I call myself a “Wine Evangelist.” Most who spend time around me would agree with that moniker, as I merrily move through life aiming to convert as many as possible to the gospel of the grape. I admit I am a zealot, one who loves to speak of nothing other than wine.
My role as self-appointed Wine Evangelist is simple. I live to teach about wine as art and as an expression of passion. Within each bottle I revel in the nuance and flair created by both vineyard and winemaker. Before we get too deep here, not all good wine is expensive and not all expensive wines are good. Yes, there are wines that should be admired as art and others that are made to enhance your backyard BBQ party. The key word here is, enhance. Nothing in my opinion elevates food, friends and family like wine. Wine just makes life better.
Recently, I attended a reception luncheon hosted by an Argentinean winery and winemaker at a popular downtown Denver restaurant. The eight people sitting around our table were equally divided between 30-somethings and 50-somethings. The question came up: why wine? The younger wine enthusiasts all had a similar story to tell which included the fact that they had been exposed to good if not great wine during their formative years and wine had always been a part of their life experience.
The other four also had similar experiences but they were different from the 30-somethings. Only one of the mature guests was raised around wine and he, of Italian decent, had been raised on cheap Italian jug wine. Since my experience was not uncommon for my generation, I’ll share with you the unlikely conversion of a wine evangelist.
Wine enthusiasts today are as common as wine corks. Now wine related television shows abound, offering wine instruction and travelogues extolling wine country vacations and lifestyle. Wine bars are hip and trendy places to be seen. But it wasn’t that way 30 years ago, not for us 50-somethings. Perhaps on the east coast or California, wine was more common place. In Texas, my home state, we chugged Lone Star Beer with our football. Surely San Antonio was an unlikely birthplace for this wine evangelist.
During the leisure suit days of the 1970’s, fine wines in San Antonio were European, foreign and relegated to our local PBS station. Graham Kerr, the “Galloping Gourmet,” would often toss a splash or three of wine into his obscenely rich culinary concoctions. With a gracious, “I-know-something-you-don’t-know” smile, Graham would expound on the virtues of wine. The best part of the show often came at the end. An attractive female audience member would be chosen to share Graham’s sumptuous dish, sitting with him at a small bistro table, complete with tablecloth and blooming centerpiece.
In those days there was no chef’s wear similar to the celebrity chef’s garb of today. In fact, male television chefs were rare. Graham prepared each meal dressed in a suit and tie, adding a thick dose of elegance and often bawdy humor; by 1970’s standards (his preparation of the British dish, Spotted Dick, is a classic). He would take the young lady by the hand, escort her to their private table and offer her a glass of wine. Obviously impressed by his savior faire, she would smile and giggle, as they sat together enjoying the result of the day’s show. The Galloping Gourmet, made cooking cool and, more importantly for me, offered wine as the secret to romantic success.
Growing up, wine or what passed for wine rarely appeared at our dinner table. My father didn’t drink. No ethical issues for him, he just didn’t like the taste. Mom on the other hand, would indulge in what she called “Champagne.” In fact it was André Cold Duck. “What’s a celebration without André to add sparkle and elegance?” the television commercials sang out during the holidays. Cold Duck, which is still available today for about $5 a bottle, is a disgustingly sweet fruity sparkler that devilishly deceived me into believing I hated wine and sparkling wine all together. Occasionally a jug of Gallo Hearty Burgundy found its way to the kitchen and by André’s standards, it wasn’t bad. The jug, complete with a glass finger hole at the top, never sat around long as the wine was poured into a punch bowl full of oranges, lemons, limes and more as the base for the Texas equivalent of a wine cooler: Sangria wine. The wine punch became a staple at most Texas backyard parties after it was immortalized by Texan Jerry Jeff Walker’s hit song by the same name. Mom’s “Champagne” and Sangria (it was tasty) were surely nothing like the drinks my galloping mentor had so eloquently described, I thought. Somewhere in the recesses of my gray matter, I knew there had to be something more to this thing called wine.
This was 1970’s Texas, so you may be wondering about beer. Yes, beer was and still is the “national drink” of Texas. In many homes it was consumed like flavored water, though not in mine. My high school runnnin’ buddies with their pickup trucks drank lots of beer and of course, I joined in. Sure a cold beer tasted good after a day of mowing lawns, swatting yellow jackets, and having the neighborhood grannies point out the two inch spot of grass you missed. Other than at sweaty moments like those, beer then and still today has never moved me.
Another 1970’s impediment to my potential development as a wine evangelist or as some say, wine geek, was the plethora of tragically hip wines made popular by catchy television jingles. Who can forgot those classics like “Riunite on ice…Tastes nice” or “Lancer’s the wine you know…Because you never know.” And of course there were, Carlos Rossi, Gallo Hearty Burgundy, and Ripple on ice, “a light wine that goes with people who set the pace!”
Many were advertised as premium import or European wines, most intended to be served over ice. Blatantly geared to the female market, these wines also tried to appeal to men, who wanted to impress the female market. More importantly, the people in the ads appeared far too stylish, well-groomed and sophisticated, unlike my Texas friends. So what self-respecting Texas kid would be caught dead drinking Riunite on ice? Not this strapping Texan.
My father’s father, Luther, was the son of a Methodist minister and a circuit-riding minister at that. The pastor would ride his faithful horse under the south Texas sun from town to town spreading the good word. Luther, in contrast, had no problem imbibing his beloved Johnnie Walker Red. It was at Luther’s knee that I learned how to properly drink. “If you drink for the buzz,” he would say, “you’re missing the point. Drink what you like because you like it and for no other reason.” Though most evenings Luther religiously toted his tumbler of Johnnie Walker Red around the house, I never once saw him appear the least bit intoxicated. On an upper shelf of my bookcase still sits his last bottle, from which we shared a drink shortly before his passing.
By then, I was barely legal drinking age (18) and on my first date with a girl on whom I had a deep crush. I was out to impress. Dinner was planned at the coolest of fern bars, Reed’s Red Derby. Fern bars back then were so named because of their propensity to have large potted ferns hanging from the rafters. It was the natural look for a rather unnatural time. Dressed in my leisure suit pants and polyester Salvador Dali print shirt, I fit right in. We sat at a very unromantic table in the middle of hustle and bustle, all the romantic bistro tables complete with tablecloths and flowers were taken. The waiter came to our table and asked what we’d like to drink. I called on my inner Galloping Gourmet and knew the perfect move, “Wine List, please,” I said. How utterly impressive.
The wine list arrived on both sides of a small placard offering four reds, four whites and three rosés, including both Lancer’s and Riunite. I looked around knowing I needed to order with confidence but having no idea what to choose other than to stay clear of the aforementioned wines. Then I saw it, the wine that would ultimately become my gateway drug into the wine world, Mateus, in its very chic, squatty European style bottle. “Mateus Rosé,” I requested with conviction. Heck it was wine, it was from Europe, the bottle was cool and, “Every sip was like a trip, to old Portugal.” How could I lose? Graham Kerr would have been proud.
The food was good and the date was great. I still miss Reed’s signature chicken-fried mushrooms with artery-clogging white cream pepper gravy. The French onion soup, with the slab of gooey rich white cheese as thick as your palm, was to die for. What happened to the girl, you ask? The date actually went so well that I still drink wine with her nearly every night. So, thanks to the Galloping Gourmet. He helped me to look good, in spite of myself.
Not long after my growing fascination with cheap European wines began to take hold, the family came together at my grandparents’ home for a Christmas Eve celebration. I was in college, living 90 miles away in Austin, which later would play an integral part in my wine education. Luther, who had just returned from Europe, had unbeknownst to me become something of a vinofile, though wine never replaced Johnnie Walker Red as his daily relaxer. Grandfather Luther called me over to the bar that separated the kitchen and den asking me to help with uncorking and pouring the Champagne. With distasteful memories of Andre’ Cold Duck filling my mouth, I remember thinking “Uggh, I hate Champagne,” But Luther was adamant that I learn to properly remove a Champagne cork and I did, without explosive incident. As we poured, Luther offered me a stem. I declined saying that I didn’t care for Champagne. Luther’s response in his deep Texas drawl, “Son, that’s because you’ve only had that crap your mother buys.” I laughed so hard the bubbles escaped the glass, cascading across my hand onto the floor – a sparkling baptism, of sorts.
Luther’s insightfulness was spot-on. He was pouring Moët White Star and the taste was like nothing I had ever experienced, dry, crisp, a little yeasty and sparkling across my tongue. By God, I loved Champagne. Later, we began to chat about my budding interest in wines and his trip to Europe. That’s when it hit me: one of two seminal wine experiences that would set me on the unlikely path to wine evangelism. Most of us experience a few influential moments in our lives when we knew things would never be the same. Sometimes, those are unhappy moments, but hopefully a few might be incredibly good. One of those incredibly good moments began for me when Luther asked, “Have you ever had a Bordeaux?” Later that weekend, I had the rare treat to spend a few hours alone with my grandfather and drink a Bordeaux blend that would hook me forever on fine wine.
Mateus, it turned out, was the gateway drug; red Bordeaux was the addictive drug and perhaps my grandfather, the son of a circuit riding minister, was the first wine evangelist in the family. My conversion was only beginning.