Part 1: Grammar School
I don't know your relation to wine—you may enjoy it, you may find it tastes like vinegar, you might prefer the flavor of fermented grain or you may like the flavor so much you have to abstain. As for me, you could say I've been lucky in wine. My only regret is that I didn't discover it sooner, having wasted time forcing down beers and mixed drinks I didn't want.
Wine pleases my palate. It suits my sensibilities and my aesthetics too. Usually, it's one of the foods on the table; sometimes it's all poetry
in a glass. Wine agrees with me and I agree with it.
I first discovered wine in 1995 while bartending in my friends' bygone Princeton bistro, Quilty's (named for Clare Quilty, the antagonist in
Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita so memorably portrayed by Peter Sellers in Stanley Kubrick's 1962 film adaptation.) I was 28. As I've retroactively appreciated via numerous trips to France, we ran a very authentic bistro, serving up salade Lyonnaise, ratatouille, cassoulet, coq au vin, coquilles St.-Jacques, and steaks both frites and au poivre.
Our carte des vins and by-the-glass selections proved just as legit. A grammar school of sorts, Quilty's introduced me to the wine regions of France and their grapes: Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Gewurtztraminer from Alsace; those renowned Bordeaux blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot; Burgundy's beguiling Pinot Noir and Chardonnay; Champagne's sparkling versions of the same; chalky Corsican ros茅; Languedoc's liquid laissez faire; Muscadet, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley; and Carignan, Grenache, Mourv猫dre, Syrah, and Viognier from Bandol, Provence, and the Rh么ne Valley.
I even made the acquaintance of a seldom-seen bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape blanc (from Ch芒teau de Beaucastel), a Quilty's in-house prize I earned for winning the Waiters' Race of Princeton.
Our most popular red wine by the glass was a Passetoutgrains from Frederic Esmonin. It doesn't get more tr猫s fran莽ais than Passetoutgrains. Obscure in America but a workhorse in restaurants and caf茅s in France, it's a Burgundy blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay, the grape used in Beaujolais (and the only allowable blend as all other red Burgundy is 100% Pinot Noir.) Light and fruity with a hint of earth, this quaffable red goes with almost everything, from chicken salad to tuna steak. Many a night behind the bar I fended off perilous drouth by nursing a glass of trusty Passetoutgrains.
It was also at Quilty's where I received my baptism in ros茅. Maybe it's memory's embellishment, but that summer burned olde tyme hot.
To help put out the fire, we had a lovely ros茅 by the glass from Languedoc. Unlike the profile of a Provence ros茅—salmon-pink with cantaloupe on the nose—this wine
glowed translucent strawberry and drank like a dry, thirst-quenching elixir made from the same. I liked it so much I bought a case. Ah, I remember the satisfaction with which I
stacked those bottles like ingots of liquid bullion in the bank of my refrigerator. I made weekly withdrawals.
I discovered other libations of the savvy bistro diner, such as Banyuls, a red fortified dessert wine from Languedoc's Rousillon district and
sometimes called with Gallic pride "France's answer to Port." Usually made from Grenache, it pairs exceptionally well with chocolate desserts, such as souffl茅, pot de cr猫me, or
flourless tort. My dinner bookends became Manzanilla, or fino, sherry, and tawny Port. With its briny, nutty tang and bracing acidity, Manzanilla is one of the great aperitifs. It just might be the perfect accompaniment to olives. And tawny port's rich hazelnut and maple flavors, along with luscious viscosity, made it my apr猫s-dinner go-to.
My wine education grew through formal tastings too. Quilty's worked with a handful of excellent wine purveyors. On a regular basis, they would
bring bottles for us to sample. And then we had in-house tastings where the waiters, bartenders, and our wine director would dip into staples on our list, a necessity if you want
to credibly describe the selections. Hard work indeed, but you really have to drink the wine if you want to sell it.
Perhaps most importantly, after about a year behind the Quilty's bar, I had gained a sense of pairing food with wine. Yes, the wines tended to
hail from France, but the French know a thing or two about transforming mere grapes into grand crus. As a budding oenophile, I now had the basics, a confident familiarity with a
wide palette of wines which enabled me to pick a winning match for anything from oysters—Muscadet, Sancerre, Chablis, Champagne—to rack of lamb—Pauillac, St.
Julien, Chateauneuf du Pape (rouge, of course), Bandol, or, if you're lucky, some C么te R么tie.
At the end of the summer of '95 I learned with great joy that I'd been accepted into the M.Phil. in Anglo-Irish literature program at the
University of Dublin, Trinity College. It would soon be time for a block of Continuing Education in Ireland's Bordeaux-centric wine trade. As I discovered, the Guinness brewery's
malty fumes perfumed Dublin's air, but it was claret which often tickled my nose.