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Christmas dinner, 1981. At the time I was a grad student at the University of Michigan studying classical trumpet. That first year Carla and I elected not to go home to New Mexico for the holidays but chose instead to stay in frigidly cold and snowy Ann Arbor. We had no holiday plans and being married for just over a year and somewhere near the poverty line we were more than thrilled to accept an invitation for Christmas dinner from Armando Ghitalla and his wife Pauline. Armando, or Mundy as we called him, was one of the legendary classical trumpeters of the 20th century. He was also my trumpet professor and the sole reason for our being in Michigan.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

I did not grow up with wine. I was raised in a big ‘60’s Catholic family where wine was non-existent. My parents drank nothing but bourbon and coke.  Wine wouldn’t have worked for them because much stronger water was needed to raise six kids in a chaotic household. But I clearly remember tasting wine for the first time. It was Easter Sunday, 1965. I was 10. My family had gone to Easter mass as all good or aspiring Catholics do and then joined the Carlson family down the block for Easter brunch. The Carlsons were family friends who went to our church; their 11 kids, 10 of whom were girls, also went to the same school. At some point after hoovering the canned ham, pineapple slices, and potato salad on a festive pastel paper plate I spotted Mrs. Carlson refilling her plastic cup from a box of white wine. I was intrigued and waited until no one was looking before pouring a splash into a stray unused coffee cup. Then I tasted. It was crap; the most bracing, battery acid-like stuff I’d ever tasted. Who in their right mind would drink this, I thought? Or something like that went through my seething 10-year old mind. Needless to say, the alcohol part of the equation was completely unknown to me at the time. I would become well-acquainted with it later.

In the years to come there would be other drive by wine experiences most during my undergrad days. But everything changed when we moved to Ann Arbor. Within the first few weeks Carla got a bartending job at a restaurant called the Earle. This was critical for two reasons: first, it meant that for the next two years I would drink for free. That’s important. Second, the restaurant’s wine list was off the charts with over 800 selections including an entire page of German Rieslings from the ’71 vintage on. At the time Ann Arbor was unique in the American wine scene in that it was close enough to the East Coast so had access to all the major European wines. But sommelier Steve Goldberg had also been to California at least once and was championing producers in Napa, Sonoma and the Santa Cruz Mountains. In short, it was a great list with over two dozen wines by the glass also served at the bar. Carla had to learn about wine quickly. And as she did so did I. 

At some point that first October Carla was invited by Goldberg to go to a trade tasting of French and Italian wines. I tagged along and stalked Steve and his partner Dennis Webster as they went from table to table tasting. I was close enough to hear them talking about a particular red saying things like “mushroom,” “garrigue,” and “lavender.” After they moved on I rushed up to the table for a taste of the same wine. I put my nose in the glass expecting to find the mushrooms, garrigue (whatever the hell that was), and lavender.  But try as I might, the wine smelled like … red wine. I shook my head thinking they were either full of shit or that I was a hopeless case at tasting wine. Or both. It was a dark moment. 

There was hope in the form of the Ghitallas. Mundy and Pauline were incredibly generous in feeding the droves of trumpet students who regularly showed up at their house around 5:00 in the afternoon. Dinner at the Ghitallas always began with Mundy shoving a large tumbler filled with Johnny Walker Red and ice into your hand. Friends, this is where I learned to drink Scotch. But Mundy was also an outstanding cook in his own right as well as huge wine fan. So there was always copious quantities of wine with dinner. Mind you it wasn’t great wine, but it didn’t have to be.

Back to that cold Christmas night. The other dinner guests that included H. Robert Reynolds, director of bands at the music school, and his wife. Some weeks before my good friend Bob Reyen (who would go on to be my daughter Maria’s godfather) had given Carla and me a bottle of ’76 Silver Oak Alexander Valley Cabernet. I’d never even heard of the winery much less tasted the wine but he assured me that it was outstanding. The bottle became our donation to Christmas dinner. With the soup course served and cleared, Mundy and Pauline disappeared into the kitchen to carve the roast beast. Carla and I were left to make small talk with H. Bob (as he was called) and his wife. I opted to open and pour the bottle of Silver Oak.

What happened next is not easy to describe. After serving the wine I sat down and picked up my glass. Reynolds, who had just been extolling the virtues of the bottles of ’61 Bordeaux in his collection (totally meaningless to me at the time), smelled the Cabernet in his glass and then immediately said a quiet but very emphatic, “Wow!” Almost simultaneously Carla said that the room smelled like flowers. I quickly put my nose in the glass only to be assaulted by a tsunami of blackberry jam and spice box. I had never experienced anything remotely like it before with any glass of wine. It was the very first time wine didn’t smell just like wine, it smelled like something—something I recognized. In that moment everything changed and wine would never be the same. I would never be the same. The bright lights shined and the angels sang—the whole enchilada. I finally got it. I finally knew what everyone was talking about. In short, I had my first wine epiphany. From then on whenever I put my nose in a glass wine would for evermore smell like “things” instead of just wine.

What happened on that Christmas night with the glass of Silver Oak? What changed inside my brain in the moment that allowed me to smell a single aroma in wine vs. the entire mass of aromatics that I could only previously describe as “red wine”? Was it a wine epiphany? If so, what happens when someone has one of these so-called epiphanies? Are these moments some sort of miraculous event that can’t be predicted or controlled? Or are there circumstances that can help to create them? 

I have a theory.  

Fast forward to November 2009. I’m tasting wine in front of a film crew with Tim Hallbom, a behavioral scientist. We would spend the better part of four hours over two sessions tasting together. At several points during the filming when I was describing a wine Tim would stop me, have me hold my eye position as precisely as I could, and then ask one of several simple questions:

“How do you know?”

And –

“If I were you, what would I experience? What would I internally see, hear, or feel?”
 
Inevitably within 10-15 seconds of holding my eye position an image would appear—the image of whatever I was smelling. In short order it became clear that smelling and tasting—at least for me—was an intensely visual experience internally. In fact, if I couldn’t “see” an image of whatever I was smelling in the glass I couldn’t recognize it. From there we discovered that not only did I create images for everything I smelled in a wine but the images had structural qualities. Once I created these images they didn’t just go away–they arranged themselves in a very consistent grid with the various kinds of images/aromas living specific locations.

Since those initial film sessions I’ve interviewed dozens colleagues and students about their internal strategies for smell and taste memory. I’ve come to the conclusion that the first threshold of sorts that anyone just getting into wine must cross is becoming aware of that olfactory-image connection, even if it’s at the unconscious level.  If not, then wine is destined to always smell like “wine” for them. So the image/olfactory connection could be the main piece of the wine epiphany puzzle. But there has to be more. I say that because if that’s all it took, then you could make someone aware of the inner smell—picture thing, hand them a glass of wine, and the combination of the two should light them up like a–you guessed it–Christmas tree. 

Perhaps context is another necessary ingredient in the wine epiphany recipe. Context—as in who, what, when, where, why, and how a wine is consumed–is arguably the most important part of any wine experience other than the actual taster. The event, setting, and people with whom a wine is shared may have more influence than anything in lining up the stars for that magic vinous moment to occur. Taste any decent wine with the love of your life during a gorgeous sunset and it could happen. Taste an old vintage from a prestigious domain with the winemaker in the winery’s ancient cellar and it could definitely happen. Which brings me to the last and certainly not least ingredient of the epiphany recipe: feelings. 

Feelings are evaluative. They tend to happen as a result of something and more often than not that something is visual—either internal or external. I think that when someone has their first true wine epiphany strong positive feelings are often involved. That for once when they have a glass of wine in hand the person in question is not paranoid about looking like they know what they’re doing (as in issues of self-confidence, feeling safe, and even self-esteem). Their focus in the moment is not internal as in listening to all the usual freaked out inside brain chatter, but external on everyone and everything around them. They’re feeling good—probably really good–and with that the possibility of accepting and/or experiencing something new and different is strongly there. I say this because of things I remember about that Christmas dinner over 30 years ago. Carla and I were thrilled to be sharing a Christmas feast with my prestigious trumpet professor and his wife while tucked away snug and warm in a beautiful historic house on a snowy night. Our mood was open, generous, and—dare I say it—full of a kind of beautiful sadness of life feeling. Perhaps the expansive mood was all that was needed to set it off for me. I would like to think so. But I will also be the first to admit that this is anything but hard science. That if wine hasn’t made sense to someone previously, lining up a great bottle in a perfect setting with people they care about may not guarantee a blinding light experience. But I’d still like to think so.

I’ve had many wine epiphanies since that Christmas night in 1981. I am so fortunate to be in the industry and to have had the opportunity to taste and drink great wines over the last two-plus decades. But I also hope that everyone has a chance to have their own wine epiphany. I believe wine is the great connector; it connects us in so many ways. It reminds us to slow down, put our hectic lives on hold, and share a glass or two and a meal with those we love. Nothing is better. With that I wish you the best and hope you have your next wine epiphany soon.

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