[She] had loved wine from childhood on. She loved the shapes of bottles, and of course the romantic names and the pictures of the pretty manor houses on the labels, and she loved the link with rivers and hillsides and climates and hot years, and the range of learning and experiment afforded by the wineâ™s infinite variety; but what she loved more than these was the taste â“ of peach and earth and honeysuckle and raspberries and spice and cedarwood and pebbles and truffles and tobacco leaf; and the happiness, the quiet ecstasy that spread through heart and limbs and mind. From A Compass Error: A Novel by Sybille Bedford (Copyright 1968, William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd, London)
This passage is up there with the best, describing a love for wine. Yet while I love wine, I am entirely unable to identify with this voice of a young girl, the seventeen-year-old Flavia, living in a villa in the south of France in the late 1930s. My appreciation developed much later in life whereas my early experience, which I suspect is true for most of us, was entirely prosaic.
Instead of beautiful bottle shapes with romantic names and pictures on the labels, the family wine was contained in a gallon jug with a screw cap. I remember that dark green jug, which always seemed to be the same one, sitting on a bottom plank of shelving in the garage right outside the kitchen door. My evening responsibility was to set the dinner table, and the setting always included two stemmed glasses where my father and mother sat along with the decanter that I placed near them and occasionally filled with red wine from the jug in the garage. The glasses were small, unlike those of today, and I donâ™t think they ever drank more than one with each meal, for good reason. The wine had to have been oxidized, given how long it took them to drink a gallon. Although the decanter was always present for each meal, I never once heard conversation about wine, never any talk of peach and earth and honeysuckle.
Nor did we live in wine country like Provence is still today. Santa Clara County, now known as Silicon Valley, was in the process of replacing its prune and apricot orchards with tracts of houses to provide shelter for a stream of Baby Boomers, born after the Second World War. I knew nothing of wineâ™s infinite variety or the learning and experiment that created it. What our gallon contained was wine in its most banal form, mass produced by some enormous company, probably Almaden which was headquartered in Santa Clara County out of sight at the southern end of the Valley.
As for the quiet ecstasy that spread through heart and limbs and mind, I knew nothing of that either. My father had occasionally offered tastes of wine to us children. His idea was that if we were acquainted with wine in our home, we wouldnâ™t need to experiment with it outside and put ourselves in danger. Even though he had been born in Italy and arrived in the U.S. when he was 15 years old, he seemed to have adopted the puritanical idea that wine was dangerous instead of delicious. So we were never interested enough to accept the taste.
In order to truly appreciate wine, some experience must first focus our attention on it. For me, growing up and seeing it on the nightly dinner table was not enough. For some, the focus might have begun during a visit to Europe after a server placed a carafe on the table unbidden. For others, a server closer to home may have made the initial introduction that became a lifetime enthusiasm. A friend may have started the conversation that compelled our attention. As vineyards spread across the U.S., more of us live in areas where day trips to wine country become possible. Whatever the catalyst, wine becomes one of lifeâ˜s pleasures, only if we pause to examine its facets as Flavia did in her youth.