Competition – Bob Harrison

Bob Harrison writes, ‘I sometimes describe myself as a poster child for a simple pleasure completely run amok. I’m about 10 months older than Jancis, and live in Sammamish, Washington, USA (a suburb of Seattle), above a basement full of alcoholic grape juice worth far more than anyone in my income bracket could possibly justify. I retired a couple of years ago after working in several professional capacities, ranging from serving as a United Church of Christ minister (serving a small church at the time of the story below) to eventually turning my hobby into a job and working in the wine industry — some winery work, a short time in distribution, mostly in retail. But even though it wasn’t my primary source of income, I mostly consider myself an educator: I joined the Society of Wine Educators in 1993, passed the Certified Wine Educator (CWE) examination in 2003, and as a result of teaching both freelance and winery-based classes, I take no small amount of pride in having led some 2000 students up to the edge of the steep and slippery slope, and giving them a gentle push. I’m fortunate to be married to a woman who is quite indulgent and supportive of my alcohol problem (collecting, not drinking!), despite the fact that she drinks no alcohol at all. (She is, however, a highly accomplished seamstress with couture skills who makes all her own clothes, and we have an agreement: I don’t tell her what I spend on wine, and she doesn’t tell me what she spends on fabric…) This is his (unedited) entry in our seminal wine competition.

I can’t really call it a “seminal” wine. My interest in wine had been developing for some time, albeit gradually, due at least in part to a very limited income. But I was living in White Plains, NY at the time (early ’80s) and reading Frank Prial in the New York Times on a regular basis, which had nurtured a curiosity about things I couldn’t possibly afford (as well as leading me to off-the-beaten-track discoveries that I could: I still remember his article on the stuff called “green wine,” vinho verde). It was, however, the first wine that caused me to sniff and sip in awe, and say, “So this is what they’re talking about…”

It was the summer of 1983, and I was with friends, including my girlfriend of the time, on a canoe trip on the Connecticut River. We pulled into a small town for lunch, and picked up a sandwich and drink from the little deli/grocery/general store next to the river. As I was waiting to pay, I noticed a small display of wine bottles next to the register. The labels were very plain, but simply stated in large, fancy letters across a tan background, “Garrafeira” and the vintage: 1959, 1958 and 1956. They were priced from around $15 to $18 — more than I was used to spending on wine at the time, but not out of reach. So I questioned the proprietor; he told me that he really didn’t know much about them, but they were Portuguese, they were really good, and they were worth ten times what they were selling for. I was skeptical, but he stood firm, and I was intrigued — and disregarding the risks of carrying a bottle of wine in a canoe through a hot summer afternoon, the personal fiscal pinch and the implausibility of the claim, I bought a bottle of the oldest one, 1956, for a bit under $20.

A few days later, I was exploring with my girlfriend what to do with this special bottle, and she mentioned that her best friend’s current boyfriend taught wine classes in New Haven. So we asked them if they were interested — they were! — and a couple weeks later I received my first tutored exercise in formal tasting over a bottle of a 27-year-old “reserve” red from Portugal (and more than that, I do not know; if there was anything else on the label, I did not then have the knowledge to decipher it). It smelled unlike anything else I had ever encountered in my life: wild unnamed dried fruits and incense and exotic spices and forest breezes and distant caravan fires and intimations of pungent pipe tobacco and aromas I couldn’t hope to name, mixed and remixed and coming in iridescent waves, as we all talked about what we were sensing and tried to catch the moment of recognition as it slipped through our fingers. I did nothing but smell for fully half an hour, lost in shifting perceptions and the mental images and ideas they evoked, and began to discover what I have since come to value so highly about wine: that as an agent with the capacity to unite both the sensory and intellectual elements of human experience and provide a glimpse of beauty that transcends simple codification, thus making us more whole, wine can function as a form of prayer. I had a very slight alcohol buzz before I ever put the wine to my lips, and when I did, it was simply a tactile and taste confirmation and celebration of what my nose had told me.

We shared the bottle for the next hour or more, and at the end my friend declared that this was, indeed, the equivalent of a fine Bordeaux of similar age, and yes, arguably worth ten times what I had paid for it. As a follow-up when the bottle was gone, my friend brought out the remnants of an Yquem he had used for a class a couple days earlier — clearly a great treat and another revelation, but still not the star of the evening. He also knew something of the wine’s story: As I recall, it involved a local importer traveling in Portugal and visiting a supplier who had just discovered several barrels of wine that had been forgotten and covered up at the back of the winery. Not being sure of what was inside and cautious about putting their name on it, they sold the barrels to the importer, who then brought them back to Connecticut, bottled and labeled them there, and released them into the local market at an attractive price under a generic label. Knowing what I know now, there are some elements of the story as I remember it which seem suspect — but while the story behind a wine can contribute so much to its enjoyment, so too, I believe, can mystery be just as compelling in its own right. And knowing what I know now, I still remember that wine as one of the best I’ve ever had, and a memorable introduction to those qualities of maturity that speak more of mystery than clarity.