The Road Less Taveled

My exposure to wine was largely non-existent prior to 1996 or so. White Zinfandel, I’ll admit, was about the only wine I distinctly recall drinking. I suppose I just wasn’t a “wine” person. Yet.

At 28, I met my girlfriend “Gigi” who had been a chef at several noteworthy places in San Francisco. During the 2 years we were together, she taught me more about food than I had any right to know without the same rigorous training she had endured. While teaching me how food "works", she also unwittingly ingrained the notion that food and wine are inseparable.

Years later, I got to experiment with that combination of food and wine as I traveled on a robust expense account. Part of my job to travel and take potential "influencers" out for a good meal. Hey, someone had to do it. However, as I've learned from Jeffrey Steingarten, we must sometimes "unlearn" before we learn. One must overcome prejudices in order to appreciate food, travel, or even other human beings for that matter.

It was at a now-defunct restaurant in New York called JUdson Grill (capitalization is theirs) that I took on one of my primary wine prejudices. On an otherwise uneventful chilly Autumn evening, I arrived without a reservation. I was seated in a corner away from the few business people who were squawking about some sales goal. I had been leisurely strolling through the wine list when a woman with curly dark hair, designer glasses, and diminutive tone strolled to my table. She was JUdson's sommelier in what was (and largely still is) a largely male-dominated role. Her approach was perfect; making herself a willing and valuable resource while also being open to letting the diner choose a wine themselves with her guidance. She clasped her hands together in front of her, and asked if I had any questions about the list.

I did. Well, not so much a question as a prejudice and one I knew I needed to overcome before I could be a serious wine connoisseur. I closed the list with just a bit of an extra "snap", set it aside, leaned toward her, and said “I need you to help me get over my fear of ‘pink’ wine.”

Declaring my desire to make peace with the lighter of the reds and the darker of the whites, her formality gave way to genuine excitement; her true passion for wine shining through. The following transformation was remarkable. She smiled broadly as she stepped away from the table clearly calculating a strategy in her head. She returned with three glasses and three bottles, and gave me a taste from each.

I became a fan.

It's important to realize that sommeliers welcome any chance to educate, inspire, and enlighten. Simply delivering a bottle of wine - "Silver Oak Cab" or "Sonoma Curtrer Chardonnay" means their only challenge is retrieving the right bottle while resisting or having failed the urge to steer diners toward far more interesting wines. Being given the opportunity to educate is much more interesting.

The aversion to rosé wines seems specific to my generation and to this country. There is much to be discovered in that wine which is not quite white and not quite red. “Pink” wine has been the subject of much ridicule in the U.S. because of one infamous way of processing an otherwise beautiful grape - white zinfandel. While "blush", "rosé", or just plain "pink" wines have always existed elsewhere, their appreciation here has been tainted by this commercialized approach and has left a bit of a bad taste in the minds, as well as the palates, of Americans.

So why is "white zin" so prevalent? Let’s face it, it’s cheap, and it’s a great “starter wine” (the equivalent of training wheels for the general flavor of wine). I grew up eating black olives out of a can having, of course, placed one on each of my fingers first, but I have since taken a liking to the artisan-grade olives in all their various forms and colors. Tasting the canned versions now is quite a shock, but my initial appreciation of them early eventually led to my enjoyment of the "finer" versions now.

While "white zin" can at least introduce folks to wine, I'd argue that it is an introductory taste upon which quality and depth can only be added. If they don't take the training wheels off and move on, it's a tremendous loss.

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