By Tim Gaiser, MS
Good friend and fellow Master Sommelier, Evan Goldstein, once explained to me the difference between a great wine and a great wine experience. The former, he said, is just as implied; a prohibitively expensive, great or legendary bottle tasted at a trade event or via the cellar of a generous collector. A great wine experience, he went on to say, was something completely different. Where context—as in the people, place, and time—is just as important, if not more so, than the wine itself. In fact, in some cases the actual wine may not even matter.
Recently I’ve given some thought to Evan’s definitions for great wines and great wine experiences. In regards to the former, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have tasted more than my share of great, even legendary wines over the years. Beyond, there have been other great wine experiences over the years as well. As Evan mentioned, with each there’s a profound emotional connection not just to the wine, but more so to everything else in the memory as far as the people, the time or occasion, and the place.
My first great wine experience happened on a cold Christmas night in Ann Arbor in 1982 when I was in graduate school. My wife Carla and I had opted not to go home to New Mexico for the holidays that first year. Armando Ghitalla, my trumpet professor, and his wife Pauline, kindly invited us to Christmas dinner. The other dinner guests that night included H. Robert Reynolds, director of bands at the music school, and his wife.
Some weeks before, a good friend had given Carla and me a bottle of 1976 Silver Oak Alexander Valley Cabernet. I’d never heard of the winery, much less tasted the wine, but my friend assured me that it was outstanding. The bottle became our donation to Christmas dinner.
With the soup course cleared, Mundy—as we liked to call him—and Pauline disappeared into the kitchen to carve the roast beast. 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!”
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 wine. It was the very first time wine didn’t smell just like wine, it smelled like something—something I recognized. 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 smelled like “things” instead of just wine. In that moment, everything changed and wine would never be the same. I would never be the same.
Sometimes I’m asked if one can script a great wine experience, or if it can somehow be predicted. My answer is that I doubt it because part of the recipe seems to be serendipity and being open and receptive to a confluence of elements that make up a great wine experience. That being said, chasing an elusive great wine experience is always more than worth the effort. In reading this post, I hope memories of great wines and great experiences came up for you. I hope many more are in your future. Cheers!