Your first excellent wine

As I sit here in my cabin on the CAP Capricorn steaming through the middle of the Philippines on my way to Australia, I am writing this and drinking a bottle of fairly poor red wine. And looking forward to many weeks of excellent wine drinking upcoming in Australia and New Zealand. (Turned out that the wines were great, but some of the tasting notes were just funny.)

Many of my friends and family back home have asked what I missed most in the year that I’ve been traveling. Frankly, the list is fairly short. I am a sports fan in the traditional fan sense, which means fanatic, so I certainly miss watching my teams play, especially since it appears that my beloved Texas Longhorns are going to play for the National Championship in (American) football in a few weeks. The game is going to be at the Rose Bowl. I went to the last National Championship game that Texas played in that very stadium a few years back. I sat in the end zone that Vince Young scored the winning touchdown, in what is quite likely to be the best football game I will ever see in my entire lifetime. If I was back home, I’d be back in Southern California rooting my team on at the Rose Bowl again. I am going to miss being at that game.

The two things that are currently foremost in my mind on my ‘miss list’ are two of my larger remaining vices after a long life of vice, good wine and a reasonably priced cigar. There have been a few countries that I’ve traveled through that have been able to fulfill my wine requirement: Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Hungary, and Germany. Unfortunately, there have also been large swaths of my trip where a good wine, like a good woman as the saying goes, is hard to find. Actually now that I think about it, I think the saying might be “a good man is hard to find.” Regardless, wine is an even tougher quest in most of the backpacker world.

The problem with finding cigars on the road is that it is very difficult to find anything but a Cuban cigar, and finding those is really only possible in major cities after asking dozens of people where a cigar store can be found. Cubans have the well deserved reputation of being the best cigars in the world. My personal all-time favorite cigar is a Montecristo #2. The issue with Cubans is simple: cost. They are way, way expensive. They are the best, but they simply aren’t worth the money. In Hong Kong, I smoked a nice Montecristo #2 in the Pacific Cigar Club (thank you very much for the invite Marc), bought his husband a Cohiba, and bought three Montecristo #4s for the boat ride and it set me back just under $100.

Now I love a good cigar as much as the next addict, but since I’ve yet to win the lottery, get a screenplay or book sold, or settled a good class action case, that’s a bit much to be spending. Back home, I smoke a good, solid Nicaraguan cigar: Padron. A box of 26 runs me about $120 or so. Given that I was on about a two cigar a day habit right before the trip, that is a much more doable budgetary item than buying Cubans, but it is almost impossible to find non-Cuban, and therefore reasonably priced, cigars out here.

A good bottle of wine is much easier to find than a good cigar and like I said, I simply cannot wait for Australia and New Zealand for that reason, among a few others. What prompted this particular meandering blog was my taking a sip of the wine that I’m subjected to on this voyage and having a flashback to the bottle of wine that turned me in a wine lover. My first truly sublime bottle of wine.

I have liked wine from close to the beginning of my drinking days. As most do with wine, I started with sweeter white wines, moved to drier white wines and finally made it around to red wines. That is where I happily reside now. So happily, in fact, that I am quite likely to eventually be the person at the AA meeting that stands up and says, “Hi, my name is Michael and I’m an alcoholic. . . but I’m just not going to be able to give up the reds.” I can easily imagine giving up beer, gin and bourbon, but a really rich, big, energetic, properly aged red wine? I simply don’t think I’m strong enough to say no.

In college, my very good friend, Doug, and I took some wine classes. As I recall, we ended up taking three or four of them. They were continuing adult education classes at the University of Texas that took place in the evenings, on campus, but taught by local wine distributors. Twenty years later, I can still recall two eye opening wines I had in the course of those classes: a Penfolds Grand Hermitage and my first Sauternes.

The Penfolds was my first massive wine. Big, muscular, and highly tannic. You took a small sip and it assaulted you. The flavors were so large. It is simply a big, big wine and one that needs to be cellared for a decade, at least, before it is truly drinkable. I remember our teacher opening it up and telling me that I would really enjoy it, because I’d shown a preference towards big, powerful wines in the preceding classes. He was right. It wasn’t ready to drink – it was far too tannic and the wine needed years to mellow out and let those flavors blend – but it was so easy to image what that wine was going to taste like when it grew up and matured.

Maturity is not an overrated quality in wines, politicians, dating partners or barbers.

Sauternes is a wine region in France and also a type of wine. It’s a white, desert wine. He explained that to us before he poured it and I said that I didn’t like sweet wines anymore (which is even more true now), but he told me to give it a try anyway. “It’s a desert wine, but it is not simply a sugary, sweet wine. It has more fruit flavor that you’ll ever taste in any other varietal.” I tried it. I loved it. Every wine lover that I’ve introduced it to (even if they also hate sweet wines) has agreed with my assessment.

It is the nectar of the Gods.

I was in Maine on time on a road trip with my brother and his then-girlfriend a few years ago. In Bar Harbor, we had dinner at a Cuban restaurant. After dinner I wanted an after dinner drink and asked for the drink menu. They had Château Y’Quem.

A brief explanation. There are five Premier Cru wineries in Bordeaux, France as determined by a centuries-old grading and rating process. Bordeaux rating system link If you like wine a bit, you have heard of these wineries: Lafite Rothschild, Margaux, Latour, Haut-Brion, and Mouton-Rothschild. All of them got their Grand Cru designation by making incredibly good, big, red wines that can be kept for decades and decades.

Château Y’Quem is the exception. They got the highest possible designation for wine making in Bordeaux, by producing a desert wine. They are the only Premier Cru Superieur wine – the only one. A bottle of a recent vintage will run you $400-500 or so. At this restaurant, they were offering an ounce for $60. An ounce, not a glass (which is about a four ounce pour). It wasn’t even a decision. It had to be done.

My brother is not a huge wine fan and he thought I was an idiot for paying that much for a few sips of wine. Then he tasted it. He wanted to save most of it for me, so he just took a small bit into his mouth. I’d told him to let it roll around his mouth for a bit, so he could taste all the different flavors. Then I saw the smile start on his face. His eyes closed for a brief second. He swallowed it, still smiling, and a wine conversion was in his eyes.

“Yea. Wow. Apricots. Apples. Cherries. You think Tangerines?”
“I think so. Did you get green apples or red?”
“Both. Is that weird?”
“No. It is the nectar of the Gods.”
“Brother man, can’t argue with ‘ya.”

All this being said, none of those wines was the one that I recall as my first truly sublime bottle of wine. After college, I moved to Washington D.C. and worked on Capitol Hill for about four years. My father had business in the area, so he would fly up every few months and we would go to dinner. One night, he had a small group of business partners to dinner and took them and me to the Georgetown Club. The Georgetown Club is a private dining club that is housed in four adjacent buildings, now connected. Two of the buildings used to be bordellos back in the day. It is a unique dining experience.

When you arrive, you are escorted to one of the many seating areas somewhere on the ground floor of one of the buildings. You sit down on one of the couches or chairs and your waiter comes up and takes your initial drink order. After bringing those drinks back, the waiter then verbally goes over the menu for the evening and asks for your selections. Your group then comfortably enjoys a few drinks in your personal living room until your food is ready. Then, the waiter escorts you to one of the private dinning rooms, where your initial course is already plated and ready for you.

I miss the Georgetown Club. Maybe I just miss the memory after so many years, but the concept is so comfortably civilized.

In any case, on this evening, our group was about ten people or so, and our dining room was one of the wine cellars. The waiter seated us and then asked if we’d like to order some wine with dinner. One of my father’s friends said he knew I was a wine fan, so I should order for the table. The waiter handed me a huge wine menu and told me he would be back in a few minutes for my selection.

The menu must have been fifty pages long. There were hundreds of wines organized by type, grape and region. I flipped quickly through to ascertain my general options and then came to a section in the back titled “Reserve Selections.” Now we were talking.

One of the reasons, as a wine lover, that I love the Georgetown Club concept is that it is a private club. Members pay an annual fee. I have no idea what that fee is, but I’m assuming it is fairly substantial, because one of the benefits of membership is that the prices one pays for wine are not ‘restaurant inflated.’ Every bottle of wine you buy at a normal restaurant is two or three times the price that you would pay for the same bottle retail, if you could find it. Wine is one of the highest profit margin items you can buy when eating out – ergo the push to buy a bottle when you eat most anywhere.

I looked at the reserve list and saw a number of names I recognized – Latour, Lafitte Rothschild, Opus One, Penfolds and so on. And these wines weren’t newborns. You could get wines bottled in the 50s, 60s or 70s. The prices for most were obviously out of the question — $400-$1000 – even without ‘restaurant inflation.’

With one exception. There was a 1974 Château Marguex listed for $140. I had done a little reading about wines at that point. As I recalled, 1974 wasn’t a ‘great’ year for wine. I couldn’t have cared less. This was a twenty-year old First Growth Bordeaux for under $150.

The waiter came back over and asked me if I’d made a selection. I asked him if they still had the Marguex and pointed to it on the menu. He said, “excellent choice sir. I believe we have two bottles left. Perhaps given the size of your party, I should bring both.”

“O’ yes, I think that you should.”

He came back a few minutes later with two bottles of wine cradled in his arms like infants. As he blew the dust off the first bottle to show me the label, my father finally started paying attention and said, “Michael, what the fuck have you done?!” I promised him that it was an incredible bargain. I might have even said I’d pay for the bottles myself if he thought they weren’t worth it. Frankly, I doubt it, but one of the glories about old memories is that you always look much better in posterity in the history of your life contained in the bookshelf of your mind.

I do know that I got clearance from him or whoever was paying for the tab, because the waiter opened the wine and poured me a small sample to taste. It was the first red wine that I’d ever tasted that was finished.

Finished, at least as I use the term, has a specific meaning. Most every red wine that you or I have ever had in your life could use some years in a wine cellar. Red wines, at least the good ones, mature over time. The harshness of the tannic acids eventually falls out. The flavor of the wine becomes more balanced. Instead of hitting you in the face, the wine will tickle your pallet. Tease you a bit. Muscle and energy becomes subtlety and nuance. There is an elegance to a finished wine that simply does not exist in youth, though youth does have it’s own attributes.

There is a great line from Alas, Babylon that I recall that goes something like this: “Breasts are for boys. Legs are for men.” Huge young, muscular, energetic young wines are the large breasts of the wine world. I’m a leg man myself.

This was my first finished wine. It was done. It was ready. There was no bitterness or acid at all. The flavors simply melted in your mouth. The various flavors of the grape were there, forward, but not obnoxious. This wine had grown and matured in its twenty years lying down. It was time. And I was a lucky recipient that evening of its gift.

The group had a wonderful dinner, enjoyed our two bottles of our ’74 Château Marguex (and a few others after that), and as I recall, no one complained about paying the tab. But I do remember that I wasn’t one of the ones throwing a credit card down. Youth does have some benefits.

I’m curious from any other wine fans out there. Do you remember any bottle of wine in particular?

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I’m an attorney that took off on my birthday in December of 2008 to circumnavigate the globe without ever getting on an airplane. After 16 months, 6 continents and 44 countries, I made it all the way back home. Right now, I am back on the road writing about it all. Read more by Michael Hodson and connect on Google Plus.

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