|The Young HoseMaster with Karen, 1975|
On special occasions, I used to take my college girlfriend Karen to Hungry Tiger for dinner. (Are there Hungry Tigers still? Aside from those in Detroit? Are there Victoria Stations? Those chain restaurants seemed special when I was in my 20’s.) In those days, it seemed every restaurant in Los Angeles had the same wines on their wine lists: Mateus, Lancer’s, Wente Bros. Blanc de Blancs, Charles Krug Chenin Blanc, Mouton-Cadet, Weibel Green Hungarian, Blue Nun, Soave Bolla and Valpolicella and, for house wine, Inglenook Chablis. But it was at the Hungry Tiger that I discovered a much finer wine list, and Karen and I often ordered the Callaway Chenin Blanc—a boutique wine from the up-and-coming region of Temecula. We were connoisseurs.
Today is my 62nd birthday. Does anyone ever believe they’ll live to 62? Not at the Hungry Tiger in 1974 I didn’t. But it wasn’t even on my mind. Karen was on my mind. I was crazy in love for the second time in my life, and, little did I know, I was also falling in love with wine. I haven’t seen Karen in more than 30 years, but I’m still happily married to wine. We have no children.
I am often asked how I first “got into” wine. “Got into” is an ugly phrase, but it’s the phrase that seems to always be part of the question, a very poorly turned phrase that is tiresome but ubiquitous in our inarticulate society. I always think one should ask, “How did you and wine meet?” One doesn’t ask, “So how did you get into your wife?” There might be a good story, but it’s rude.
My parents didn’t drink. I never saw my father drink any alcoholic beverage. My mother only rarely drank. This may be hard to believe, but I never drank alcohol until my 21st birthday. I tasted a beer once—I think my wayward cousin Allen let me taste his beer when I was about 12—but other than that, all through high school and college, I didn’t drink. I was working in a restaurant when I turned 21, and after my shift that night, everyone bought me drinks. I was a waiter, and at that steakhouse, the waiters wore rugby shirts. Very trendy back then, though I’m not sure I knew rugby was even a sport.
I got insanely drunk. I don’t remember much of that evening, except I was the center of attention for several sexy cocktail waitresses I wanted, in my imagination, to bed (I had no chance, but their flirting with me on my birthday was important to me and my fragile ego), and I just kept drinking what they put in front of me.
I woke up on October 14th, 1973, magically, in my own bed. I was naked and alone, with no idea how I’d made it home. I knew I hadn’t driven—someone had wisely taken my car keys early in the evening. My clothes were neatly folded on a chair. I had had about as much chance of folding my clothes neatly as a monkey has of passing the MW exam. Only happened once. I think he works for Diageo.
Obviously, I’d never had a hangover. Yet I knew exactly what one was, as though humans are genetically predisposed to recognize a hangover like they instantly recognize a snake as dangerous. I got out of bed and puked. In that order, luckily. Then I grabbed my work rugby shirt, folded so nicely on the chair, and put it on.
I was wearing a dress. I looked like the ugliest transvestite in the world, if you don’t count Jean-Charles Boisset. My rugby shirt was suddenly five sizes too big. I thought that maybe all that alcohol the night before had caused me to shrink, like Alice in Wonderland eating part of a mushroom. I had no idea what was going on, waking up naked and losing four inches of height in the same morning, but I was too hungover to care.
That is how alcohol and I met. I ended up naked and a transvestite. If that isn’t love at first sip, what is? I later found out that my friend Pete had, at one point late in the evening, dumped a screwdriver over my head, soaking my rugby shirt in orange juice and vodka. One of the other waiters, a football player, a guy about twice my size, had an extra rugby shirt in his car, which he kindly loaned me so I would be dry. One of the sexy cocktail waitresses, Kristy, a genuinely beautiful woman, had driven me home and undressed me. It sucks when your fantasy comes true and you’re not even there. Though Kristy kindly, and dishonestly, did tell lots of women I had a cute butt.
I’ve never really been much of a hard alcohol drinker. At 62, I have even more trouble with hard alcohol, or hard of any kind. Alcohol and I were love at first sight, but wine and I grew together slowly, almost invisibly, as the great relationships always do. But how we first met, I cannot honestly recall.
It seems as if wine has always been a big part of my life, that there was never a time I knew almost nothing about it. But, reflecting on it here on my self-indulgent birthday, I can recall the first time I had 1974 Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon, the Estate Bottled. I can recall the first Ridge Geyserville I tasted. I signed up for Ridge’s wine club. This was in 1976, I think. I’m still in their wine club almost 40 years later. Interesting that Ridge Geyserville is still one of California’s great wines, while Caymus has become a sad parody of itself, the Jerry Lewis of wine—all slick and bloated. I can remember my first taste of ’74 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard, given to me by a sommelier at a restaurant where I worked. I’d never had wines like these before. And I only lived a few hundred miles from where they were grown. I was smitten. Wine had driven me home, removed my clothes, and taken me to bed.
We spend our youth passionately pursuing hobbies that we think we’ll never tire of—skateboarding, slot cars, surfing, shoplifting. So I always believed I’d eventually grow weary of learning about wine. Even when I was a sommelier, I believed that. Maybe I still believe it. I am certainly weary of the wine business. But I’m more in love with wine now than I ever was. I can’t wait for wine to get home at night. I think about wine, study wine, try to impress wine. I wish I were more like wine. I adore wine. And aren’t those the signs of a healthy romance?
Wine, for me, isn’t just linked to memory, it’s actually most of my memory. Were it not for wine, nearly every significant person in my life never would have entered my life. I doubt accountants say the same thing about keeping books. I’m trying to think of a significant memory in my life after about the age of 25 that isn’t somehow linked to wine, and I can’t think of one. Even the tragic ones are linked, somehow, to wine. When wine and I met, wine became a significant and immutable fixture in my life. And I am deeply in love.
Wine, what would I do without you?
I’ve spent a lot of energy on HoseMaster of Wine™ the past five years mocking, parodying, flaying, insulting, and satirizing anyone and everyone that has much to do with wine. I feel some need to protect wine from all the buffoons, pretenders and wannabes that she has also seduced. And they are legion. It’s a foolish, Quixotean, pursuit, but it brings me an odd kind of satisfaction. Maybe all of us think our relationship to wine is the most intimate one she has, that we know her better than anyone else. So while we want everyone else to understand how remarkable she is, to honor wine and treasure wine, we also want it known that we understand her so much better than anyone else can imagine. It’s simple and foolish pride.
Birthdays seem more precious to me now, though less cause for celebration. Wine has given me an interesting and wonderful life. And I am deeply grateful. I’m also grateful for all the kindness and generosity and love I’ve received from so many of the people who read HoseMaster of Wine™. Thank you for allowing me this silly little reminiscence today. I know you come here to laugh, or to be angry, or outraged, but it’s my birthday, I get to do what I want.
I’m sure I’ll drink something old and rare tonight in the company of my brilliant and beautiful wife and a dear friend. I’ll think about all the people I’ve loved who wine brought into my life, some who wouldn't live to see 62. I’ll wonder how many more birthdays I’ll see, like people who seek answers and reassurance for how long they should keep a bottle of wine, “How long do you think it will age?”
“No one knows,” is the answer.