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A Fool for Wine

One critic's journey from indifference to devotion

September 19, 1996|MATT KRAMER

The love of my professional life is wine--but it was not at first sip. Quite the opposite: It began as an arranged marriage. Love came later. I can say this now, having given wine 20 years of devotion, fidelity and nearly all of my discretionary income.

When we first met, wine seemed snobbish, complicated and too much of a bother. I was no more interested in getting involved with wine than I was in learning Sanskrit. What I was interested in was food. I was enthralled by cooking. (To this day, I do all the cooking; for two decades my wife has never made a meal.) I became a food writer. And that's when wine got me--or rather, got to me.

The angels did not sing. Instead, a publisher barked. "What do you know about wine?" he demanded as I walked into his office after returning from a three-month cycling trip through Europe. I was to begin my professional life as a food writer and restaurant reviewer, which was then my heart's delight and consuming--in every sense--ambition.

"I don't know anything about wine," I replied honestly. "It comes in red, white and pink and that's all I know." Sure, wine had class, but it also had what struck me, anyway, as an unsavory class consciousness. People--no, let me be precise, men--seemed to use wine as a weapon. All that James Bond business about vintages, all those names, all that nonsense about which wine went with which dish. No thanks.

The publisher, however, had no such qualms. Advertisers liked the idea of a wine column. I was to write it. I repeated my protest: "I don't know anything about wine." "That's all right," replied the publisher. "Neither does anybody else."

I started drinking wine the day I started writing about it. Oh, sure, I drank the usual French vin ordinaire after a hard day's cycling. But I honestly don't think I had pulled a cork from a bottle until the day I was shoved into wine writing. (The cheap French stuff had--still does--a deep-dimpled plastic cap that fits snugly in the top of the bottle. You just pull it off.)

I don't know when passion crept in. You'd think that it would have been inevitable. But that's not so. Strange as it sounds, wine could just as easily have become a job. I know fellow wine writers whose feeling for wine is no greater than what a bus driver might have for his vehicle.

Yet wine ignited, and continues to fuel, something that makes me more passionate about it now than ever. It's not just this bottle or that one fueling the excitement. It's not about vintages, snobbery or the age of the wine. Rather, it's what the world's best wines tell us, generation after generation, about particular spots on the planet.

I've drunk many of the fabled wines and vintages that plump the pages of wine books and magazines everywhere. But once you've had your 1921 Chateau d'Yquem or '47 Cheval Blanc or '55 Leroy Chambertin, it soon becomes a case of been there, done that. All gunslingers grow weary.

Wine captured me because of its originality. The more you taste wine, live with it, think about it, the more you realize that, as the French novelist Jean Giono observed, "The world is filled with so many sorts of tenderness. To understand them . . . one must yield to them."

Although it's unfashionable to say so in these relativist, deconstructionist times, there are eternal truths. Wine offers us a vehicle for discovering some of them. This may seem highfalutin', and I apologize for that. But it deserves to be said.

I probably fell in love with wine in 1978, on my second trip to Burgundy. I remember my cynical disbelief about Burgundy's many vineyard delineations. Here's a place where they grow, effectively, just two grape varieties: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. In a narrow, 32-mile strip of land, the Co^te d'Or, generations of winegrowers have drawn boundaries to create thousands of named vineyards.

I was certain those wily French were pulling a fast one. How much difference could there be between two Pinot Noirs from contiguous vineyards made the same way, by the same producer, in the same vintage? I wasn't going to let myself get suckered.

I got worse than that. The French, as always, have a phrase for it: coup de foudre. It's a resounding thunderclap of emotion that sweeps all reason aside. Our phrase "love at first sight" doesn't quite capture the tsunami effect involved.

I simply couldn't believe what I was tasting. Each Burgundy grower patiently explained that, "No monsieur, my wines are not made differently. They are made the same way. No monsieur, I didn't add anything to the wine." (The impudence of such a question!) They were kind. And amused. But they saw then what I see now: A young American bowled over by an age-old truth. They even had a word for what thrilled me: terroir.

Terroir is everything that affects a vineyard: soil, subsoil, air and water drainage, exposure, ground temperature and more that we have yet to divine. Somehow, the grape captures and conveys this.

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