by Natalie MacLean
I remember the night I tasted my first good wine. My future husband, Andrew, and I had just graduated from university and were enjoying our “wealth” relative to our student days. We dined out a lot and our favorite place was a small Italian restaurant around the corner from our apartment in Toronto.
The first time we went there, the owner, a tall, burly man with fierce dark eyes, asked us if we’d like to try the brunello. We thought at first it was a regional dish, but it turned out to be a red wine from central Italy. We were relieved not to have to tackle the wine list: neither of us knew much more about wine than which fluffy animals on the label we liked best.
When the owner opened the bottle tableside, the pop of the cork seemed to pierce something inside me and relieve a little pressure. He poured the brunello, a rich robe of mahogany, into two tumblers with none of the pretentious sniffing and approval ceremony. “Chimó!” he said, and bustled off.
As I raised the glass to my lips, I stopped. The aroma of the wine rushed out to meet me, and all the smells that I had ever known fell away. I didn’t know how to describe it, but I knew how it made me feel.
I moistened my lips with the wine and drank it slowly, letting it coat my tongue and slide from one side of my mouth to the other. The brunello trickled down my throat and out along a thousand fault lines through my body, dissolving them.
My second glass tasted like a sigh at the end of a long day: a gathering in, and a letting go. I felt the fingers of alcoholic warmth relax the muscles at the back of my jaw and curl under my ears. The wine flushed warmth up into my cheeks, down through my shoulders, and across my thighs. My mind was as calm as a black ocean. The wine gently stirred the silt of memories on the bottom, helping me recall childhood moments of wordless abandon.
Andrew’s eyes had softened and we talked with the wonder of unexpected abundance about our lives together, our career goals, our hope for a family. The pasta seemed unnecessary next to this wonderful wine. To paraphrase Robert Frost, our conversation glided on its own melting, as we moved from delight to wisdom. By the time we were on our second bottle, I started to feel so flammable that I wondered if I were violating the building’s fire code.
When we finally got up to leave, we realized that the restaurant was empty. We said good-night to the owner and he slapped Andrew on the back as if he were choking on a bread stick. That was the first of many happy evenings there, and we drank that brunello for a year. A pilot light had been ignited inside me; over time it would grow into the flames of full-blown passion.
Today, I joke that I started drinking seriously when I met Andrew. (Andrew is good-natured about this because there’s still some upside to having a wine writer for a wife.) However, my earliest experiences with wine should have driven me into the frothy embrace of beer forever. Growing up in Nova Scotia in the 1970s and ’80s, I’d be given one undrinkable glass of wine to toast the New Year, and another at Easter – usually from the same box. During the rest of the year, my Scottish family knocked back beer and whisky.
My teen drinking began and ended at the same high school dance, behind the utility shed where all the illicit activities took place: I chugged half a bottle of syrupy sparkling wine. Not only did it taste wretched, but it also made me spend the next day in the vise grip of a searing, sugar-withdrawal headache. After this, there were family celebrations. At a cousin’s wedding, I drank their homemade wine: Tanya and Ronny’s True Love Forever Chablis. I hoped the marriage would age better than the wine.
In the years that have passed since we discovered that brunello, the taste of wine has helped me store many memories. I remember one particular bottle because of the weather. Andrew and I were snug inside a rented cabin as rain battered the roof, dripped down the chimney, and hissed on the fire. Thunder rolled overhead as the windows rattled. The wind whipped across the lake in angry gusts, as if hurling itself at our cabin. The smoky aromas of that Rhône Valley syrah wrapped around my head and filled my body. The storm outside made the calm pleasure of the wine deeper, more sensual. As long as my glass was full, I wanted it to rage for years. Even when I’m drinking alone, my mind will still clink with past toasts, glasses drained, fond farewells. Some wines will always taste like a lost argument or a long embrace. I think many of us have a secret cellar in our minds where we collect our empty bottles filled with memories.
As I developed a taste for wine, I wanted to find words to describe the way it lightened and lifted me. I had long admired the way Colette, Dorothy Parker, and M. F. K. Fisher wrote about food and drink. They fused mind and body with their narratives, and I reread my favorite passages until I was drunk on their prose.
While Andrew and I were still in the bloom of childless romance, we decided to take an evening course: wine appreciation. Drinking at night was something we could handle after a long day’s work, and perhaps I’d even learn how to describe those feelings. That course opened our eyes to the diversity of wine: all the wine-producing countries, the subregions, appellations, quality designations, and the thousands of wineries – some of which are centuries old. There are hundreds of grapes, blends, styles, and winemaking methods to learn about, not to mention the chemistry of aging wine, the art of matching it with food, and the history of its role in civilization. In fact, at first our eyes were wide open in fear – the range of the subject seemed so daunting. How would we ever master even a small part of it?
Natalie MacLean is the author of Red, White, and Drunk All Over, from which this essay is excerpted. (Natalie MacLean Copyright © 2009). Natalie was named the World’s Best Drink Writer for the articles and wine picks in her free wine newsletter available at www.nataliemaclean.com.