A brief preface: I whole-heartedly adhere to the wisdom that a good wine is a wine that you like. Admittedly that could apply to all liquids in general, so that if you find yourself gravitating toward used crankcase oil with your meat dishes or a nicely chilled glass of mineral spirits with your fish, you may be considered well within your rights.
As with all issues of personal taste, while it may be impossible to set absolute standards by which to judge a good wine, bad wines clearly stand out. They are the ones that get poured down the sink and never, never purchased again.
I am a novice wine drinker. I really don't know how wine is made (other than the generalities -- take some grapes, stomp them, add a few spices and simmer until done), and I am not intimate with all the winemaking families and their histories (other than the Gallo's, who make up half of Modesto's population and provide nearly all the budget money for several of the Catholic churches in Modesto). But I am well into the beginning stages of wine exploration. I am far enough along, for example, to know that I am at heart a red wine person.
This list has two raisons d'etre. (Raison d'etre is French for flimsy excuse, as in "I must have you, because love is my raison d'etre".) First, I wanted to provide others with another unnecessary opinion about wines. Secondly, I can never remember day to day what wines I have poured and which I swilled, so when I go to the Bob's Wine and Check Cashing Boutique to browse the selections in the wine aisle, and I see the apple wine from Acid Rain Winery, and I notice that it claims a Fishing Pier appellation from Alameda County, and it's on sale for $1.99 for the gallon jug, I can't tell if it's a good buy or not!
With that in mind, I want to start with some thoughts on OPUS ONE, my personal benchmark against which all other wines are measured.
I can remember reading an article in U.S. News and World Report Magazine about the event that was causing quite the stir in the wine industry. Robert Mondavi, one of the revered names in Napa Valley, and Phillipe de Rothschild of the legendary French Rothschildren, had formed a joint venture to produce an American wine that would be good enough to compete in the snooty European market where there are many Frenchmen, and these Frenchmen all believe that they invented wine, wine glasses, bistros and baguettes, and of course, Maurice Chevalier, the result of which was that no respectable German family would even think about letting their young daughters visit Paris. This would have been 1978, and I was a fifteen year old kid in Pennsylvania and had a big adolescent crush on Juliette Eikenberger, whose mother was French and whose father was German, and who seemed proof enough that a joint venture with the French could have desirable results.
Juliette moved the following summer to Alabama, and I forgot about the Mondavi's for another twelve years, until I read an interesting article somewhere about the Opus One winery that was being built in California. The structure itself was quite the talk of the town, a beautiful building designed to blend into the environment with as little disruption as possible to the beauty of the surrounding Napa countryside. In fact, most of the building was to be underground. Perhaps the Rothschilds were nostalgic for the days of La Resistance.
Once again, however, the joint venture faded from my memory. Then the company that I worked for decided that it wanted to open a facility in California, could not find anybody else who wanted to go. When they reluctantly asked me, I jumped at the opportunity because the plant site was reasonably close to San Francisco, a magical place I had visited when I was fifteen. I had been so captivated by the Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, the fog, the seafood, and the hills that Juliette must have received twenty postcards from San Francisco. It had only been three days, but The City captured my heart and chucked it onto a pile of dreamily sighing hearts, not too far from Tony Bennett's.
I ultimately came to rest in small (population 10,000) town in the Central Valley about an hour's drive East of San Francisco. In that town was a small restaurant that did not look like much from the outside. In fact, it was situated on the same lot as a gas station and mini-mart, next to the freeway entrance ramp, and I would have expected it to be known for its hot turkey sandwiches, greasy fried chicken, and Formica counter tops. But just as Juliette, whom I had seen as my wife and lover, the mother of my many children, and the still beautiful, white haired grandmother of the score of grandchildren that all had inherited her eyes and her zest for life, turned out to be a bolter, married to a string of no account cotton farmers, whose kids were as welcome in town as weevils in the fields, just as she was not as she appeared, neither was this restaurant the diner that it appeared.
The hot turkey sandwiches were there, but this being California, this restaurant had an incredible wine list. I had taken my daughter to lunch there (she was young enough to still consider a burger and fries served on a real plate to be near gourmet dining), when I noticed on the table an advertisement for OPUS ONE by the glass. Fifteen dollars a glass. And as it turned out, a small glass. A small glass with a line literally etched into the bowl about two inches from the bottom that indicated to where the glass was to be filled. As an optimist, I chose to see this as 10% full and not simply 90% empty. The alternative was that I could have ordered an entire bottle for about one hundred and twenty bucks!
I have to say that I was entirely prepared to order this "rich persons'" wine, take a sip, and spit it on the floor. I anticipated feeling smug that I had been spared the hypocrisy of the rich that forced them to buy Ripple in upscale packaging at prices that ensured an exclusive clientele, and then rave about how absolutely marvelous it was.
So having ordered the glass and smirked at the waitress about how little there was for fifteen bucks, I picked up the glass and stuck my nose in to have a sniff.
I am old enough to remember when the special effects in a science fiction film required a generous dose of imagination. I was amused at the sparkler out the back of the dangling model spaceship. I knew that in space the sparks from the engines would not fall down as the smoke rose upward. The interior of the ship did not look like my living room with randomly blinking banks of lights on the walls. Spacesuits did not have to look like nylon jammies with the footies sewn on. But it did not matter, the movie screen provided enough detail to allow the illusion to work, and if the strings holding the spaceship up were not visible, then I knew it was a high budget motion picture.
So when I watched the opening scene of Star Wars, as I watched the prologue letters fade into the distant star filled sky, I was prepared to see a model spaceship cross the screen. When the first little spaceship went hurtling past, I was impressed -- no wires, no sparklers, no smoke. Then as the Imperial battlecruiser's nose began to appear, I began to sense that something very different was about to unfold. The ship continued to roll across the screen. It was immense. The detail was incredible. The throbbing of the engines seemed to resonate throughout my body. I felt the need to hunker down in my seat as the ship filled the sky above me. I felt as if the ship was close enough that it might hit me as it passed.
My world had changed. Lucas' achievement was of such a magnitude that I knew that not only the future would be different, but so would the past. Lucus had pulled the wool back from my eyes and exposed the old movies as just stick drawings, child's play.
Sitting in a restaurant in California only a few miles from George Lucas' hometown of Modesto, I was in for another one of those moments when life changes. As soon as I stuck my nose in the wine glass, packets of aroma screamed up my nose with the sounds of an X-wing fighter. Some of these little aroma packets hit the sides of nostrils and exploded, sending shock waves deep into my nose. Other packets made it to my sinuses and began blasting away.
"Wow," I said to my daughter, exhaled, and stuck my nose back into the glass. I could hear one of the packets say "We're going in," and as I inhaled again, a formation of X-wing aromas screamed into my nose, past the sinuses, and made straight for my frontal lobes. In moments, my mind was succumbing to their attack, my eyes were glazing over, and I was lost to the intoxicating smell of the wine.
In wine terms, this is what is known as sampling the bouquet, an experience that should not be confused with the smelling of the wine that occurs with most of the stuff that I can afford to drink. Most of the time, you go to the grocery store, pick up a bottle of wine, bring it home, uncork it, pour some into a plastic cup, and take a sniff to make sure it hasn't gone bad. Then despite what it smells like, you go ahead and chug it down. (Admittedly this may have just revealed more about my drinking habits than I would have liked, but you get the picture.)
Sampling the bouquet of OPUS ONE, however, is an experience in itself. The bouquet is exquisite, rich, fruity, penetrating. Swirling the wine gently about the glass releases intense waves of aroma that can make your sinuses tingle, and can make your mind chase about tossing rose petals on the lush green grass of the lawn surrounding the ornate fountain with all of its pissing cherubim. So intense is the bouquet OPUS ONE that one could spend long periods of time simply lost with one's nose stuck in the glass, and never once question why there are cherubim pissing in the fountain, nor why any culture would come to consider cherubim pissing in their fountains to be great art.
The bouquet seems to be much more an important part of the red wine experience than the white wine experience. That could be in part that red wines are consumed at room temperature (or just slightly cooler), while the whites are best served chilled. I personally have no problem with drinking a white wine on the rocks. When I mentioned this to one of my african-american friends, he said "Whoa, there's a little bit of Ghetto in you." Could be. As I said before, I am a novice wino. The warmer the wine, the more the bouquet blossoms so to speak. That is also the principle behind brandy snifters that can be warmed over a candle -- the warming releases the aroma. Brandy drinkers and cocaine users are the only people who are more nasally oriented than red wine enthusiasts.
Just as one should linger long and lovingly over the bouquet of OPUS ONE, I will allow each of you time to ponder the concept of wine sniffing before I head off into a recounting of actually tasting OPUS ONE. To fill your time before my next article, I highly recommend a visit to www.opusonewines.com where you will be treated with a beautiful picture of the OPUS ONE winery, and you can explore the history of the wine.
Just remember that in wine sniffing, it is considered declasse (and may even be dangerous) to allow your nose to touch the wine.
NEXT: The Attack!
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