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06.03.2006

Messages In a Bottle: The Better Half of My Palate

rdwin42.jpgI heard my wife say something unbelievable last week. It just sort of popped out, casually, as we were putting the final touches on a simple Tuesday night pasta dinner.

"Honey, I'm worried that we're not buying enough good red wine to lay down for the long term."

I nearly dropped my plate. This was the wine lover's equivalent to any number of preposterous fantasies: the sports fan whose wife requests a much bigger TV and matching tattoos of his favorite team; the meat lover's vegan girlfriend who suddenly offers to make prime rib at home; or the oversexed Woody Allen type whose wife suggests they start swinging with supermodels.

I'm the luckiest man alive.

When we first met, Ruth was simply prepared to humor my interest in wine. She enjoyed a glass now and then, but didn't think much of it. When we drank or dined together I would hand her a glass of white wine and, like an eager puppy, ask her what she smelled. For some time, her bemused answer was "Grapes. And alcohol." The whole ritual of swirling, sniffing, and tasting was little more than amusing. She tolerated the inevitable retrieval of my notebook from a coat pocket every time we ordered a glass or bottle in the restaurant, and the couple of minutes I spent writing notes.

She kept tasting whatever I gave her, though, and when I started my wine blog about a year after we began dating, I think she came to accept that this fanaticism was a part of me. Whenever she made dinner for us, I would find my notebook and a pen sitting next to an empty wine glass, in expectation of the bottle I would bring up from the cellar and the notes I would scribble while she looked on, drinking her wine that still mostly just smelled like grapes.

The first glimmer that Ruth was beginning a long-term relationship with more than just me appeared during our three-week trip to Tuscany. This was a slightly nerve-wracking endeavor at the start, not only because it was the first traveling that we had done together, but also because I had no idea what her tolerance for tasting wine and visiting vineyards really was. I, of course, had ridiculously grand fantasies of trying every wine in Chianti, Montepulciano, and Montalcino, but I nervously knew that there was a point at which Ruth would see me as having crossed a line from our vacation into some self-serving wine adventure in which she had no interest in participating.

Miraculously, that moment never came; instead, I watched my girlfriend fall in love with Brunello. This was aided, no doubt, by perfect weather and the peak of spring green in the fields of Tuscany, but it was she who eventually suggested we buy a duffel bag so that we could bring home the thirty-two bottles we had collected in our journey. The fun we had on that trip, coupled with the complete willingness to help me lug forty pounds of wine through three airports pretty much convinced me that this was the woman I needed to marry.

I should have known I was in for trouble when her neophyte experience in Tuscany demonstrated a preference for the finest and most expensive Brunellos. She was sweet enough when I told her that we probably couldn't afford that bottle of 1999 Soldera, but it is clear to me now that the wine drinker she is today was starting to blossom, even then.

In the couple of years following that trip, I've watched with pleasure and pride as Ruth's vocabulary and experience with wine has grown. I'm happy to take a little credit for providing some encouragement and a few good bottles along the way, but her ability to now pick out aromas like burnt marshmallow and caper berries comes from her own focus and attention to her burgeoning passion.

Of course, I never dreamed she would so quickly appreciate a love I have spent ten years cultivating. There were really only about eleven months between the time she suggested we should stick to wines under $40 on the restaurant list and the moment when at a friend's house (who happened to be particularly generous with his deep cellar), she handed me her recently filled glass and demanded to know, "Why don't we have any wines like this in our cellar?" I tried to explain that getting our hands on a bottle of 1981 Beringer Chabot Vineyard Cabernet wasn't all that easy, but she laughed at me and suggested I had more than a few forty-dollar Zinfandels and Chardonnays that we weren't drinking very fast, and that someone must want.

I hate to admit it, but she was right.

These days I have the pleasure of reveling in her enjoyment of Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher's Love by the Glass, and the opportunity to answer questions like "have I had any old Bordeaux?" with tickets to a pre-auction tasting at Bonhams & Butterfields. Our recent trip to Argentina proved that her stamina for driving around the countryside from one winery to another will never be an issue in our marriage, and she's already reading up on New Zealand winegrowing regions on her own.

For the time being, Ruth hasn't gotten to the point where she's comfortable going down into the cellar on her own and grabbing things to drink. That time isn't far off, I suspect, given that she's recently started to refer to some bottles as "her wine." I don't even think my strategic cellar organizational system (total chaos) will slow her down much when she finally does start making trips downstairs.

When she does venture into the back room of the basement, I guess it's pretty clear that we better have some good bottles tucked away. I haven't been married that long, but I know that it's a good idea to keep the wife from worrying. I just never imagined that would mean buying Bordeaux futures.


This article originally appeared in The Gilded Fork.

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