05 July 2010

A Wine Self-Education

I recently had a week that involved e-mails back and forth wine winemakers and exporters in half a dozen countries. I had dinner with Lady A on a Thursday, then dinner with Laura and her friend on a Saturday. I'd never met Laura's friend before, and she asked me how I got into the whole wineblogging thing. I gave the 30 second canned answer, but as I was opening up my 15th bottle of wine for the week, I asked myself, "Well, how did I get here?" After thinking about it for a few days, I think I found the answer.

Stamp collecting.

I was never a serious stamp collector as a kid, but it was a neat hobby. Most of what I find enjoyable with wine is what I liked with stamps: foreign languages, geography, history, and this sense of wonder that I get to hold something in my hands from 6,000 miles away that's maybe older than I am. The significant difference, of course, is the social aspect. I've gotten a pretty good reputation for my dinner parties and wine pairings, while I think inviting folks over to look at my First Day of Issue Covers might not go as well.

The stamp collector can be a tragic figure: the loner who explores the world through little squares of paper but never leaves the house. The wine enthusiast has a much more positive public image, especially since the stereotype of the snob is diminishing.

Years back, I'd considered doing a guide for wine newbies, sort of a path to follow if you wanted to expand your palate and learn about wine. But I think Tyler did it better with his book on seasonal wine exploration. Instead, I'm going to offer up my own personal wine history for the sake of anyone that's curious. Is this the best path to take? No. Did it work for me? More so recently than early on. Am I happy with my wine self-education? Absolutely! It's been a blast, but it ain't over yet.

Early 1990s
High school years

I honestly don't remember the first wine I tasted, but I certainly remember the first name I began to associate with wine. Around 1990 or so, Dad started to get mixed cases every Christmas from V. Sattui. They made a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Riesling, a Chardonnay, a Gamay Rouge, a Merlot... Really a perfect mixed case from a great producer. Since this was the start of my high school years, I was doing a lot of cooking at home, and many of the recipes I was learning required a bit of wine. I was given the freedom to use wine as needed, and would usually take a sip from the measuring cup just to see what the flavors were like. I really appreciate my parents trusting me to experiment with wine in this regard, and at no point did I end up drunk and passed out on the kitchen floor. I was an Eagle Scout and did fine in school. I've always admired the European method of demystifying wine at home, rather than our American tradition of encouraging spectacular drunkenness on cheap hooch as soon as the kid moves out.

20 years old

Trip to Italy with the girlfriend at the time, got to enjoy wine during lunch, afternoon snack, dinner, and the inevitable post-dinner conversation in broken Italian with various innkeepers and restaurant owners. Breakfast was the only meal that didn't involve wine, because invariably you got a shot of liqueur in your espresso.

21 years old

After enduring the awkwardness of getting my older roommate to purchase wine for me (mostly cheap sweet Riesling), I spent the eve of my 21st birthday with my parents and Mike Whitfield at a combination cooking class/wine tasting/general party at Mantia's. It was the first time I ever tried a wine over 10 years old, the first time I tried a wine over $100, and the first time I ever saw treasured wines opened up for the sheer pleasure of sharing them with friends.

22-27 years old

These years saw a bit of a decline in wine interest. Because of the people I was working and hanging out with at the time, this was an era of beer and, in retrospect, really terrible cocktails. Zima and cranberry juice? Premixed margaritas? Yep. I'd grab the odd bottle of wine but it was more of a special occasion thing.

28 years old

I got invited to a dinner party hosted by longtime family friend and local wine expert, Mike Whitfield. I brought two absolutely undrinkable wines to the party, but nobody gave me a hard time. I got to try a lot of amazing wines with delicious food, and for the first time in my life I realized the glory of a multi-course dinner party with matching wines. I hosted my first later that year, and have done dozens more since then. More importantly, in 2004 I started attending wine tastings. I discovered that my local wine shop attached to Costco was having regular tastings, and it was a fun way to spend a Saturday afternoon. Try five wines, buy one that tasted good? Why not? Then I discovered the Great Wines tastings, and could sometimes double up on a Saturday. Faced with lots of tasting, I began to look for a digital solution to keep track of the notes...

29-30 years old

I started this blog in January of 2005, solely as a way to keep track of all the wines I was tasting, and I tasted a lot. During those two years, I attended every free or paid tasting I could find, and wrote about every single one. Even if I attended a party and someone broke out a horrible California Chardonnay that had spent years sitting on top of a radiator, I wrote about it. These were not great years for the readers, of which there were few, but around 2006 I started posting stories about dinner parties, or focused on a single wine for a post, and learned the value of quality over quantity.

What happened to my wine tastes in this era? I lost my interest in sweet wines, except for the occasional dessert wine or properly balanced Riesling. I discovered the joys of bitter, earthy, and citrusy flavors. I learned to appreciate the beauty of a good Bordeaux while at the same time learning the fun and value of a Prosecco. Since I had a strict policy of tasting everything, and almost never buying the same wine twice, I broadened my palate considerably during this period.

31-32 years old

This was a time of lots of business travel, and one in which I became interested in things like cocktails and cigars, discovering all sorts of new flavors. The blog became a lot more popular, people started calling me an expert (I'm still not quite comfortable with that title), and my wine writing began to really get noticed locally, nationally, and around the world. It was also during this time that I got to know Fredric personally and started to spend the odd afternoon at his place going through fascinating wines that wouldn't have otherwise crossed my path. I'd grown up reading his restaurant reviews and started to learn more about wine criticism rather than simple tasting. I call this a self-education because of its informal nature, but never underestimate the benefit of a mentor who will point out your error on Beaujolais classification.

Because I got noticed by the industry and began receiving samples on a regular basis, the choice of the wines I was tasting shifted out of my hands. The great thing about this phase is that it forces you out of your unconscious biases. Over time it's easy to get tunnel vision, where you skip entire sections and stick to what's familiar. Also, for the first time, I got to try three wines from the same producer in one setting, or eight wines from one region, or some other grouping. I started to pay more attention to terroir, to winemaker style, and to the impact of mergers and acquisitions.

I think the natural destination for a wine lover is that at some point you narrow your focus and specialize, often in one of the big regions: Napa, Burgundy, Bordeaux, etc. Or that it's best to purchase only whole cases of single wines for aging and collecting. Talking to people ten years ago, I figured that's where you were supposed to go. That at some point you have to put down the Cava and other childish things and stick to Champagne. But I don't see myself ever going there. When I collected stamps, I never focused on bird stamps or war stamps or any one subject. I wasn't concerned about profitability either, I just wanted interesting stamps from as many different places as possible. I see my wine tastes staying pretty much like that, getting ever more spread out as new regions pop up and older neglected regions get a new chance in the American market. I recently told a chef that my ideal wine list would look more like the phone directory at the UN rather than just a set of Cab Savs and Chard.

I get a little flack for that position, but any hobby without some arguments and friendly trash-talking is a boring one. And the way I keep it fresh and interesting is by hopping from grape to grape and country to country with the frequency of a cheap ham radio.

Enjoy your own path, wherever it leads you. Take notes, share the love, and have fun.


Allen said...

Great history, well written and thanks for all the information provided over years about wine and computers.

Kimberly said...

I so enjoyed reading about your journey, Benito! And I think you are so right on to treat the journey as just that -- you know, you don't reject, you discover. You remain open to where wine can take you. Good stuff! :)

Benito said...


Thanks as always for your tutelage in this area!


Glad you enjoyed it, and I look forward to hearing about your journey some day.


fredric koeppel said...

Benito, thank you for including me in your chronicle of wine education. it has been a pleasure being your friend and being part of that process. cheers!

Thomas said...

A fine path indeed, Benito.

My only nit to pick is the word "hobby."

Hobbies can, and often do, create stultifying obsessives, the antithesis of a real wine-loving person.

Benito said...


Always a pleasure tasting with you.


Obsessives in the wine world? Perish the thought! ;) Certainly we all want wine to be part of everyday life and not viewed as just a special event, but spend enough time studying it and reading about it and it might as well be cars or baseball.


Thomas said...

Ah, but try sniffing and tasting a car or a baseball, with dinner ;)

Big Mike said...

Ben, I'm honored to be mentioned in this piece. I have had many a good time with you and your Father. Hard to beleive it was 1997 when you turned 21. I can remember the day you were born, seems like yesterday. Thank you for the education you have given me through your post here. Great job and keep up the good work. I'm proud to call you friend.

Benito said...


I think the best lesson I learned from you is the "share the love" part. I'd much rather split a bottle of wine with four friends than have five glasses by myself. Recently I've been sending friends home with half-empty bottles, and I love letting folks try things in a non-threatening environment. Takes away a lot of the fear that many people have when it comes to wine.