mistake ever made.
    We entered a little tiny restaurant, I think in someone’s home, in Panzano, Italy. Grandmom was sitting on the sofa watching TV. We were escorted out to the back porch…oh my! The view was breathtaking! The rolling hills of Tuscany, with flecks of red poppy in the fields, was the main course for our eyes! We sat under a tree, dripping with figs. When the waiter poured our wine, Casanova di Niri Brunello di Montalchino 2001, we had no idea our lives…our palettes…would never be the same again! The first sip was sublime and as the bouquet opened up, you could almost touch the vineyard! Let’s just say, the finish was notes of chocolate and wild mushrooms…
    It was the wine, the place, the food and the friends. It was a moment that raised the bar in my “glass of wine” world!

  • This has been so much fun to read all the wine stories.

    Since I was raised as a tee-totaling Baptist, wine didn’t touch my lips until I was 22. I had just moved from West Virginia to LA and was easily impressed. A new friend took my roomie and me to the revolving bar at the Bonaventure Hotel downtown. If that wasn’t impressive enough, he proceeded to educate us about the different kinds of wine. “There are three types – red, white and pink,” he told us. “The red is Burgundy, the white is Chablis and the pink is called Rose.” Roomie and I thought he really knew his stuff.

    A few months later, someone introduced me to Manishevitz Cream White Wine, cotton candy in a bottle. I can’t believe I loved that stuff (for at least a few weeks).

  • In October of 2003, I lived in San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina, to attend Spanish-language classes. The Patagonian spring — seasons are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere — brought treacherous storms from the Pacific that would lash the Cordillera of the Andes and slap our bone-chilled faces on the eastern rampart of the ragged range. A friend from New York, Keiko Morris, arrived one afternoon in the midst a serious storm. While collecting her at the airport out on the Pampa, I said, “This is the only time I’m going to speak English to you unless it is an emergency. Everything will be conducted in Spanish from now on.’’ She agreed, understanding she had to jump off the deep end of the language pool to progress as a Spanish speaker.

    After classes finished at 8 p.m. Keiko wanted to retire to a bar for a glass of the local wine I had been raving about in e-mails. We had plenty of time because we didn’t eat with our families until 10 p.m., an Argentine custom. Also, it was too wet and cold to do any sightseeing of the majestic Nahuel Haupi National Park that surrounds the area.

    Keiko, having just arrived and still feeling groggy from the 15-hour flight from New York, wasn’t thinking clearly when settling in at a hotel bar near our school. But I was less than sympathetic to her plight in the sink-or-swim world of learning a new language.

    When the cheerful waiter arrived for our order, Keiko requested a local Malbec, which she quickly translated to be $6 USD, or 18 Argentine pesos. I noticed that her eyes had widened when scanning the menu and saw the prices. Six bucks for a glass of good wine? She no longer was in Manhattan, that’s for sure. As Keiko ordered the wine, I interrupted, “Seguro?” Are you sure that’s what you want? “Si, Si,” she replied with confidence. OK, then. I ordered nothing but some snacks. “Aren’t you drinking?” she asked. “Sure,” I said.

    She looked confused.

    The waiter, a German who had immigrated to Argentina as a youth, returned with the snacks and a beautiful bottle of rich red Malbec. He filled Keiko’s glass. She took the obligatory sip and nodded approval. The waiter then set the bottle down. Keiko immediately protested, trying to find something in Spanish that would indicate, “Wait a minute, I just ordered a glass of wine, not the bottle.” I stopped her “This,” I said in Spanish. “Is what you ordered. And this is a mid-range bottle. I usually buy the bottles for a dollar because they’re also good.”

    Keiko, one of the most good-natured women I know, laughed at her mistake and called the waiter over.

    “Could you please bring another glass?’’ she asked.

  • Hey FoodGal,
    Don’t beat yourself up about the Mateus. From what I can tell, that wine was some of the “good stuff” for our parents’ generation. Before Napa, Sonoma, etc appeared on the map, Americans didn’t drink as much wine and choices were French or Ripple. I have a vivid memory of an empty Mateus bottle sitting on a high window sill in our house for years because my mom liked the wine and liked the way the sunlight played through it.

    My own story dates from the late 90s in a restaurant in Sonoma. It was called Babette. It’s no longer open, but chef Patterson and others there have gone on to other fine things. It was our anniversary weekend and our first tasting menu. We had opted to stay in a pretty seedy hotel, hike all day, and treat ourselves to a really nice dinner. We ended up hiking farther than we had planned, but we got to the Sonoma town square in plenty of time to window shop and change out of or grubby shorts and into dressy-ups. That was the plan. But we stopped in at the restaurant a few minutes early to check how formal a place it was and ended up being ushered into the dining room in our shorts.

    The menu gave us 2 choices for each of 5 courses so we ordered all ten items. They offered a wine pairing, so we ended up with 10 different wines, too The meal began and the five courses just blew us away with things we had never seen or tasted before. But the big surprise was the wines. We had pretty simple wine tastes at that time. We liked red – the bigger the better. We had never had a progression of wines with a meal. It was a revelation.

    The wine was poured a short time before each course arrived so we tasted it before the food arrived. Most of the wines tasted thin, or dirty or too acid or otherwise not something we would buy for ourselves. Then the food arrived. The next sip of wine tasted completely different! It was good! It was better than good. Each wine enhanced the taste of the food and vice versa. It was an amazing experience. It certainly didn’t hurt that the server was so enthusiastic about the food and the wine – obviously enjoying our foodie awakening.

    As the restaurant filled up, (only a handful of tables, actually) we began to feel a little uncomfortable. Everyone else was wearing dark suits or formal dresses. The long table cloth hid our bare legs, but not our casual shirts. Fortunately, by the time I had to get up to use the rest room, the wine had removed my inhibitions and no one – patron or staff – made anything out of my attire.

    Our server wrote the wine selections down on the menu for us and we still have that menu on the wall of our kitchen. Thanks for the contest. I love thinking about that day.

  • Loving all these stories. What fun!

    Back when I was a teenager, I had an unfortunate run in with alcohol (something about losing my mothers car, another story entirely) so for many years after that I was the one at parties drinking coca-cola out of a beer can (to still be cool and fit in) instead of the beer and wine most of my friends were drinking.

    Fast forward a few years to one summer when I had a job working as a waitress at Bob’s Big Boy in Mtn. View. It was a Saturday and I was supposed to work the 5PM to midnight shift. It was an awesome summer day so my roommate and I decided to spend most of it down by the apartment pool soaking up some rays. Sometime during the day other friends showed up with some “wine” which I didn’t think I’d like. But I took a sip and realized it wasn’t bad. So I drank some. And since it was warm and I was thirsty, I drank some more. No food, hot sun and a bottle later of Annie Green Springs Green Apple Wine, I was plastered. Once my “apple juice” bottle was empty, I remember someone handing me a glass of “grape juice” from a big jug (think Gallo). Oh lord. 4:30 rolled around and I called into work and said to my boss “I’m drunk, I don’t think I can’t come into work tonight”. Thankfully my boss was an understanding sort and I still had a job the next day. He remarked that anyone that had the balls to call in with the excuse that they couldn’t work because they were too drunk needed to be given a second chance.

    Yep, didn’t drink wine for a few years after that either….

  • Feels good to read all the different wine experience…

    My wine experience also stared at The Culinary Institute of America where I had taken a wine class. We went through an intense wine program and The most dreaded ‘Blind Tasting’ day arrived. We had a flight of six wines to judge on varietals, and the whole criteria. At the end of the class we had an open discussion on how every one felt.

    Every one had their own views and when it came to me I had one particular wine that tasted like ‘Cough Syrup’ and every one was laughing. I was reminded when we were kids parents used to force us to drink cough syrup. It was correct as the wine was corked. Now I have a keen sense on detecting corked wine.

    I found that most of the smells which we co relate to with wines is what we grew up with.

  • Your stories are smile-worthy, especially #2. Very cute. The first half of this Duo had her first ‘real’ tastes of wine from plastic cup in college. Wine from a box. Franzia. It was the thing to walk into a party toting a box of wine with a spout. Classy, huh?

  • haha, loved your stories…I think you should do more of these personal stories, I really enjoyed it! I was LOL-ing all the way.
    ok, I wasn’t yet 21 when I had my first real bottle of wine, too. I was 15. It was at a potluck in church, and someone bought a bottle of wine. I got very naughty and poured myself a tall glass secretly. My mom saw me with the glass and asked me if it was wine. I lied and said it was grape juice. She didn’t believe me, but I skipped away with my glass. I drank it, thinking I was soooo cool. It was downright nasty, but I forced myself to finish it because I didn’t want anyone to discover a half-drunk glass of wine and my mom would find out!

  • Cripes, I need time to think and focus. Thank goodness, I have a week.

  • Ahh, yes—my first experience with the nectar of the gods coincided with my first time away from home wanting to experience life on my own. I’d scraped up enough for 1st and last months on a tiny studio apartment in Burlingame and with the testosterone surging through my veins like rubber rafts bouncing in white water rapids, I knew what my immediate mission was. Armed with a growing mustache that forced me to duck aggressive, if myopic, birds mistaking it for a caterpillar, I bought a pipe and a bottle of wine (don’t ask) and went hunting for appropriate prey—in a nearby laundromat.
    After overwashing several pitifully small loads, a rather attractive girl my age struck up a conversation—well, actually it wasn’t as much conversation as a request for spare change to continue her drying. I managed to leverage her need for the change into having a burger at my place afterwards.
    A late afternoon breeze allowed me to suggest staying inside where I could panfry the burgers. A few unsuccessful attempts to light my pipe (not to mention the associated coughing) convinced me to abandon it and go straight for the wine.
    I said in my most seductive manner (my only role models as seductive males were Bela Lugosi or Gary Cooper—and since I was rotten as Cooper, I went with The Count.
    Staring into the eyes of the girl (who by this time wanted to check her drying), I took the corkscrew which I was intimately unfamiliar with, stabbed the top of the wine bottle which rebuffed me twice because the foil hadn’t been removed, then, still fixing my best Bela gaze into the eyes of the lady fair, holding the wine bottle in one hand and twisting the corkscrew for all I was worth (sweating while trying to make it look easy) I was just about to give up and ask her if she wanted a coke instead when my corkscrew hand plunged downwards—I’d opened the sucker afterall!
    Still without removing my eyes from those of the girl across from me, I moved the

  • … the bottle to the glass and slowly poured. The gurgling sounded a little uneven but I assumed that was natural but before I could continue my seduction, the girl looked down at the glass I’d just poured and began to smile — then chuckle — and then broke out into raucus laughter.
    The mood for seduction evaporated as I looked the glass I’d just poured—was filled with bits of the wine cork I’d managed to mangle while being so … suave. Groan.

  • I am falling down laughing at all of these. Wow, it’s tough competition out there for this contest. So many winners out there to choose from….Thanks for sharing them all, and I can’t wait ti see what the next few days brings, too. Cheers!

  • After a few serious glasses of a nice Shiraz at a hotel a man gets propositioned by a gorgeous woman who had been eyeing him up for some time. He politely explains that he has a girlfriend at home and cannot take her up on her very generous offer, but instead, invites her to join him to enjoy another bottle. As they continue to drink and enjoy each others company more she again invites him to finish the bottle at her place. He thinks for about 2 seconds and accepts her invitation.

    On the way out the door he grabs a stick of chalk off the dart board and puts it in his coat pocket. The woman gives him a strange look but thinks nothing of it. After a very enjoyable time at her place he decides it is best to get a cab home, and does so. As his wobbly legs carry him up the path towards the front door he takes the chalk out of his pocket and puts it behind his ear. As he opens the door there is the girlfriend in the hallway to greet him, and not too happy. WHERE THE HELL HAVE YOU BEEN? is the question. Actually, he says, I met a gorgeous young woman in a bar and we have been back at her place for the last 2 hours making love. I’m not stupid says his girlfriend. I know you’ve been out playing darts with your mates again! You’ve still got the bloody chalk behind your ear you idiot!!

    Not my story, actually, I borrowed it – but I loved its cleverness.
    I used to play darts quite seriously, so I guess I can identify with this.

  • I sip wine once in a while but like the hunt. On recent get away in the wine country with my favorite friend who prefers Alaska beer catered to my wish to find a pinot. The winery was 15 minutes away from our hotel but as the sun was setting we took a detour which climbed us high into mountain terrain along the backroads now 1 hour later..we spied a woman on her isolated dirt road and asked for directions to the winery. Never hear of it she replied but said there was a rattlesnake 15 feet behind our car so left in a hurry pushing metal to the pedal with little gas to spare..thank heavens for bottled water to prevent dehydration. Next day the hunt continued at another winery where my friend spent his time not sipping but asking for the mathematical formula to wine making..the pourers replied it’s an art! they must have sensed i was the artist so I got a taste direct from the barrel…luscious pinot!

  • I had to go away and give this some thought. I thought of all the approaches could take, my first sip, the first time I had really good wine (not in the midwest, unfortunately, had to wait until I got to California) But the memory that sticks out for me is one I treasure.

    Back when I got out of undergrad, my first job was in Iowa, not too far from my Grandmother, as it was a temporary assignment, I lived with her for that period. It was a tremendous opportunity as prior to that time, I only saw her a few times a year, and this was a chance to really get to know her. and get to know her I did. We lived in the country, about 30 miles from Des Moines, and I used to pick up some groceries, and come home and cook dinner and then we’d settle in for an evening of Jeopardy and the Golden Girls – not exactly the glamorous life I had planned after leaving college, but as I said, it was temporary.

    One afternoon we were watching the winter Olympics that featured a German Beer Garden and my grandmother turned to me and said “the German’s may like the beer but the Russians love it” This was news to me and I confess to being curious as to how she came by this information as I can count on one hand the number of states she had visited outside of Iowa.

    In any event, to make a long story not too long, it turns out that she had like to tipple on occasion but for the last oh, 30 years or so had not done so as my Grandfather was a teetotaler, So, on those evening trips to the grocery store, I’d throw in a bottle of wine or beer, and one that I added was Manischewitz. Definitely not highbrow, but then the grocery store I had stopped at did not have an extensive collection, and as I recall it tasted like Welch’s grape juice with a kick. But my grandmother loved it, she thought it was the best, as I had filled her juice glass up about half way “just enough to be naughty” as she liked to say, we settled in and enjoyed our wine and the evenings entertainment of the Golden Girls. and that memory always makes me smile.

  • Tawny Reds
    As I grew up in the Midwest, wine in the 1960’s meant little more than Maneschewitz on Thanksgiving morning (poured by an eager but otherwise loyal Falstaff beerdrinker) or later, in the 1970’s, Paul Masson pinot noir on special occasions like my older brother’s return from law school. I taught my younger brother how to say “pee no (m)ore” without the “m.”
    But as I attended San Francisco State in Fall 1974, I was nearing the end of the semester with an “0-fer” – dateless into November. I took a risk and bought two tickets to the George Harrison-Ravi Shanknar concert, and asked my first choice. She was “otherwise occupied.” As I sat dejectedly at the table in the dining room, wondering how to resurrect this situation, a spritely-athletic brunette sat on the far end of the table. I asked her, “Are you from San Francisco?,” and it wasn’t much later that she was picking me up for the concert at the Cow Palace.
    I had splurged on a nice corkscrew and bought my old-reliable Paul Masson pinot noir, when, seeing the security at the gate, I plucked the bottle into the back of my pants, secured by the belt, placed upside down to fit the cleft, and hidden by the shirt, sweater-vest and jacket I wore. As we neared the gate, Sandra went before me, and I watched to my horror as the guard placed his hands on all the locations that I hoped to touch later in the evening.
    I shouted, “She doesn’t have it, I do.” Then I twisted halfway around and lifted up my shirt and jacket to show the guard the wine. He let go of Sandra, and took the beverage from my waist, tossing it in one motion into a dumpster nearby.
    As he turned his attention to the next in line, I looked longingly over the edge of the dumpster, but realized the bottle was too far down for me to reach. The guard caught sight of me, and shooshed me off.
    We had a good chuckle, but my evening was spoiled. I kept hearing the clunk from the bottle landing in the dumpster, even as George sang, “My Sweet Lord.” I perked up as he and Shanknar did a duet of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” but afterwards, when I realized that I had nothing to continue the socializing, I was despondent. Sandra chivalrously stopped at a liquor store and purchased a bottle of brandy for us to enjoy later.
    Months later, back in S.Dak., I eagerly opened a letter from her, answering my porous outflowing of affection since that evening. It was a “Dear John,” and I was devastated. Somehow though, she worked into the closing, a remark, “Watch out for the 1973 Charles Krug claret. Buy it whenever you can.”
    Years later, I was stocking up for a party to celebrate my “First Annual ‘Larry Got Into Law School’ Occasion.” I went to the neighborhood distributor on Ocean Ave. near Phelan. There was the 1973 Charles Krug claret. I bought a case of it and we made a serious dent in it at the party.
    Across the room, seated politely with her friend from City College, was the cheery woman with the light flip wave on her bangs, who rented a room on the top floor of the house where I rented a room at the ground level. She became my wife, constant companion, soul-and-inspiration, and mother of my two kids – who now prefer zinfandel and pinot noir to claret.

  • The first wine I ever had was the worst wine I ever had. Scott and I made it ourselves.

    I was a nerdy kid, all math and science, skinny with plastic-framed glasses, with no social skills. Perhaps that’s why Scott was my best friend. He had no academic skills, but was good at sports, and a rebel, the kind that sneaked cigarettes from his Mom and was out past curfew. He is what other parents called “a bad influence.”

    One day, he came up with a plan: We would make our own wine. We were probably 12 years old. I didn’t even know why we would want wine. Scott probably didn’t know either, except that it was forbidden and that was reason enough.

    I don’t know where he got the recipe, but it looked easy. Dandelions, we had, in volume. We lived in upstate New York, in farm country, on acres of land. In the summer the lawns were dotted with yellow. Yeast? Neither of our mothers baked but he somehow scored a packet. We could easily purloin a couple of oranges and a few lemons.

    The hard part was the sugar. Four pounds! Where would we get that? A few days later, my mother was pondering aloud, what had happened to the bag of sugar that she knew was in the pantry.

    We didn’t have wine bottles but Scott found a big pickle jar. The recipe said to sterilize the bottles but we figured a good washing would do, and that bottle was as clean as any 12-year-old boy had ever cleaned anything. We were ready.

    One day, when Scott’s parents weren’t home, we began our stealth brew and two hours later, the jar was in the cellar and the kitchen was tidy. We even remembered to leave the lid on loosely.

    Next came the hard part: Waiting a whole week. We looked at it twice a day. It always looked the same: A murky brew of flowers and floating bits.

    A week later, we convened in the woods with our jar and a couple of cups. We poured the cloudy mixture into our cups. It smelled like rot. We toasted our accomplishment and drank. It tasted mostly like sugar. Scott looked at me, I looked at him. “Ahhh, perfect!” he pronounced. Apparently, he didn’t know what wine should taste like, either.

    We hid the jar and that was the end of it. Somewhere in the forest in upstate New York, there is a nicely aged” cuvee speciale dandelion,” there for the taking.

  • Love these stories. One of my most embarrassing wine moments was when I was just out of college and working for a non-profit. I, too, grew up in the great Bay Area with access to lots of restaurants, so I already fancied myself as a foodie. Throughout college, we tended to explore the more bargain-oriented ethnic joints, but on this particular night out for my friend’s birthday and flush with our new “grown-up” paychecks, my two best girlfriends and I decided to try the then-new La Pastaia in the De Anza hotel. Confident in a recent wine I had tried, yet unaware of the etiquette of bringing your own bottle, I decided I would bring it along. The wine was Parallel 45 from the Rhone Valley and I think the waiter smirked when I whipped it out with a flourish and even offered him a taste (not plonk of course, but I am pretty sure the corkage equaled the price of the bottle). No matter, we were oblivious and enjoyed the wine, meal and company.

    But, as ignorance is bliss, this is not the embarrassing part of the story. As the waiter brought out the dessert menu, we perused the after-dinner drinks and someone noted the several types of grappa. “Mmmm, grappa…” we all exclaimed, no doubt thinking of articles we had read in “Wine Spectator” about this nectar from Italy. The waiter came back to the table and I noted the grappa with a knowing smile – the girls all followed my enthusiasm, as I engaged in what I thought was a knowledgeable conversation about the different types and what he’d recommend at our price range. We ordered three glasses and grinned at each other. The little glasses appeared with the clear liquid and we sniffed and closed our eyes. We each had a sip and the smiles disappeared. “Oh…” said the birthday girl with a sour face. “Hmph,” said my other friend. “Ah, I guess maybe I hadn’t tried this before,” said I. We were all quiet for a minute and I suggested perhaps it grew on you like the flaming Sambuca we used to have at dive bars during college. Everyone perked up and agreed to try again. No dice. The waiter then came back to our table and asked how we liked it. We all gave an enthusiastic yes and laughed when the waiter left at our simultaneous and spontaneous “fib.” The birthday girl tried it again and then proceeded to pour some in her ice water, with an eye out for anyone who might see her getting rid of the evidence. My other girlfriend followed. I trudged on, but finally did the same. By the time our check came, we had “finished” our grappas. In the 15 years or so since, I have experienced enjoyable grappas and have assured my two friends that there is definitely better stuff than what we had that night, but they don’t believe me…

  • Addendum: I wish to add to my previous story about our wanderings in vineyards a short time ago. Tonight, we opened a bottle tasting the fruit of our hunt. Watched a move in our home entitled, The French Kiss, which transported us to Southern France into a vineyard where the characters discovered the true value of their love and of course the pleasure of the grapes.

  • My mom and dad were far from the tragically-wanna-be-hip parents sometimes seen on news reports shortly after they’ve been arrested for furnishing underage offspring and their friends with alcohol (“But it was supervised!”) However, they did introduce me and my two older sisters to our first sips of wine at an age upon which the law would definitely frown.

    My mother always made it a point to set out her best linen, china, and silverware for our holiday table during Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Cut-crystal wine goblets were placed by her and my father’s places while we had small tumblers for water. One holiday, around the time that I was about to enter high school, we noticed that wine glasses were set at our places, too.

    With neither fuss nor fanfare, my father opened the bottle of wine – the details of which escape me, except that it was a white – and proceeded to pour some into our glasses, under our wide-eyed and disbelieving stares. We were going to have wine? We were going to have wine!

    It didn’t matter that the amount apportioned to each us was would barely moisten the tongue; to my mind, all that mattered was that sophisticated adults drank it. In that moment, as I reached for my glass, I felt the first stirrings of impatience to leave behind childhood, although it was my childish sense of whimsy that allowed me to imagine that a sip of this elixir would transform me from girl to woman.

    Trying to hold the glass delicately by the stem, I brought it to my lips for my first taste and . . . what the . . . ?! This was no honeyed nectar of the gods! I had sipped about an eyedropper full of wine and it wasn’t just dry, it was desiccated (of course, it was years later before I knew what ‘dry’ meant). I put my glass back down where it remained untouched for the rest of the meal. My parents never said anything, my sisters made no remark about their own first tastings and we all tucked into the delicious food my mother had prepared.

    That first shock to my immature palate might have put me off of wine forever and yet, at each subsequent holiday meal, I would quickly scan the table to reassure myself that a wine glass sat by my plate. It wasn’t the wine itself that was important – I didn’t learn to appreciate wine drinking until my early 30s – it was what it seemed represented. By serving us wine, even in token amounts, my parents seemed to signal that in their estimation, my sisters and I were becoming “dalagas” (young women).

    Perhaps this is simply a wishful reinterpretation of a rather benign event and yet, knowing my parents, who are not overly demonstrative and given to hear-to-heart conversation, it was just the sort of quiet gesture whose message is imprinted lightly yet indelibly. My first taste of wine was my parents’ toast to a new, exciting transition.

  • There’s a handmade photo poster in my bedroom. I shows a younger me, with permed curly hair, wearing a blue t-shirt and a smile. I am holding a winery hose over my head in an arc, a column of blue rushing from the end coupling into the top of a steel tank. A wider-angle photo shows I am standing on a catwalk, high above the Napa Valley, posing for a photographer as the 1986 Frogs Leap “crush” pours into the top of the settling tank. A lot of my colleagues in San Francisco at the time have written little joke-y notes around the photos, like “hope you had a crushing good time on your vacation” and “don’t forget to wash your Chateau La-feet.”
    It was the year I was splitting up with my second wife, after a relationship marred by substance abuse. I really needed a break, a relaxing vacation from my job then. I thought I would take our dog (joint custody) someplace where we could just hang out. Someplace romantic.
    One of my colleagues was married to a physician who was a partner in Frog’s Leap winery.
    She suggested, hey, come out for the crush. “It’ll be fun,” she said. I thought hmmm, that sounded interesting. An unusual vacation but…….what the heck.
    I checked into a cheap and not particularly romantic motel near St. Helena. At the time, they actually had cheap motels in the wine country, and this one let me bring my dog named Chardonnay, a Golden Retriever that had been born at a winery several years earlier.
    On the first morning at the winery, I learned that relaxation and winery harvest-and-crush time are not synonymous: It’s a race against nature’s schedule for ripening wine grapes.Large boxes filled with wine-y-smelling bunches of grapes and laced with hungry hornets and wasps are coming in from the fields or on the back of trucks, then quickly have to be fork-lifted into the crusher/stemmer; out comes the juice which gets pumped into tanks for the start of winemaking, but what’s left over, the stems, seeds, and other greeny things isn’t pretty.
    “Here’s your job, Karl: clean it up.”
    For several hours, I wielded a pitchfork, rake, and shovel, mucking the leftover greens into boxes for mulching, but then everyone working was called to the winemakers house for lunch. It was one of those Napa dream scenes: on a patio next to a slowly moving creek (home to frogs, see?) we were served lovely cheese and meat sandwiches on soft artisan rolls; there was a bowl of perfectly ripe fruit and ice-cold bottled waters and tea. Dessert was a chocolate thing that made the aches and pains of greens removal go away.
    But then it was back to the crush pad and deliveries of white wine grapes, that got fed into a crusher reminiscent of an iron lung. Nobody told me that wine starts in two parts: the juice, and the garbage.
    For a week, my days were ups and downs: up to the catwalk, make sure the red wine juice wasn’t going to overflow the top of the tall tank; down to the pad, rake up the leftover seeds and stems. A couple of times, I forklifted boxes filled with grapes to the top of the crusher-stemmer without spilling expensive grapes all over the pad.
    And the lunches: unusual meats and cheeses from the then-little-known Oakville Grocery, fresh-picked tomatoes that had strange colors and weird shapes (who knew from heirloom then) but splendid flavor, fruits from orchards run by friends and handpicked ripe for the winery, excellent breads baked by home bakers before artisan was a word at Safeway.
    Miraculously, in my winemaking week I was never stung and never fell into a winery tank. But never mind, I was splashed with 1986 vintage every day, and sometimes drank the juice just to see what fresh crush tasted like. My jeans were forever stained; I was sunburned and sore and it was weeks before the blue color washed out from beneath my fingernails.
    On the last day, they treated me to a Calistoga mudbath for my labors. But I didn’t drink wine that week. After that second marriage, I decided to stop. I went to 12-step meetings for a while, and many years have now passed since my last glass of wine. But I know one glass now wouldn’t be enough and a thousand not too many. Still, I wonder what my 1986 Frogs Leap would have tasted like. In the photos I seem to have been doing a pretty good winemaking job.

  • My wine story is titled “The Surprising Evolution of Otehlia Cassidy’s Taste Buds.”
    I come from a family of light beer drinkers and boxed wine connoisseurs–or so I thought. As a kid, I remember my dad washing down pretzel crumbs with mouthfuls of sun-colored beer. Between bites, I heard stories about my aunt who made and sold bootleg during prohibition. As a young teen, my mom offered me sips of pink-ish, sweet-ish wine from a two-week old box. While I puckered my lips, she reminisced about her years growing up in my great aunt’s small town bar. With all of this rich drinking history, I wondered, why are we drinking this, pardon my French, crappola?

    My first wine purchasing experience (in high school) led me to Bartles and Jaymes wine coolers, a step up from boxed wine I was sure. I was ready to grab my high top shoelaces and pull myself up into a better life. That lasted until I tried Sloe Gin.

    I traveled to Europe after high school and began to really understand the difference between the wine and beer I had grown up around, and Wine and Beer. Sipping a French wine selected to complement a fresh fish dinner made me understand the difference between drinking to drink and drinking to taste. My whole family has evolved. Though my mom still sports boxes of wine on her kitchen counter, she is known to buy a locally made Ozark mountain wine now and again. My dad, before his death, bought bottles of fine red wine as part of his personal anti-diabetes regiment. As for me, Bartles and Jaymes is history. I recently learned that my dad’s younger sister makes wine from her fruit trees. The cherry wine is to live for. I guess fine wine is in my genes after all.

  • le vin

    le vin a la fin de bouteille avec plaisir je souris! acclamation!

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