When we moved to California in 1996 my wine knowledge was in its infancy. My enthusiasm was growing but I didn’t know a whole lot. We weren’t in Alameda long before we heard about Rosenblum wines, which were made here in town. I know a good research opportunity when I see one, and wasted no time getting over to the winery to see what was what.
You couldn’t ask for a more welcoming arrangement. Perched above the winery floor inside a converted warehouse, on a sliver of a loft, the “tasting room” could only accommodate a few people at a time, which allowed for personal attention from whomever was pouring, and gave those tasting plenty of time to ask questions, enjoy a range of wines, and lap up the view looking west to the Bay Bridge and San Francisco. No sales push, no coercion to join any clubs. Nothing but, “what else would you like to try?” The glasses and the pours, like the wines, were big. While I had been to a few wineries and tasting rooms before, I had never visited any repeatedly. It wasn’t long before Mary and I became wine club members. Rockpile Road, Monte Rosso, St. Peter’s Church, Harris Kratka, Hendry, Annie’s Reserve, and so many others. We learned so much drinking those ripe and powerful zinfandels, as well as the other varietal bottlings and blends. They boosted my knowledge and enthusiasm in ways I could never have anticipated.
I had seen Kent at the winery a few times but it wasn’t until years later, after he had sold Rosenblum to Diageo and gone down the street to start Rock Wall Wine Co. with his daughter, Shauna, that I got a chance to speak with him. And, each time that I saw him at an industry event, I must confess, I had a bit of a fan boy moment, a tingle that I still get when I spend time with winemakers I admire and whose wines I enjoy. It’s the feeling, if you’re a wine lover, that you’re in the presence of someone special, someone who can do great things. Anybody who can make delicious wines that have some soul, some gravity to them, wines that make you want to taste and learn more, well, that’s great in my book. In person, Kent was warm, unpretentious, modest, funny, engaging, and attentive. The world is a better place for his having been here. I really wish I still had some of those early Rosenblums in my cellar.
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On November 13, 2003, my wife and I opened a 1996 Giuseppe Rinaldi Barolo. I’m confident I’ve never had a single bottle of wine be the catalyst of both colossal regret and phantasmagoric epiphany at the same time.
My rookie tasting note from that evening reads, “Still opening two hours after opening [sic!]. Tight and lean, becoming fuller, longer, more complex. Finish is overwhelming — it lasts and lasts and lasts. Drink ten to 15 years from now.” Back then we were scoring our wines, based on a precise yet completely intuitive and subjective rubric. This wine received a 9+/10.
My wife, as is her wont, went off to bed ahead of me and left me with the last glass and a half that remained in the bottle. Over the next hour — this was far too good to drink with any haste, gluttony be damned — the wine continued to fill out and open up even more, becoming more textured, more complex. I still remember closing my eyes and having an image of blue velvet cloth and silver stars fill my mind. I had never had such an experience with a glass of wine before, and only one or two similar moments since. I’d had wine made from the nebbiolo grape a number of times but never a high-end Barolo. This wine gave us more over the course of that meal than either one of us expected, or even knew to expect. And, it opened my eyes to that world people refer to when they speak of the finest wines and the magical charms they often carry.
Epiphany? Certainly. Regret? Certainly, again. The wine was way too young to drink, years away from reaching its peak. I’d give quite a bit to have that ’96 still in my cellar. Of course, I might not get the blue velvet and silver stars the next time around. Such is the elusive and ephemeral nature of wine.
Once I got into the wine industry and began attending events where winemakers from around the globe made themselves available, I nurtured the hope that at some point down the line, either here in the States or over in Italy, I would meet Giuseppe Rinaldi. I would have a fleeting moment to gush and tell him what an experience I had with his wine, what a rabbit hole it pulled me into, and how grateful I was for his generous craftsmanship. His passing last week now makes that impossible. For me and countless other wine lovers. The best I can do is gather a few of his wines for my cellar and see, in the coming years, if any more of them are made with silver and velvet.
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There is a common superstition that death comes in threes. Enough people die every day that you can find a trio of commonalities without having to look very hard, so I’m confident that there is nothing to the superstition. And yet, the deaths of these two winemakers were not the only losses I felt last week. There was a third.
Last Tuesday I received a warm and supportive note from my WSET Diploma instructor, Adam Chase, that was filled with bad but not entirely unexpected news. My most recent attempt to finish the requirements for Level IV was for naught. I had promised myself that regardless of the test results, the June exam would be my final shot. I had taken it three times (studied for it twice) and enough was enough.
Does it sting? Yes and no. I’m not one to be obsessed with completing every task or winning every contest, but the Diploma was something I thought was well within my capacity. I’ve always been pretty good at school when I wanted to be. I ended up passing five and a half of the six exams, but Unit 3 Theory was my Waterloo. I racked up a few merits and distinctions along the way so I figured, wrongly, that I’d eventually earn the Diploma. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so cocky after passing Unit 3 Tasting with almost no preparation.
Time to move on. No more rants about antiquated testing conditions or “what ifs” to haunt myself with. I’m comfortable embracing the idea of learning for the sake of learning. If I’d stopped at Level III, the Advanced certificate, I never would have dug so deeply into spirits, sparkling and fortified wines, or the grittier details of farming and winemaking. I’m better for all that I’ve read and understood. Will I ever have a firm grasp on German labeling laws or similarly arcane subjects? No, and that’s okay. I have lots of wine books now. If I need to know something, I’ll just look it up.