Messages In a Bottle: A Year of Learning

rdwn-2.jpgI’m really not one for New Year’s resolutions. I’ve got no list (for you or for me) of must-drink wines for 2006; all those wines on the lists of Top 100 Wines of the Year put out by the glossy wine magazines in the last couple of months are sold out or marked up too high, anyway. There are a few wines in my cellar I need to work through, but I hardly need a resolution to do that, and neither should you. No, at the beginning of each New Year, I like to look back on the prior year and celebrate how lucky I am to be alive, how fortunate I am to be able to drink wine with friends, and how much I am still learning and loving about wine.

This past year I had the chance to taste Txakolina, a beautiful, lightly effervescent white wine from northern Spain that, in its home country bars, is poured in a thin stream from high overhead into plain tumblers of glass snuggled between plates of grilled fish tapas and Spanish cheese. Enjoyed by the Basque peoples for roughly the last thousand years or so, Txakolina (pronounced “choco-lina”) is made from a mix of the obscure varietals Hondarribi Zurri and Folle Blanche. Apart from the fact that this wine, with its crisp acidity, mineral and tart green fruit flavors, is a fantastic match for seafood of any kind, its affordability made it a new favorite.

Also in the category of new tastes, I’ve become acquainted with a few Hungarian wines. As the scores of Hungarian wine lovers who seem to come out of the woodwork whenever I review a Hungarian wine on my web site will tell you, the country has thousands of years of history in winemaking, and is particularly famous for their Tokaji Aszú, a sweet dessert wine of unusual character. Not caring much for sweet wines, I’ve been trying the occasional dry white and red when I come across them, and I’ve encountered a few extremely high-quality wines that were not only very good, but also distinctly different in personality from what I’m used to drinking.

I had the chance last year to taste a ripe Cabernet grape or three off the vine (without being arrested for trespassing, thank heavens) sparking a fantasy where I may try to taste EVERY major varietal as it sits waiting to be picked. I don’t know what I expect to learn from this exercise, or even if I’ll have the time and energy to attempt it next time the harvest comes around, but there’s something that pulls at me, some sense of the elemental and essential to get in touch with in small quantities of berries on sunny Fall days.

One thing that seems constant over time is the tendency of wine to forge relationships. I continue to be blessed with the good fortune to meet wonderful people because of this shared love. This past year, people who were once just e-mail addresses to me have become fast friends, and dozens more have become regular contributors to the conversations about wine that stretch across many weeks and many pages of my blog. I continue to meet winemakers and winegrowers big and small; wine writers and editors; wine marketers and just avid drinkers. I’ve been introduced to new wines at the hands of these many folks, and I’ve proudly introduced them to new wines. I take particular pride in contributing to the “corruption” of an old friend of mine by serving him good California Pinot Noir repeatedly enough that without any verbal prodding from me, he seems in the last year to have graduated from buying eight-dollar supermarket wine to carefully squirreling away cases of Patz & Hall.

Speaking of developing palates, the last year has also allowed my wife to develop a very dangerous skill: I don’t know anyone else now who can unerringly pick out the $150 wine in a blind tasting as well as she can. She’s gone from saying that white wines smell like “white grapes and alcohol” to picking out aromas like “charred marshmallow” and “bacon fat,” not to mention gravitating towards a category of wines that can only be collectively labeled “ultra premium and scary expensive.” She’s already started making arguments like, “If we sell that half case of Zinfandel, we can buy one of those 2000 Barolos that I like so much, can’t we?”

I continue to learn and be humbled by the generosity of my fellow wine lovers, stranger and friend alike; from them I have had the opportunity to taste wines that my own pocketbook, cellar depth, and years on this earth would not normally have afforded me the chance to experience. Tasting older wines continues to be an intriguing, mysterious experience — yielding disappointment and delight in equal measure. From poorly kept 1960s and 1980s Bordeaux to perfectly cellared 1980s Napa Cabernets, my map of possibilities for wine flavors and textures continues to grow, as does my sense of how time transforms a wine, shifting its structure and tastes towards some things I like, and some things I don’t.

That’s just like time, though, isn’t it? You never quite know what you’ll get as it marches us all on towards the future. Every year I’m learning more about wine — and realizing how much I still don’t know. My love of wine doesn’t require resolutions, but it does require resolve. There is so much out there to explore in the world of wine, and I now have one less year now to discover whatever this journey is bound to teach me. It’s time to open another bottle.

This article originally appeared in The Gilded Fork.