Commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio
One of the more pleasant experiences I’ve had lately was a Saturday evening wine tasting at Hudson Wine Merchants. They’re on Warren Street in Hudson, NY.
Here’s how much fun it was: I don’t drink wine and I still had a good time.
I know. I know. Not drinking wine is a character flaw. My family, all devoted wine drinkers, remind me all the time. And when I confess my secret to friends they explain, feeling sad for me, that I’m missing out on one of life’s great pleasures.
I’ve given much thought to what’s wrong with me. The only explanation I can come up with is that I possess the taste buds of an eight-year-old.
I love Coke and candy. That includes chocolate and bubble gum. And I’m always on the prowl for the perfect chocolate cake. The thicker the icing the better.
To me wine tastes like vinegar.
It also makes me tired. On the other hand, Scotch or vodka, preferably with a beer chaser, energizes me.
That’s not to say I can’t tell good wine from bad. Generally speaking. Many years ago I shared a bottle of wine with my cousin on a trip to Burgundy. I still remember the wine and the year – a 1976 Volnay Clos des Ducs.
Suddenly, I realized what all the fuss was about. This wine – it was only a half bottle and even expensive in Seventies dollars, or rather French francs – was a lot more than a beverage. It was like a trip to the lush alien world of Pandora in the movie Avatar. The one with the bioluminescent plants that spoke to each other or whatever they did.
This wine unfolded in stages, each different and more interesting than the previous one. It was like a rose blossoming on your tongue.
Nothing else has measured up since. So I arrived at the Hudson Wine Merchants tasting with my wife prepared to be disappointed and probably bored, too.
But the atmosphere was festive. Guests were seated at several long tables in owner Michael Albin and Marienne Courville’s third floor gallery overlooking Warren Street. There were also plates of cheese and pates supplied by Talbott & Arding. They’re excellent cheese mongers, also on Warren Street.
So you couldn’t help but keep an open mind.
The tasting was devoted to seven natural wines. That means wines made with a minimal amount of chemicals and additives. They all came from the wine regions of Austria and Moravia in the Czech Republic.
This didn’t sound especially promising, especially to a philistine such as me. But I was intrigued by our first bottle, a Strohmeier Schilcher Frizzante.
Even though it didn’t look or taste like any wine I’d ever had.
For starters, it was orange. Also it was carbonated. In fact, it bore almost as much resemblance to beer as to wine. Which was fine with me.
Our guide throughout the evening was Phil Sareil of Jenny & Francois Selections, the wines’ importers.
My other problem with wine tastings is that I feel inadequate because I can’t detect the flavor notes everybody else seems to be picking up. You know. Persimmon, coffee, cinnamon, eye of newt, a gentle spring breeze quaking the leaves of aspens in the Tetons.
But Mr. Sareil was a great tour guide. He described the wines and the vineyards they came from with such knowledge – even the soil conditions in different locations in particular vineyards – that it made me want to consider the possibility of switching careers. To one where travel to scenic locales and the consumption of alcohol are job requirements.
Our next selection was a couple of whites from the same area. They came decorated with colorful Mark Rothko-like abstract expressionist labels.
Mr. Sareil explained that the yellow and green label on the 2014 Muster, a light wine, signified that its grapes were harvested from the top of the hill in owner Maria and Sepp Muster’s 10 hectare pesticide-free vineyard in Styria.
That’s a mountainous area of southern Austria.
The yellow and brown label on the 2012 Muster Graf meant it came from the bottom of the hill.
Or maybe I have that upside down.
In any case, both were excellent, the Graf more complex than the Muster.
See, I’m already starting to sound like I know what I’m talking about.
If you’re anything like me, you’re more than occasionally influenced to make a purchase by the attractiveness of the label.
So I didn’t know what to make of our final selection – a 2013 Gut Oggau Josephine.
It came with a drawing of Josephine.
Not Napoleon’s wife, the first empress of France. But a contemporary figure who looked like she might have an interesting inner life.
“They created a fictional family of characters,” Mr. Sareil explained.
He was referring to the owners of the biodynamic vineyard by Lake Neusiedl straddling the Austrian-Hungarian border. “They realized wine had really strong personalities.”
I’m not sure the evening convinced me to switch permanently from my dependable single malt scotch to the wines of Styria.
But it did underscore wine as a life-affirming force that promotes friendship and conversation. That alone is worth the price of a bottle or two. And a couple of hours on a winter evening.