Growing up in Haddonfield, New Jersey my experience with wine consisted of the gallon jug of Gallo Hearty Burgundy which Dad kept under the stove. We didn't go through it that quickly, so we got a fresh one about once every six months. As my brother and I got into our teens, we occasionally would be treated to a tall quaff of Gallo on nights when the family would gather around a piece of red meat. It happened infrequently enough that I never knew what to make of it. You could say that wine wasn't really a part of my life growing up.
I left home not thinking much of the stuff, but having developed a typical fondness for beer. I occasionally tasted some wine when it was offered, but overall wine was not something I found attractive.
My First Taste of Really Good Wine
I was first exposed to the good stuff while living in the San Francisco Bay area in the late '80s. Jules and I went to a Seder celebration at the home of a woman she worked with in the restaurant business. The manager of the restaurant came with a Methuselah of (I believe) 1978 Far Niente Cabernet Sauvignon.
When it came around to me I said, "No thanks, I don't like red wine".
Jules kicked me under the table and said, "He'll have some".
I think the words, "Oh, so THIS is what all the fuss is about" actually left my lips.
Getting into Wine
After growing up with the arcane East Coast alcohol laws I was amazed the average convenience store in San Francisco had a better wine selection than nearly every supposed wine shop I visited back east. We drank a lot of California Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc in those days, as well as some nice Champagne.
We moved to Seattle in 1990, and I continued tasting the occasional glass of wine. Jules began working at Ray's Boathouse, a Seattle landmark with a celebrated wine program. The Sommelier took a shine to me and included me on a number of staff tastings where I got introduced to more of the red wines of Washington State. I began to notice wine a bit more.
I had started working in taverns just to make money. The first one I worked in, The Buckaroo, sold wine by the glass (6 oz.) or the 'schooner' (9 oz.), straight up, no cork. We did get a 'finer wine' during my tenure there; this one had a cork, but not much else. Since there was so much beer and ale to focus on there was not a great need for me to think about wine as well.
Later I moved to the Triangle Tavern. It was a short ride down the hill, but a giant step up scale. On cold winter evenings I got into the habit of having a little Port while I was tidying up the bar prior to riding my bike up a the long hill to home. The Port was warming for the cold ride, but it was also the first time I regularly sat down to drink a glass of wine by itself. I began to think about that glass of Port ... I began to think about wine in general ... I began to buy wine to taste it and think about it. I was getting hooked.
Since I was getting so interested in wine, I volunteered to take over the maintenance of the wine list at the Triangle, which got me into all the distributor's trade tastings. There I began to develop a palate, tasting wines from all over the world next to each other and discussing them with people who had some real experience and taking notes on what I was tasting.
Through going to tastings and talking to people about wine, I met more serious wine tasters and collectors. At private tastings with them, I got to try wines that I would never spend my own money to buy. I also got the benefit of their experience as we tasted together. I heard them talk about what they liked or didn't like about a wine. I learned how to evaluate and quantify what I liked or didn't like about what I was tasting, as well as gaining a broader understanding of national and regional differences in wine making.
Through my connections with the Sommelier at Ray's Boathouse I met a local winemaker who was getting some of the best reviews in the state. I asked him if he ever needed any help and he signed me up for crush that was happening in about a month.
The first thing that I learned about making wine is that it is backbreaking work. Any images I had of "the romance of wine" were quickly displaced by the reality of the filthy, sweaty, sticky process of turning several tons of fresh grapes into several tanks full of crushed grape pulp. Still, I was loving the learning experience and didn't mind the physical labor, and so I stayed on.
One day I asked the winemaker if he would sell me a few pounds of crushed grapes to try for myself. He said he'd be glad to, as well as to give me advice on how to turn them into wine without screwing up the whole process along the way.
Vin de Garage
I made small batches of wine in '94 & '95 and met with some success, but making a 20-gallon batch of wine in big glass water bottles didn't feel like 'the real thing' to me. If I was going to take the time to make wine I wanted to make it in the same way a real winery would, and that meant by the barrel.
I started making wine by the barrel in 1999 in the cold, leaky garage of the house we were renting. In 2004 we moved to a new house that had a much nicer (and drier) garage and basement where I could really control the environment and refine the process. From then until 2012 I continued making wine, eventually purchasing 3,000 pounds of grapes per year and making a barrel and a half of wine.
I had started making wine because I wanted to understand how it worked. I stopped making wine because I did. After bottling the 2012 I sold all my equipment to one of the guys who'd helped me through the whole process and now he's making wine in his garage a few blocks north of us. I still get to play with grapes and taste the product, but I no longer have to keep my entire fall open waiting for grapes to do one thing or another.
Below is the list of wines that I made in my 15 years in the cellar: