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How I Learned to Love Winespeak

Writer Rebecca Barry used to find wine classes a chore and wine lingo a snore. Then she moved to a house in the Finger Lakes, the heart of New York state wine country, and discovered a whole new vocabulary.

Late last summer, I was at a harvest dinner at Remembrance Farm, a biodynamic farm in the Finger Lakes region of New York state, and I was a little frustrated. It wasn't the food, which was wonderful. It wasn't the setting, which was perfect. It was that I was trying to tell a friend about a discussion my sister and I had, about whether my husband should be her sperm donor, and I kept being interrupted by people talking about wine.

I've never really cared much for wine talk. I like wine, and I like the idea of knowing about wine. I was even interested enough at one point in my twenties to take some wine-tasting classes. But those fluorescent lights. The sterile setting. All that bandying about of words like cloying, structured, flabby. Blah, blah, blah, I thought. Who wants to talk about their boyfriends?

All of this is kind of ironic, because I live in an area that's known for its wines, particularly its Rieslings. Moreover, I spent my childhood here. But back then, the landscape featured mostly dairy farms and cornfields. And no one in my immediate family drank. My father has an inherent distrust of alcohol. He doesn't like the taste, alcoholism runs in his family and, in general, he doesn't enjoy drunk people (unless they're characters in a John Steinbeck story, in which case he finds them hilarious). My mother, who does enjoy drunk people, doesn't care much for wine, either. So it would only appear at the dinner table on special occasions, and even then, only a few people drank it.

It wasn't until I was 17 and took a summer trip to France that I learned you could have wine with every meal—even enjoy it—and not instantly become an addict. Still, as my tastes developed, I favored spirits, bourbon in particular. There was a drink that wasn't messing around. You could tell what you were getting into the second it burned its way down your throat. Trouble.

So I drank that for a long time.

After 11 years of living in other cities, I returned to the Finger Lakes and moved to a small town on the other side of Cayuga Lake from where I grew up. By this time, what used to be farms or wooded hills were flourishing wineries and restaurants. Friends from New York City or San Francisco would say, "Oh, you live near the wine trail! You must go to wineries all the time," and I'd think, Why would I do that? There's a perfectly good bar down the street.

Hazelnut Kitchen

Hazelnut Kitchen. © Bill Wingell

Then my older sister married a winemaker—a tall, thin man with a wiry ponytail named Dave Breeden. Dave works at Sheldrake Point Vineyard, which sits near Cayuga Lake along a long, sloping hill. He is known for being generous about what he likes in a wine and straightforward about what he doesn't. He also makes fantastic wines.

Once Dave married into the family, wine became part of our daily lives. He and my sister lived in the apartment next to ours, separated only by a white wooden door. We moved to and from each other's homes easily, often shoeless, when we wanted company, or needed some olive oil or a cup of sugar. On my favorite days, Dave would bring his work home with him in a glass bottle marked with a piece of masking tape that said, in his spidery handwriting, "Cab Franc, '08" or "Gewürz."

"Taste this. What do you think?" he'd say, as if he really wanted to know what we thought.

My husband, my sister and I would taste it. "Mmm," I'd say. "It's fruity."

"I'm getting Tang, like the powdered orange drink," Dave would reply. "I'm not very happy about it."

He would take notes, and we would taste and talk some more. Slowly, painlessly, I began to learn about wine. I began to understand terms like elegance, backbone and steely. ("Steely?" I said once. "How do you taste that?" Dave shrugged. "Lick some metal," he said.) I learned more about what went into making and selling the stuff: like one of the reasons Spanish bottles tend to be such a good buy is that many of the vineyards have been in the families forever, so there's no mortgage to pay off, yet the wine is still the result of generations of fine-tuning. Or that to make ice wine, Dave harvests the grapes at between 12 and 18 degrees Fahrenheit, so he has to get up in the middle of the night in the coldest part of winter and go pick fruit.

"It just sounds so romantic," I said to Dave one evening. We were having dinner at Hazelnut Kitchen, the restaurant down the street from our house. "Picking the grapes under that blue, blue moonlit sky."

"It's horrible and freezing cold," Dave said, then turned to Christina McKeough, who co-owns the restaurant with her chef husband, Jonah. "What do you think would go best with the beef bourguignon?" he asked.

"I like the Burgundy," Christina said. "But it might be a little light for Rebecca's steak."

Christina and Jonah (we call them the Hazelnuts for short) moved to our town from Philadelphia because they wanted to run their own restaurant close to the source of their ingredients. Their modernized classics—hanger steak with hand-cut fries and malt vinegar aioli, say, and goat-cheese gnocchi with sage brown butter—are as good as, if not better than, most of the places I've eaten at around the country. (Which is a lot. I dated a food writer in New York City for years before I met my husband.) We're such regulars at the restaurant that we've all become friends, and it was through Christina that I began to appreciate wine pairings.

In general, I had the same feelings about pairings that I did about wine appreciation. (Pairings? Just pick a wine you like and drink it.) But then, one night at the restaurant, I ordered a Moroccan lamb curry with a carrot salad. I was sitting there looking at the wine list, not sure whether I was in the mood for white wine or red—and wasn't there some kind of rule about white wines going better with curries? Because Christina is my friend, and because she's known for coming up with great pairings, and because she doesn't have a pretentious bone in her body ("As far as I'm concerned," she once said, "if the pairing is good, you don't need to talk about it"), I asked her what I should drink. She suggested a Pinot Gris with a creamy finish.

The wine she suggested was so delicious, and made the lamb taste so good, that I couldn't shut up about it.

Oh, I thought. I get it.

I was so excited that I got another glass to go with the pot de crème I'd ordered for dessert. It tasted sour. (The wine, not the pot de crème.)

Ah, I thought. Now I really get it.

Now, after five years of being back in the Finger Lakes, I find myself in a place where wine—tasting it, talking about it, enjoying it—has become a natural and comfortable part of my social life. And with that has come some lovely changes. We have wine at family dinners now, courtesy of Dave. (My mother sometimes drinks it, my father still abstains.) When my sister and I fight, Dave will bring over a bottle of his wine as an olive branch. At potlucks, I like comparing notes with the Hazelnuts about a new wine we're trying, or the gin I just bought at the new Finger Lakes Distilling. (Although I'd be lying if I didn't say I was still more interested in hearing about people's personal lives.) Mostly, though, I feel lucky to be in a place where people who make and care about food and wine, and who are so good at it, talk about what they do in a spontaneous, informal way. It's the classroom I've always wanted, and sometimes, I don't even have to leave the house.

Which is what happened the other night, when Dave brought home a mixed case of Sheldrake Point wines and offered to do a tasting for the Hazelnuts in my dining room. I made a roast pork; the Hazelnuts arrived with a watercress salad with dried cherries and pancetta vinaigrette, and an apple-and-pear pie. We tasted the wines and talked about them all through the meal. After dinner, Dave asked, "Should I open a bottle of the ice wine?"

"Yes," we said. "Yes, yes."

Dave opened the 2008, which has yet to be released.

I took a sip. It was amazing. Sweet but not cloying. There was depth, luxuriousness, structure. All those words that used to make me roll my eyes.

"What do you think?" Dave asked.

"Moonlight," I said. "It tastes like you've bottled the moon."

Rebecca Barry is the author of Later, at the Bar, a novel in stories, and the blog The Main St. Diaries.

Published April 2010
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