Sunday, May 3, 2020

My Life in Wine Episode 2

After the escapade with my friends sipping beer at a local tavern, we were desperate to think of new ways for an adventure.

One idea wasn't new and in fact had been a rite of passage for every high school senior since proms became part of the senior experience. The thing to do at your prom was make a splash, impress your date, and go to a restaurant for a late meal. Sonny and I (Billy was one year behind us) were looking for exotic, and outside of hotel restaurants in Philadelphia in the early 1950s, exotic meant the Hawaiian Village in New Jersey.

Sonny borrowed his parents' car so after the prom, the four of us drove across the Delaware River bridge, to the White Horse Pike, outside Camden. Thinking back, the Hawaiian Village wasn't exotic, with cheesy paper leis and piped Hawaiian music. And the food looked Polynesian but tasted like cheese steaks and hoagies. Two years later, I had a deja vu experience at a Chinese restaurant in Munich, Germany; the food looked like the Chinese food I remembered from Chinatown in Philly, but it tasted like wurst and sauerbraten.

Anyway, here we were in the Hawaiian Village, four nervous kids in tuxedos and formal gowns, hoping to get our first taste of rum. A tropical rum cocktail with an umbrella in it sounded exotic to us, but the waitress, who had obliviously heard it all before, gave us one of her best "in-your-dreams" looks. So, we had Cokes. 

                                   Waikiki Beachfront Bar - Mai Tai Bar | Royal Hawaiian Resort

Following graduation, in the summer of 1953, mom and I went to Wisconsin for a few months to visit my brother and his family. Dick was finishing his Air Force enlistment at a communications site in Osceola. Although I didn't realize it then, that trip was my introduction to world travel and with it, fine food and wine. 

Fresh out of a high school in suburban Philadelphia, I was dropped into Dresser, a tiny Wisconsin farming town, with a handful of small businesses, including a feed store and a tiny ice cream company. Kids my age were wearing OshKosh B'gosh overalls and and a feed store cap and here I was, this out-of-place east coaster, with my peg pants and duck's ass haircut. 

Eventually, I met a few local kids my age, but they all had summer jobs so I grew bored real fast and began banging on doors. There weren't many choices - a Grange Hall, mom-and-pop grocery, bank, farm machinery sales yard and a dairy that churned butter for Land 'O Lakes - but I guess my timing was right because the ice cream company needed summer help. 

On my first day, the owner was on the phone working sales. He turned to me and barked,
"Kid, take the pickup to the dairy and get two large milk cans of sweetened condensed milk."  He had obviously missed me saying the day before that I didn't have a driver's license. 

Running errands was a good way to learn my way around town. My main job, though, was making Eskimo Pies and fruit-flavored double ice pops. It was a sweet job for a seventeen year old; eating all of my mistakes. It didn't take long, though, before the thought of eating another Eskimo Pie lost its appeal. 

                             eskimo pies ice cream – Walkhandmade

With all of the sweet treats, I was thirsting for a beer. On the occasional errand I went on with Dick, we'd stop at a bar he knew for a schooner of Hamm's beer, "From the Land of Sky Blue Waters."  But boredom soon set in, so I joined the Air Force and in quick succession found myself in basic training, on Lake Seneca, New York, then tech school in Belleville, Illinois. Upon graduation, the assignment gods smiled on me, with a posting to Freising, Germany, in the heart of Bavaria.

If you are luck enough to find yourself in Bavaria, you drink beer and there was plenty of it around. The only wine I remember seeing was the odd bottle in restaurants. It didn't take long for my friends and me to fall into a routine: doing Uncle Sam's bidding during the day, take in the base movie in the evening and then downtown for a sociable brew. 

A favorite gasthaus had a large upstairs room that doubled as a meeting room and dance hall. Benches lined the walls with rows of coat hooks above the benches. In those days, German bottled beer came in re-usable bottles with ceramic caps and a red rubber washer-like gasket, held in place by a heavy wire clamp. Take a sip of beer, then hang your bottle on the wall coat hook while you danced, or took the long walk to the outdoor toilet.

During my three-year tour in Germany, Janet Boyle and I were writing to each other. One day I got a letter from her that her brother (and my future  brother-in-law), Gene, had been in a motorcycle accident near where he was stationed in France, and was in an Air Force hospital in Wiesbaden. Our mutual friend, Sam, who had been in tech school with Gene and me agreed that Gene needed to see some familiar faces, so we took a train north to Wiesbaden. 

In an earlier blog, I told of my wine epiphany at a French train station restaurant. But actually the first time I discovered there was another beverage, besides beer, to explore and enjoy was at a food and wine festival in Wiesbaden.  

Traditional German White Asparagus With Boiled Potatoes And Ham ...
White asparagus, ham and boiled parsley potatoes
After visiting Gene, Sam and I stopped at the festival celebrating the season of fresh white asparagus with local ham and a chilled glass of local Rhine wine. I had never had white asparagus and, in fact, didn't even think I liked asparagus. But the combination of the local ham, asparagus and the wine was a revelation. The Rhine wine (In those days, it was probably Sylvaner, not Riesling) was fresh, slightly sweet with a tangy finish that brought the other flavors together.  

I returned to Freising with an appreciation for wine and the realization that I had been missing out on one of life's great pleasures: the symbiosis of great wine and food. Later, I discovered another perfect match - Pinot Noir and grilled salmon - but at that time I couldn't get enough of fruity white wine and lightly salted ham. 


In Episode 3 of "My Life in Wine," to be published June 3, I discover the "Wine Sage of Santa Cruz Mountains," the early days of a great California Cabernet Sauvignon (not from Napa or Sonoma) and a noted family-owned winery I didn't know was just down the road from where I lived.

Next Blog: Remembering Michael Broadbent and Explaining Wine Acronyms

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