Aaron Reeves works as a sommelier in Seattle, Washington. This is his (unedited) entry in our seminal wine competition.
“So, what do you think? Just a Chardonnay or something? That’s what I’m drinking.”
I was aware of not wanting to say the wrong thing, of not wanting to look like I didn’t know what I was talking about. Shelly was aware of it too. I was 20 years old and, therefore, not of legal drinking age. I grew up in a conservative Christian family with a strict boycott on all forms of alcohol. I was absolutely clueless. And beyond that, I was a good kid. I never even considered sneaking into a bar or a party; I knew for certain I would get caught and it would be a catastrophe. Shelly, on the other hand, was in her early-30s, and came from an old, established Oklahoma oil family. She had money, and good taste. Yet, there we were together, jointly on the guest list for a coworker of ours at a party where they didn’t bother checking IDs at the door. “Sure, Chardonnay sounds great.”
She leaned over to the bartender and ordered me a glass. I took a sip. It was terrible. I didn’t understand what was happening. It was sour and vaguely musty and tasted like cedar. Are beverages supposed to taste like cedar? And, of course, it was my first taste of alcohol in any form; a jarring experience in itself. “What do you think?” Shelly asked. “Oh yeah. It’s great!” I lied.
In the years of finishing high school and starting college, I started to question my religious background. To hone in on what I really believed, to accept my sexuality and reject the homophobia and rhetoric and dogma that had made my life so stifling. To begin to feel free. One of the beliefs I rejected was the principle that alcohol was inherently evil, and those that consume alcohol are sinners. Without even taking a single drink, I decided that wine would be my beverage. After all, the Bible mentions wine. Jesus drank wine. He even made it! Surely, wine would be the respectable way of entering this world of sinners. By choosing wine, I started the process of defining who I was. Of carving away what my community thought I should be, and deciding who I would allow myself to become. I wish my entry into wine had been something more glamourous than a banquet Chardonnay at a cast party for “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” Try as we might to write our own narratives, sometimes glamour just isn’t a part of the story.
Still, I knew that wine could be incredible, that I could love it, and find it fascinating. That wine could offer completely unique flavors and experiences. One bad glass of wine wasn’t going to turn me away. In fact, it inspired me to try more wines, to prove that wine could deliver on its promises. I started out, as I think many do, by developing a love for Riesling from Germany. And then, when the training wheels of sugar were no longer necessary, branching out to the alien territory of Alsace. I still remember the bright yellow label on a bottle of Trimbach that I kept around long after it was consumed, just because I loved it so much. I remember splurging on a bottle of Ridge Pagani Ranch Zinfandel—at $35, well outside my means as a college student—wondering how something could be so fruity and so savory at the same time. I bought bottles that were unfamiliar, solely on the merit of their unfamiliarity. With so much to explore, I felt I could never exhaust the possibilities.
In 2014, I made the decision to focus on wine as a career, and wine truly started to become something wonderful. Serving wine daily gave me exposure to far more bottles than I would have experienced on my own, and the connections between what I read and what I experienced began to cement. Opening a bottle of Auguste Clape Cornas for a table, taking a sniff from the decanter and actually smelling black olives in a wine for the first time; nailing Yangarra McLaren Vale Grenache in a blind tasting for its overwhelming mouthful of raspberry jam; drinking Long-Depaquit Moutonne Grand Cru with coworkers and marveling at how, on a table alongside Barolo and red Burgundy, this bottle of Chablis was truly the most complex wine of the bunch: all these experiences and more continue to shape my relationship with wine. I chose wine, and it has become an essential part of my identity. As a sommelier, I’m a member of a community defined by wine, instead of a community wholly in opposition to it. I’ve spent fourteen years now allowing myself to be a student of wine, and wine has never lost that sense of enchantment. Even now, steeped in studying the minutiae of AOP regulations, soil strata, and the like, it is still beguiling and still has so much more to teach me.
If Shelly handed me that glass of Chardonnay today, I wonder what I would think about it. Maybe I’d clock it for a stamp of oak chips, or a trace of residual sugar. Maybe I would choose to start my own tab and drink something better. Or maybe I would just appreciate it for what it is: a perfectly acceptable glass of inexpensive white wine. Good enough to drink at a party, but not particularly memorable. I doubt anyone but me remembers it at all. Yet I cherish that memory, not for the experience in itself, but as a herald for what my life would become. A life and an identity I chose for myself, starting with that first sip of Chardonnay.