Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Days of Wine and Roses

Wine, glorious Wine!

Last night I had dinner with some friends in Thailand. They had invited friends of theirs from Vietnam and so we sat around the table, five Americans. We were drinking prosecco as the Taiwanese-American (no, not me, although I was born in Taiwan) stir-fried chicken and wood mushrooms with a delicious ginger and white vinegar sauce and got to know each other. Aside from the fact that we were all Americans, we also share a love for good food and wine.

Now wine in Thailand is marked up immensely - the same stuff I can find in the US for $20 (which is cheap for the US) or in Europe for about 12 euros is usually about the equivalent of $45 or 30 euros. So wine drinking is not something that you do often in Thailand -despite all the wine bars flourishing on Thong Lor. I had been squirreling away bottles of nice wine in my fridge to share with honored guests everytime I come back from abroad. I had four nice bottles from Australia, a Saint-Emillion and two Sancerres, a Albarino, some California cabernet and zinfandel, two french champagnes (a Veuve and a Mumms), and an Oregon pinot Noir. I had a treasured bottle of Brunello as well. I ration it out to "wine worthy" friends. I'm down to four bottles right now. I pulled out a California Cab to take to the dinner since I liked these people and I thought they would appreciate it.

To celebrate the dinner, my male host brought out a bottle of Opus One. He had received it from a Thai friend one night. Now Opus One has an awesome reputation in my memory. When I was working in the restaurants of Columbia, South Carolina, I was learning about wine. My parents had always liked wine but being from Sumter and of limited means, we purchased "good wines" from the grocery store. My mother had a fondness for French wines and my father liked good cheap Italian wines. They had stories of visiting Spumante in Italy and I have a clay jug that they brought back from one of their wine tastings in the 60s. At the time, I thought Chilean wine for $3 was the height of sophistication and I actually drank Ernest and Gallo jug wine (including a memorable night in February 1986).

While working at Garibaldi's in Columbia, and then later Motor Supply Co. Bistro I learned about "good wines" vs "house wines". I learned that it was cheaper to order a bottle of something good than to get five glasses of the house wine at a much larger price. I developed a fondness for french sauvignons and chardonnays but not for the heavily oaked and popular California chardonnays. I liked Poully Fume and Pouilly-fuisse and Fume blanc and pinot grigio and orvieto and dry white wines. But I LOVED red wine. Loved it loved it loved it. Our wine lists included some beautiful cabernets and pinots and zinfandels from the Russian River Valley, the Willamette Valley, the Alexander Valley, Vineyards that still invoke awe and longing (at $40 a bottle much too rich for my blood) include: Stag's Leap, Jordan, Pine Ridge, Silver Oak, Gundlach-Bundschu, Clos du Bois, Clos du Valle, Chateau St. Michelle.

I moved to Washington DC and started graduate school. One year, I got to go to San Francisco for a conference so I scheduled a trip to the wine country where I visited the famous Ravenswood Vinery (No Wimpy Wines!) in Sonoma County and I went to three other vineyards in a fit of happiness and feeling sophisticated. I returned with a poster of the iconic Ravenswood label and a desire to become a wine snob. I was dating an Austrian guy named Michael at the time. He was in the hotel business and worked at the Jefferson Hotel in Washington DC. He had studied wine, of course, as a hotel and restaurant graduate and was interested in the same things as I was - good food, nice hotels, great wine, and traveling. His brother ran a very lovely hotel outside of Vienna in the Burgenland - Austria's wine growing region.

One day his brother asked him to pick up a bottle of Opus One for him to bring back to Austria. I went with him to the MacArthur Boulevard Wine shop which had a good selection. I was shocked to see that the bottle cost about $125 dollars back in 1995. That was a fortune. One day, I thought, one day - I'll have a taste of that fabulous nectar. I'll be rich enough to buy a bottle myself. Michael kindly gave me the promotional poster/corkboard that came with it and it has decorated my kitchens from DC to Amsterdam to Bangkok.

So back to Bangkok, I arrived at my friend's house with my precious bottle of Kendall-Jackson cabernet sauvignon. Not too expensive, admittedly but when you are in the mood for a nice big California Cabernet, its easy to get and tasty. I had brought it back from the US and thought, well I'll bring it to the dinner party. It won't really go with the seafood but we can drink it afterwards.

Imagine my joy when our host pulled out a bottle of Opus One. "I received it as a gift from a Thai graphic designer," he said, "and I thought it would be good to drink it tonight." I was amazed and excited. After much discussion on how to get it to the right temperature (an issue in hot balmy Thailand), we got a glass each of the precious nectar. Oh the nose! and the beautiful dark ruby color...
According to the bottle, it contained "Aromas of black olive and minerals underlie more traditional notes of dark chocolate, cola and espresso. Showing flavors of ripe blueberry, cassis and licorice, this age-worthy wine simultaneously offers a smooth finish and a slight grip of tannin at the close." I have never mastered the art of describing the wine I am drinking in this fashion. I can sometimes get the aromas. Instead I'll just say that I was transported back to the dreams of my younger self. A place where I thought about how my life might turn out... a place of daydreams and hopes and ideals where a bottle of wine would represent "making it in life". 

As I swirled the wine and chatted with the diplomat to my left and the high-powered consultant to my right, enjoying freshly cooked chinese and thai cuisine and discussing United Nations reform and hiking in Bhutan, I breathed in the rich and complex aroma. The grapes had transformed themselves from simple fruit produced in California from the wine legends of Baron Phillipe de Rothschild and Robert Mondavi into the stuff that career fantasies are made of. I felt like an adult. I felt like I was living the life I wanted for myself finally. And the wine was oh so very very sweet.