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The Age of Innocence
When my world was still innocent, I was drinking Manischewitz mixed with seltzer, but by the time my father ran off after a neighbor’s wife, I was drinking the partially fizzy Mateus.
I had a multitude of reasons for disliking the object of Dad’s affections, and all of them seemed to find expression in my developing a violent allergy to her Siamese cats and an aversion to her vulgar perfume. Obviously this Madame Chauchat of a woman had a profound effect on my sinuses. Nevertheless, I remain indebted to her. Years after my family’s little scandal cooled down, Madame Chauchat and my father were cohabitating. I had run away to graduate school in the Boston area and was starting to cultivate an interest in wine. When I was visiting my father on a school break, his Madame Chauchat invited me to raid her ex-husband’s wine cellar. Still terribly shy at twenty-three, I was hesitant to appear greedy and so I took only three bottles out of the hundreds there. One was an Italian wine from Piedmont, a 1968 Barolo made by someone named Giovanni Scanavino. I packed the bottles carefully, took a nineteen-dollar People’s Express flight back to Boston, and shared the wine with two friends and my boyfriend, a rather sweet but straightlaced guy who barely drank and who knew I didn’t like that he barely drank. The drinking became an even bigger issue when he saw me take my first smell of the Barolo. As far as Mr. Straight Laced was concerned, it was as though I had just fallen in love with another man.
What was the attraction? Everything: the Barolo’s aromas and tastes of rose petal and its suedelike tannin. There also was a bit of gravel and tar and tea. In later years I heard that most people couldn’t understand this kind of "Old Worldstyle" Barolo, a wine that in its youth was supposedly wildly rough, hard, and needed at least twenty years to reveal itself. In 1980, that Barolo was a preteen but it had already grown up gorgeous. I didn’t need anyone to tell me it was phenomenal. I figured it out with my own nose.
As a pigtailed, freckled kid, I was obsessed with smells. My mother would nervously scold, "Stop smelling your food!" My father (a lawyer with a penchant for controversy) threatened to call the sheriff. My older brother mimicked me. They all finally threw up their hands, resigned to the fact that I was eccentric.
Waving everything under my nose before putting it into my mouth was as strong a reflex for me as sneezing. Sunkist orange-juice ice pop clutched in my little fist: Lick, sniff, lick. Friday night dinner, Mom’s fragrant tomato soup cupped in my spoon: Slurp, sniff, slurp. Nothing and no one could break me of this behavior.
They say that nontasters do not produce supertasters. In my casewith my mother and father being almost anosmiacsthe smell genes skipped a generation and landed in me. They came from my mother’s father: Pop had a particularly prominent and fine nose. He must have seen that I was a kindred spirit because, when I was a wee one, he engaged me in early aroma training. He liked to keep little bottles of perfume in his long-underwear drawer, of all places. He would call to me, "Come, mameleh," wave scents under my nose, and then quiz me on what I perceived. He didn’t speak much English and I had little Yiddish, but somehow we communicated just fine. When I was not much older, he would say, "Mameleh, a bissele schnapps?" and give me a fingernail amount of whiskey, but we always smelled it before we sipped. I’m grateful for learning how to enter the world nose first. My exaggerated sense of smell and taste are still my antennae to the world. They allow me to know what lobster and pigs’ feet taste like (and to make appropriate wine pairings) though, having grown up in a kosher home, I have eaten neither. Smells have always warned me of danger, like the time I sniffed a trout from head to tail, refused to eat it, and was the only one at the meal who did not get sick. And romance would not be possible with a man who smells bad to me; conversely, it is an undeniable asset when a suitor smells like truffles.
My nose served me well when I landed north of Harvard Square in 1978. This was just before the world outside of New York City discovered food, and I found myself longing for a crusty, dense loaf of bread and other delicacies I had taken for granted. But all was not lost. The upscale market Formaggio’s Kitchen had opened down the street from my apartment. Needing employment while studying for a masters in dance/movement therapy, I worked behind the cheese counter and counseled the Brattle Street crowd on which goats were the most spectacular. When I found the Armenian section of town, where I could buy olives, stuffed grape leaves, pomegranate syrup, and ten kinds of feta, I was delighted. Boston was an ice-cream mecca, and my ability to blind taste through a dozen ice creams and identify all of them was my first claim to tasting supremacy. Friends encouraged me to go professional. Professional in what? I wondered. Working for an ice-cream company as a professional taster seemed a fast track to obesity. I don’t think I could have handled the onslaught of aromas if I had become a perfumer’s nose. The idea of leaving my chosen career in the psychotherapeutic use of movement for one in wine simply hadn’t occurred to me yet.
A francophile roommate aided my transformation into a wine geek after my exposure to that Barolo. She and her gang gathered at our Depression-era triple-decker for weekly wine tastings, and I joined in. We systematically went through the wines of the world, many of them new to me. I wasn’t interested in the details of winemaking at first. My modus operandi was to find out which wines I liked best and then greedily get to them before anyone else. We also drank a lot of wines coming out of California. It’s funny to think that at one time I appreciated California Chardonnay, a wine I now rarely drink willingly. I also resonated with the rustic edge of Zinfandel. When the francophile moved out, my friend Honey-Sugar, a refugee from a starter marriage in Alabama, moved in. She and I expanded the wine tastings into monthly wine parties for eighteen, including the young wine collector who witnessed my first taste of Barolo.
Those with similar palates can pass significant chunks of time debating and discoursing on tasting minutiae. This sort of thing terribly bored the Young Collector’s wife and my boyfriend, Mr. Straight Laced.
Yet, back then, I hadn’t even picked up a wine book. I made an active decision to avoid studying. After all, wine study seemed too elitist for a child of the sixties. Even the thought of buying a proper, thin-lipped glass seemed snobby. I was positive that a paper cup or a ceramic mug would do. I let the Young Collector do the research. And being a bit of a horn-rim glasses kind of nerd, he was consumed by it. It was around this time, 1982 or so, when the Young Collector discovered someone named Robert M. Parker, Jr.
Parker had started his bimonthly newsletter, The Baltimore-Washington Wine Advocate, the very year that I moved to Boston. Inspired by the consumer advocacy of Ralph Nader and believing that most contemporary wine writers were "on the take," Parker saw himself offering a similar consumer service to wine lovers, based on impartiality and integrity. He doled out wine grades based on a 100-point system as if wines were biology exams. According to his unofficial biographer, Elin McCoy, Parker started becoming what he is today just a year after he declared the 1982 Bordeaux vintage a slam dunk. Calling the vintagewhen others did notcatapulted him to fame, and he was soon able to quit his job as a lawyer, devote himself to The Wine Advocate, and live life as a wine critic.
The Young Collector took Parker seriously for a number of years because he was seeking guidance and Parker was an "expert." The Young Collector wanted to build an age-worthy cellar, and there was no one else out there who was giving advice. Parker himself was green and didn’t have the experience to know how wines aged, either. Nevertheless, when we decided to stage a Burgundy tasting, it was Parker’s notes that guided us.
Now, it’s all fine and good for me to bash Parker, but did I know anything more than he did? No. In fact, I didn’t even know any Burgundy basics. I didn’t even know what the grapes wereChardonnay for white and Pinot Noir for red. I didn’t know a grand cru (it sounded important) from a basic Bourgogne (which sounded less important). But I knew that Burgundy had a seductive mystique and was supposed to make me swoon.
The night of the Burgundy tasting, Mr. Straight Lacedwho, by then, was trying hard to show me he could cozy up to wine, or at least take a few sips for loveremarked that one particular Burgundy smelled like a sweaty bicycle seat. Another smelled like pot to me (which, I now realize, isn’t that unusual). Many wines not only tasted barn-yardy, which we were told was the mark of a true Burgundy, but even tasted like a barnful of cows and sheep and goats in the summer heat. By the time I was finished tasting the fifteen selections, my tongue and teeth were black from the tannic and bitter wine. Burgundy, seductive? I couldn’t see anything in these wines but pain. I was embarrassed because I didn’t like them. Was there something wrong with me? I wondered. I had always been so confident of my taste buds and nose. I didn’t take consolation from the fact that the others in the room were also wondering what the big deal was with Burgundy. They just wanted something good to drink, so we pulled out the single-malt scotch.
Later, the Young Collector and I began to suspect that this new critic had a clay palate, especially since the one Burgundy we had both actually liked was a wine made by Guy Berthaut. Parker wrote about this baby in his 1990 book on Burgundy: "His 1983s tasted severe, terribly tannic, and dry, with traces of the ominous gout de sec. I just could not find enough fruit to balance out the tannins." The Young Collector had bought it as a challenge to Parker, who had rated it a lowly 75 points out of 100. We rated it terrific. The Young Collector then bought several bottles and laid them down. When we drank that wine fifteen years later, it had developed elegance and beauty. A great little wine.
Copyright © 2008 by Alice Feiring
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