Welcome to The Wine Odyssey, where you can join me on a voyage around the wine world exploring the unknown and the brightest stars. From the crisp white wines of Slovenia to the galaxies of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo and Barbaresco, and beyond. We’ll travel to the brave New World, too, with explorations from northern Washington to the southern tip of Chile, and throughout, we’ll have the fun of finding great, under-the-radar, budget-saving wine.
Along the way, you’ll get recommendations on food pairings from the chef side of my palate, and dining suggestions informed from my three decades of restaurant ownership.
My wine experience has an unusual foundation: It began when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Jamaica. It was 1969 and I lived in Highgate, a mountain town 35 miles north of Kingston.
Drinking Red Stripe beer or Jamaican rum didn’t turn me on. So, I took $35 dollars of my monthly $105 stipend and traveled down the hilly and winding Junction Road to a Kingston wine shop owner by a Swiss couple.
I bought 24 half-bottles, carried them back to my house and put them in the refrigerator, regardless of the color–red or white. This was before the days of temperature-controlled ship containers, delivery trucks and home wine-storage units. Electricity in Highgate–and all of Jamaica–regularly experienced outages from hours to days. I have no doubt I drank some damaged wines, but at that time and place, it was still a treat–especially discovering that German riesling is a wonderful partner with jerk pork. And, more important, it started me on my own life-time quest to find the most enjoyable wines wherever I was, without breaking the bank.
I still pursue wines with a total lack of pretension. I’m not impressed by labels, nor by pedigree. What gets my attention is wine that tastes good, reflects its origin, and balances its fruit, tannins or acidity. Often I’m happier with a good-value wine I’ve never had than a classified Bordeaux chateau or a top-flight California cabernet sauvignon.
Here, you’ll read a perspective on wines that is grounded in history. I started visiting Napa Valley around 1977 when Bob Mondavi, Mike Grgich, Warren Winiarski, Bernard Portet, Donn Chappellet, Joe Heitz, Domaine Chandon and Tom Jordan were pioneers and the wines rarely crossed 13.5 percent alcohol. Bi-annual trips to wine regions in France, Italy, Spain and Portugal were scheduled around my restaurant work schedule.
If you’re a wine collector or want to develop a cellar, you can trust my wine evaluations: I’ve bought and aged several million dollars worth of wines. It began with my second restaurant, Le Delice and my third (and last), Sonoma Grill. Both received the Wine Spectator wine awards from the first year the magazine created them in 1981, along with numerous articles and awards from others.
I remain an active collector and participant in the wine auction market, but I believe an active cellar doesn’t mean a trophy collection. I’ll recommend wines to you without cache but that will give wonderful memories for little cash. A few months ago, I drank my last bottle of 1978 Chateau Meyney, one of the consistently well-made, great values from Bordeaux. The excellent 2010 Meyney sells for less than $40, a bargain compared with many of its neighbors.
So, join me on The Wine Odyssey. I promise you a great ride into the world of wines. And if you decide you want to get off, it’s simple: just notify me and I will refund the unused part of your annual subscription.
Photo: Lana Bortolot