My first column for the Napa Valley Register appeared in February 2011, and was titled, “What was your wine epiphany?” In that column, I discussed my own from a dinner with close wine-loving friends in 1979 at a favorite L.A. restaurant. Our friend ordered a 1977 Trefethen Chardonnay (I can still taste it today), and I was hooked. In that column, I invited my readers to share their epiphany and received many memorable replies.

Two weeks later in my next column, I shared a selection of those comments that included enjoying a bottle of wine with cheese and bread on the open glove compartment door while motoring through France. Another told a story of picnicking as a teenager before a USC-UCLA football game. His father poured a small taste of a seemingly non-descript wine for him to try. He immediately knew it was something exceptional. Back at home after the game, it was discovered his dad had accidentally opened a 1959 Château Lafite Rothschild.

And another reader shared her experience of visiting a deli that made an incredible cross-rib sandwich on a sourdough roll that was often accompanied by a can of Coors. But one day she grabbed a bottle of Mouton Cadet and a love affair began with the realization of how the wine made the sandwich better and the sandwich enhanced the wine.

Those were just a few from the long list of epiphanies I received. Today’s column looks at a deeper side of the wine experience as it poses the question of what wine actually means to you and what it evokes in your own life’s experience.

In late July, I was invited to join a Salon at Larkmead webinar hosted by Larkmead winemaker Dan Petroski. Dan assembled a panel of internationally respected wine journalists moderated by Kinsey Grant, business editor and podcast host of “Morning Brew.”

While the webinar explored many areas of wine from its agricultural to business sides, it began with Grant’s request: “Define what does wine mean to you.”

In the wine business, we are often listening to and learning from a wide array of opinions regarding how wine is grown, produced and sold, but seldom do we hear what it actually means in the lives of those personally involved.

The panelists for Salon at Larkmead were: Dottie Gaiter and John Brecher, senior editors of Grape Collective and Wall Street Journal past wine columnists; Eric Asimov, wine critic for the New York Times; Esther Mobley, wine critic San Francisco Chronicle and Ray Isle, Food & Wine Magazine executive wine editor. Together, they accounted for 85 years of journalistic experience.

Dottie Gaiter and John Brecher offered some individual insights. Dottie sees wine as a “social connector, being especially important in today’s fractured world. It could provide a path forward to slow down, look at each other and have difficult conversations.”

John went on to say, “Wine geeks [like us] often lose sight that people simply like wine because it tastes good. It is a simple pleasure in a world where [so many others] have been taken from us…that people can still enjoy on any level.”

Eric Asimov sees wine as a “food” both literally and figuratively. “In addition to making meals complete, it provides a connection to nature…and nourishment of friendship while bringing in history, politics, personalities and economics. All the wonderful things in humanity along with some of the darker elements as well.”

For Esther Mobley, “Wine is mystery. You can never know all there is to know about wine and that makes it such a worthwhile professional pursuit to write about. And terroir is a mystery as to how wine can convey a sense of place and an be such an amazingly delicious expression of the natural world. It is something I don’t fully understand and won’t ever understand.”

Ray Isle agreed with Esther that wine is a mystery; however, on the flip side,he said, “I would not discount the fact that it is a sheer unadulterated pleasure to drink and enjoy. It is an inexhaustibly interesting subject on all levels – economic, agricultural and human. You never run out of something to learn about it or potentially say about it.”

When I think about what wine means to me I look to the history in the bottle and the memory it evokes. I often think of the time I opened a 1945 Chateau Haut-Brion while enjoying brunch with a dozen or so vintners and winemakers (following the launch of our Cystic Fibrosis Winemasters event) at our home in Southern California. With the first sip, we took note of the wine’s legendary breed and heritage while simultaneously realizing we were sampling history as the conversation turned to the world events in that post-WWII era.

Kinsey Grant’s original question and the panel’s responses struck a resounding chord that took me back to my epiphany question and where the conversation could grow from there. With this in mind, I also reached out to several friends to hear their stories.

Glenn Salva, wine estate manager for Marchesi Antinori – Antica on Atlas Peak, said, “Wine(growing) has become more than just my career. It has become my passion in both making and enjoying wine. I’ve discovered that in every bottle there is a wonderful story being told of a particular producer, vineyard… and the history of a particular wine region. It brings me pleasure when I’m able to share that story while enjoying every glass with family and friends.”

Ton Matta represents the third generation of Recaredo, the esteemed Cava producer in the heart of Catalonia’s Sant Saduri d’Anoia since 1924. Ton told me, “Wine is a liquid landscape. It is the identity and culture of a territory. It is the contained emotion of walking a path that represents our origin from purity and honesty. Guided not only by instinct but also humility by putting terroir above technical perfection and trying to make each wine reflect the reality of our landscape and its movement. At Recaredo, we are clear about the path.”

We had the pleasure of meeting and befriending Nicola Giannetti as he guided us through the magnificent Col d’Orcia vineyards, winery and grounds in Italy’s Brunello di Montalcino DOCG. He serves as Col d’Orcia’s manager of public relations but his expertise and history go far beyond his official role. “Wine is culture, tradition, education,” he said. “I approached the wine world when I was 18 years old, thanks to my grandfather. Today, it’s my job. My life.”

My dear friend Paul Frank (who also introduced me to wine and ordered that bottle of 1977 Trefethen Chardonnay), founded Gemstone in Yountville and is now proprietor of Glass Slipper in Coombsville as well as resident wine auctioneer for our Cystic Fibrosis Winemasters. He said, “After hearing someone comment wine is just a ‘beverage,’ I couldn’t help but regret how he has been deprived of so many joys and pleasures that this ‘beverage’ is capable of adding to life. Merely a beverage? I suppose, but about as much as ‘air’ is just something for me to breathe.”

Over the last 30 plus years, I have shared many bottles with my good friend Jon Dobrer as part of our Cheers tasting group and at countless dinners and social events. Jon has a tendency to wax poetic and think philosophically on many subjects from history to religion and wine.

Jon said, “Wine usually tastes good and sometimes great inspiring me to use my entire toolbox of senses, reason, analysis and passion. But the passion always returns to the basics of taste and the components that make a wine what it is. My enjoyment is thus mental, emotional and sensory enhanced by sharing the experience with people I love and in settings of beauty.”

We all have our own personal thoughts on what wine means to us and, hopefully, the thoughts of these wine-loving folks will inspire you to look further into your own. Wine is indeed a memory!



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Share your experiences with other readers by commenting on this article with an e-mail to me at allenbalik@savorlifethroughwine.com.

Allen Balik, a Napa resident, has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 35 years.