The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

A Context-Free Wine Epiphany

Posted on | May 3, 2010 | Written by Janice Cable | 3 Comments

Context is key, or so many writers on Inside IWM would have a neophyte wine-drinker believe. Wines, people have claimed, taste better with people you love, at meals with meaning, while celebrating something you’ll want to remember. Certainly, I can’t argue with the bulk of human experience—IWM founder Sergio Esposito’s memoir, Passion on the Vine, brims with the beauty that comes from sharing wine with beloved people, beautiful meals, and gorgeous countryside. IWM has as its foundations the tenet that wine is love, and it has served the company, and its clients, well.

And yet.

One stifling August day almost two years ago, I had a wine epiphany. I was working at IWM, writing copy for wines I’d never tasted, descriptions of lands I’d never visited, and stories about food I’d never tasted. It was hot, tedious, often mind-numbingly painstaking work (I’m a thorough researcher, and I’d often have six or seven tabs open on my Firefox to ensure that even if I’d never had a Bracchetto myself, and even if I’d never visited Valle d’Aosta, I could make the writing real enough that someone who had would recognize their experience in my words). It was work. I enjoyed it, but it was work.

There was, one afternoon, a frisson of excitement that ran through the staff. It turned out that a client had returned a bottle of wine. It was a very rare occasion because IWM sources, stores and ships so carefully. In fact, this bottle was the only bottle I ever saw return to us after being shipped far away. Upon beginning to open the bottle, the client had noticed a partially dried cork, or so my memory of the scenario goes. I could be wrong, but the bottle was returned, and therefore we would have the serendipitous opportunity to drink it.

It was a Barolo from the Nixon administration. I don’t remember the producer, the vineyard, or the exact year, but I do remember that the bottle cost about my weekly take-home salary. With much ceremony and serious attention, the portfolio manager whose client had returned the wine opened the bottle. Using cheesecloth to filter the wine and a candle to light the bottle, he decanted it. A vibrant hush fell over the room as we waited, poised like meerkats at our desks. The moment came.

We all lined up. We each got a tender mouthful or two of wine in our Spiegelau glasses. The people around me swirled, they inhaled, they swirled, they inhaled, and they sipped. I followed clumsily. The wine, I noted, indeed did show dark red with the telltale orange highlights. The nose, I noted, did have violets and roses. I felt reassured that all my research on Barolo had not gone horribly wrong. I looked, I sniffed, and then I tasted.

The things that stick with me the longest, I’ve noticed, are the things that at first I didn’t really like. The poetry of Alexander Pope, the Talking Heads’ album More Songs about Buildings and Food, that one time I had really serious Beluga: all of these things that I now appreciate, even champion, at first made me inexpressibly churlish. This Barolo was the same.

It tasted of BBQ pork, of a field of flowers, and of dirt all at once. It was a confusing—if slightly oxidized—mess in my mouth, and the fact that I’d just eaten pineapple wasn’t doing it any favors. Around me people were smiling and gleaming bright with descriptions, and all I got was an unmistakable desire to eat ribs. I sniffed, I swirled, I drank, and I did my best. There was pork, there were flowers, and there was dirt, and I was done.

Except I wasn’t. Because of all the many millions of things I’ve put in my mouth, that Barolo is one of the few that sits in my memory still. It bothers me like Pope’s “Epistle to a Lady,” a work that I hated upon first reading but now love with an extra-flamey, white-hot burning passion. I suspect that when I die, I’ll have a few sensory memories rolling around my head, and that Nixonian Barolo will be one of them.

It had nothing to do with context. It had nothing to do with company (no slight to my coworkers). It had everything to do with one transcendent wine, a wine whose astounding character made me understand wine in a new way. It was an apotheosis of wine. It was my epiphany, and damn that slightly oxidized Barolo, but I want you again.


3 Responses to “A Context-Free Wine Epiphany”

  1. Maya Borenstein
    May 3rd, 2010 @ 2:46 pm

    One of the first wines I had the pleasure of tasting at IWM tasted like popcorn. I have no idea what it was, or what it should have tasted like, but to me it was popcorn.

  2. Janice
    May 3rd, 2010 @ 5:18 pm

    Mmmmmm….popcorn wine.

  3. Didier G.
    May 4th, 2010 @ 1:16 pm

    Popcorn makes me think of a buttery Chardonnay. ummm.. popcorn butter. I wish they would serve that in movie theaters!! or better yet, the vintage Barolo in this post! What better to sip on while viewing a quality flic (but which one?).

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