By Mike Austin, Chicago Tribune (TNS)
The day that I really tasted wine for the first time was a Thursday, and I was in junior high.
I can hear you thinking, ‘Wow, superhuman recall.’ Yeah. I’m not even going to feign modesty because the fact is I will never, ever forget that Thanksgiving is on a Thursday.
The year of that first taste? I have no idea, but who could remember something like that? That is the distant past and this is now, and from today forward I will be writing a weekly wine column in this spot.
While I don’t remember much about that childhood wine gulp, except that it wasn’t awesome, I do remember that it was a white tablecloth experience. This is how I can be sure that it was a Thursday, because the only time my mom draped a white tablecloth on the Ping-Pong table in our basement was on Thanksgiving.
I leaned more toward Dr Pepper in those days, but one year I thought, ‘Hey, let’s give this wine thing a try’ (exact thoughts — I’m positive). I eyed a clear-glass carafe, a soaring tower from Spain or Italy, filled with a mysterious crimson potion, glowing under fluorescent tube lighting. I filled a glass, lifted it to my lips, and drank. My life’s wine journey had begun. You know that sound in wonderfully horrible movies, where the needle scratches across the record? Do that sound in your head right now. Yeah, nice — perfect.
As I mentioned, that first taste didn’t change my life. I had to put wine-tasting on a shelf for many years. But I’ve made up for lost time. Through many subsequent trials and various errors since then, I now know that wine is most at home on dining tables, accompanying food, and that those tables don’t always need to be draped in white. Sometimes wine is a tuxedo, sometimes it’s a tuxedo T-shirt. Other times it’s a tuxedo but with shorts and flip-flops. Look — the point is, wine has a huge wardrobe, and a walk-in closet big enough for all of us to pile into and just have some laughs.
I have no idea what day of the week it was, or what color the tablecloth was, but at a dinner somewhere, years after that fateful Thanksgiving, something clicked and wine started to make sense to me. The more I learned about it — by reading, taking classes, visiting wineries, dining out and opening bottles on my own — the more I wanted to know. And then wine started making sense to me in yet another way. I realized that wine was there for me, not the other way around.
When I was growing up, the wine world seemed tweedy, self-important and exclusive. And maybe it really was, because we were American and skeptical about things we didn’t fully understand. But as I immersed myself in that world, it became clear to me that folks are just folks and wine is just a drink that goes really well with food. Winemakers wear boots, and sometimes have dirty cuticles. They almost always drive trucks, and there’s usually a dog riding shotgun. That’s disarming in itself, isn’t it? A dog riding shotgun! Man, dogs are funny.
Dogs are funny and wine culture can still be a little too serious, even today. For the people who make it, serve it and sell it, OK. It’s your business — you can be serious about that side of it. But for the rest of us who have no obligation other than to enjoy it and simply appreciate it for what it is, let’s keep it fun. Even though wine is one of our greatest creations — right up there with language, flight, medicine and the music of Rush and Todd Rundgren — let’s not fetishize it. Let’s not whisper around it, or hold it up to our ear, or say prayers to it.
Let’s let wine do its thing, which is to make food taste better and give us that special little glow that convinces us in the moments we are under its spell that the world is easier, more rewarding and more beautiful than we had thought it was before we sat down to dine.
Nowhere in that Thanksgiving-wine-sneaking kid’s mind was there room for the idea that he might someday come to love drinking wine with dinner (and lunch). Nowhere in his mind was there room for the idea that he might have the privilege of writing about wine in a venue such as this one. And although he was already interested in writing by then, never could he have imagined composing three consecutive sentences about himself in the third person.
Curiosity yields surprises — pleasant ones, we always hope. May your curiosity lead to wondrous discoveries about the wines that lie ahead of you. May you gain new and profound insight into the pleasures of the table, the ever-expanding limits of your imagination, and, while we’re at it — the art and craft of living well. I can hear you thinking, ‘Wine can do all of that?’
Yes, it can. As sure as Thanksgiving is on a Thursday, it can.
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Photo: E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS