December 29, 2004

Tales from the tasting room

People often think that being a wine writer is a glamorous job: I get to drink wines, hobnob with winemakers and travel all over the world. It's not all true. I don't get to drink wines. I get to put them in my mouth and then spit them out, over and over again. Some highlights from this year:

Tastings

Every couple of months, I go to New York for my other job as a wine critic at Wine & Spirits magazine. While other people start their day with coffee, I chug water and then jam in some writing before tasting 40 wines at 9 a.m. Coffee, you see, is verboten for professional wine tasters before tastings, as it affects flavor perception. Ditto with orange juice, garlic bagels, or anything strongly flavored.

After those 40 come another 40, and sometimes another 40 after that. During one of these marathons, my editor sent me a gentle reminder that my feature story was late. "Don't you get woozy after all that wine?" she wrote. "No," I answered, "I just develop a more intense hatred for bad Merlot."

Some of the most memorable wines of that particular morning:

We were tasting newly released, commercially available wines. They are on shelves now, and good people are probably drinking them. That's why we wine critics have jobs: to save good people from bad wine.

Teeth

Tasting lots of wine is not only a challenge for the taste buds, but it's hard on the teeth. Acid and tannin etch away at tooth enamel. Red wine also turns them black. To save your teeth enamel, a recent study determined, it's better not to brush your teeth in the morning: the plaque helps to protect them.

Somehow, I just haven't been able to embrace the idea of walking around with black teeth and wretched breath.

Travel

I'm in Paris, but my bag is nowhere to be seen. "Oh, they sent it to London," United's baggage checker says in charming, French-accented English. "We'll deliver it to your hotel." Great, only I'm boarding a minivan in five minutes and heading for the Loire Valley, two hours away. She says they'll courier it; pas de probleme.

It's not until the next day that it becomes clear that by "courier," she meant she'd send it by France's version of UPS, and the bag might arrive to my hotel by the end of the week. But I'm in a different town, different hotel every night of the week, so I go to Carrefour, France's answer to Kmart, and buy some end-of-season specials from the meager picks left on the shelves. My luggage shows up three days after I return.

Another time, the screw-up is mine; I'm in New York, but my passport is in Denver, and I'm scheduled to leave for Greece in a matter of hours. My kind, wonderful, generous neighbors break into our house, retrieve my passport, drive it to the airport and put it on a plane. I'm able to leave the next day. From Athens, I get into a taxi and we drive across the Peloponnese until the driver decides he and his brother, whom he brought along for company, need some coffee.

Who I am to argue with a taxi driver speeding along small, sea-dark roads who says he needs coffee? We stop into a smoke-filled cafenio - a café for men, essentially, where they go to talk, smoke and worry their worry beads. We drink thick, bitter coffee, careful not to stir up the grounds shored up in the bottom of the cups, while everyone stares at the girl, the American girl at that.

Writing

"I've got a great story for you," says the public relations person at the other end of the line. That's never a good way to begin a pitch; after all, we writers are supposed to be smart enough to find our own stories. "We've developed a way to take in alcohol without having to drink." Instead of having a glass of wine at a bar, you can now strap on a mask and have the alcohol delivered into the air you breathe. It'll take a little while - 30 minutes or so - but imagine the calories you'll save. And the wasted breath of conversation - you and your friend can just sit there and stare at your masked selves.

People

"I'm not an idiot," the guy muttered as he walked past the table where I was selling my book, "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Wine Basics." I began to point out that the apostrophe falls after "Idiot," which makes it possessive, which makes me, the author, the idiot. But before I could finish, he yelled, "I am not an idiot."

If anyone's the idiot, it's me, the one who chose wine as a business instead of a pure pleasure. I love my job, but you're the smart ones: You're the ones who drink wine just for the enjoyment of it. That is, after all, what it's there for.

Cheers.

This article originally appeared in the Denver Post.

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