I grew up in the Grape Belt on the shores of Lake Erie, in a world filled with grapes: grape cookie jars, grape jelly glasses, a brass doorknocker shaped like a cluster of grapes. When your father works for Welch’s, grapes are everywhere. During the fall, it seemed like all of Chautauqua County smelled like concord grapes.
I spent most of my career in higher education public relations and teaching high school English, but my passion for all things wine-related grew by the day. Now, my dream of a wine career has become a reality.
The seeds of my own interest in wine, which bear more fruit with each passing year, were planted when I was in college. In the late 1970s, early 1980s, my oldest brother and his wife started to import wines from the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of northeastern Italy, where they had lived in the city of Udine several years earlier. Predominantly under the label Valle, Rosalia Vintners was, unfortunately, years ahead of the U.S. wine curve. Getting small and mid-size restaurants in northern California to find room for Italian merlot, tocai friulano, refosco, and pinot grigio, as well as picolit, ribolla giolla, and pinot bianco among other varieties, was a very hard sell. The business never really turned a profit and ended up padlocking its warehouse for good in the late 1980s. But during that time, drinking quality Italian varietals was epiphanic, a titanic change from the sugary fizz of Riunite and Giacobazzi my college pals and I had cut our teeth and bruised our livers on only a few years back. Once my brother introduced me to the crisp, fruity, balanced wines from Friuli there was no going back to the jug plonk too many of my friends were still, unwittingly, suffering through. In 1984, at my sister’s wedding in Tomales, several cases of 1977 Valle merlot were served, alongside a half-dozen lambs that my new brother-in-law, a Basque sheep rancher, had slaughtered that morning. Many members of my family, who have become relatively wine savvy since then, still talk about that merlot as one of the best wines they have ever tasted.
I’ve grown quite a bit since those early days, and now enjoy wines from all over the world. In recent years a few countries and regions have inched into the favorite zone – the Southern Rhone, northern Spain, and just about everything Italian — but I’m always on the lookout for something new, a great value or a previously unheard of grape. Anything that moves me deeper into the world of wine.