Thursday, June 22, 2023

California Wine Adventures

When I was a young boy in Pennsylvania, pestering my mother for a taste of her New York Port, it never occurred to me that one day I would be tasting wine in California.

How could you foresee that such a momentous change would someday alter the direction of your life? Growing up with milk and soda (I hadn't heard of "pop" and "soft drink" until I left home), wine was not a part of my life.  

In the early 1950s, I did what a lot of young men did in those days, join the military of choice.  For me, it was the U. S. Air Force, probably because my brother was on active duty then in the Air Force.  In quick succession, I was assigned to New York state, Illinois and then Germany.  

Prosit with Hofbrauhaus

My friends and I drank a lot of beer during the three years I was stationed in Bavaria. By chance, I went to a wine festival and discovered white wine, probably  Riesling or Sylvaner, that was unlike any beverage I had had before.  

That discovery was a real eye-opener for me.  But the "real" wine epihany was to happen later in France. 

There comes a time in every wine drinkers life when that first taste of a certain wine sets the stage for a lifetime of wine appreciation.  For me, it was in a French train station restaurant, drinking what I remember was a Beaujolais.  Now, more than 60 years later, I don't recall the winery name or what I had for dinner that evening, but the deep ruby color and rich fruity flavor of the wine is forever etched in my wine memory.

Fast forward to 1962 in San Jose, California. My neighbor asked if I would like to spend a Saturday afternoon visiting a winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains.  David Bruce was not a familiar name to me then, but my neighbor assured me that Bruce was some kind of wine guru, "so you have to go to his winery and listen to what he has to say about wine."

Well, okay, I thought.  Any information about wine from this supposed oracle, would be news to me since I didn't know the first thing about wine. So, on the appointed Saturday, I jumped into my neighbor's car and we headed southwest from San Jose to the Santa Cruz Mountains, home to, as I would later learn, more wineries than just David Bruce.

We arrived at the winery in time to join a tour with a few others. As the small group moved through the cellar, we passed fermentation tanks, hoses, pumps and oak barrels, while the guide explained the function of each and the part each  played in the wine making process. It all went by in a blur.  

Then, I saw the bottling line, gleaming in the bright light, with stations for filling, corking and labeling. It was a fascinating sight, in all its shining mechanical magnificence! 


Later, as a wine writer, I shuttered at hearing, "...and this is our bottling line,"  when it became boringly apparent that at every winery I visited, there would be, without fail, a bottling line to see and admire.

The early tasting of David Bruce wines left me with an awareness that there was a lot to learn and many wines yet to taste and that I would spend as much time and effort as I could cultivating a taste for Pinot Noir.  

Not long after the visit to David Bruce, my family and I moved across town to East San Jose, where I discovered that Mirassou Vineyards was only a few miles from my house. Unfortunately, it took me years before my first visit to Mirassou. 

For the next three years, my attention turned to other interests.  I didn't lose my interest in wine, but shifted to spending more time with family and furthering my education that I had woefully ignored in high school. 

Being on a career path in the Air Force does not make it easy to collect wines.   And it got even more difficult when I was transferred to a remote station in northern Labrador.          


My one wine adventure at Saglek Air Force station was at the end of 1965. The station commander, a man we all thought hadn't smiled in a decade, brought in a couple cases of Mateus Portuguese Rose for the unit Thanksgiving dinner. To this day, I still remember the colonel toasting the troops with a thin smile and how that simple off-dry pink wine tasted with roast turkey and all the trimmings. 

Back in the states, I spent four years honing my writing skills as an Air Force  training film script writer in Colorado. Then, I was off again, this time to Taiwan, where I had the personal once-in-a-lifetime experience of tasting Chinese "wine,"  a high alcohol liquid that I questioned had ever seen a grape. 

Next stop: South Carolina and another first for me. After ten years in the U.S. Air Force, I was finally assigned to a base that had planes.  In fact, Charleston AFB was the first base to welcome the C-5 Galaxy to active duty.  

And, I soon discovered that the city of Charleston had a Piggly Wiggly supermarket, with a wine section stocked with a respectable selection of European wines.  There I was, in South Carolina, drinking wine in a place more accustomed to sipping Bourbon and beer. 

In the July 14 installment of "California Wine Adventures" my family and I return to Colorado and my on-again-off-again career as a wine writer is on again. 

Next blog: Gruner Veltliner

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