Competition – Chris Struck

'Chris Struck credits his upbringing in a large hybrid French-Deeply Southern U.S. family in the coastal city of Destin, Florida as what incited his passion for food and beverage at an early age. He began cooking professionally within Chef Tim Creehan’s fine dining restaurant group at the age of 14 and supplemented his formal restaurant apprenticeship with self-study trips to Europe, working in both kitchens and vineyards to gain greater knowledge of regional cuisines and wines. After completing his undergraduate degrees in Culinary Arts & Food Service Management at Johnson & Wales University, Struck gained certifications from the Wine & Spirits Education Trust, the Society of Wine Educators, and the Deutsche Wein und Sommelierschule in Koblenz, Germany. He is currently working through the certified sommelier curriculum of the Court of Master Sommeliers. Struck holds an Executive MBA in Food Marketing from Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia. Practical restaurant experience has included opening 8 restaurants in capacities of both front and back of house throughout his career, most recently at Racines NY, where he served as an assistant sommelier, and Danny Meyer’s flagship Union Square Cafe, where he currently works as a sommelier. In addition to working as a full time sommelier and consultant, Struck will start his first term teaching as an adjunct professor in the College of Hospitality Management at the City University of New York (CUNY) in the upcoming fall 2018 semester.' His (unedited) entry in our seminal wine competition follows. 

I couldn’t have asked to be born into and raised by a more culturally amusing family.

My maternal grandfather—a hard-working, Southern Baptist redneck from Texas—met my grandmother—a 17-year-old Catholic Comtesse from Lorraine—when he was stationed in the French region during the Korean War. They were married shy of a year later and the young woman renounced her title, left her homeland, and bid farewell to her blood relatives to begin adulthood with her husband and his family in the very foreign city of Mobile, Alabama in the summer of ‘55.

Ten years and seven children later, my grandmother’s consumption of alcohol among her teetotaling new Southern relatives was limited to the weekly dose of Eucharistic Blood of Christ at Sunday Mass (between two stubborn religions, Catholicism—or rather my grandmother—won and my grandfather converted). As one can imagine, rearing seven children, along with their pets and friends, left little time to attend or host social soirées, in spite of her past chateau life. Children becoming adults and moving out (and begetting children of their own, some of whom grow up to become sommeliers) would eventually afford my grandmother the time, money, and opportunity to resume the luxury of drinking wine socially.

Despite having a French grandmother, I grew up with magnums of cheap, ubiquitous grocery store reds and the errant Kendall Jackson Chardonnay on the dining room table at most large family suppers (think lighthouses among a sea of Bud Light bottle-masted ships) and an incredibly strict father, who forbade me from imbibing until reaching the legal U.S. drinking age of 21 (he was only successful at these family meals).

Though my parents didn’t do much drinking themselves, they hosted many large parties during my formative years. These would be inevitably flooded with vinous gifts from guests who matched the supply provided by their hosts. By the end of the party, this often meant a surplus, the countings of which—lucky for me—were far too great for my parents to keep tabulated.

My amusing upbringing wasn’t limited to that of my kinfolk. My best friend Nick’s mother was Tuscan by birth (I ate—and drank—at his house as often as possible). Having a best friend whose mother saw no harm in children enjoying small amounts of wine with dinner in her home also meant that Nick and I developed a proclivity for red wine much earlier than our peers.

When he spent nights at my house, we would wait for my parents to go to bed, stealthfully sneak into the kitchen, extract two glasses from the cupboard and one of those god-awful winged corkscrews from the drawer, and make our way to my parents’ wine racks, tiny flashlights in mouth. Through the strategic reshuffling of holes in these racks, Nick and I could easily extract and consume three bottles a night without notice. We would then make our way back to my bedroom, lock the door, dim the lights so as to not draw attention, and open one at a time, discussing our impressions of them against their back label descriptions, as if we had any idea what we were talking about (we definitively did not).

In retrospect, the two times we were caught (once by my snitch of a sister), we were not so far inebriated that we were unable to hide the contraband, unlock the door, and face one of my parents without rousing further suspicion. When I recently brought this up with my parents, I was surprised they had been without any thought of wrongdoing. Our age and the ambiance at the very least could have led to an assumption of sexual experimentation (we were not).

We drank wine with great frequency and gusto, and I was determined to never get caught. The appeal of defying one’s parent greatly improved the perceived quality of the plonk.

While I had become an amateur drinker by age 15, I had become a professional cook the year before, and one should assume those facts are closely related. For special occasions and to ensure the holes in the household’s wine racks did not suffer too noticeably large a widening, I would supplement leftover party wine by buying “expensive” bottles ($60 is expensive to a fifteen-year-old line cook) from servers at the restaurant where I worked. They would regale me with descriptors of each and their subsequent point values, which in 2005 was of the utmost importance to American wine drinkers. It wasn’t until a decade later that I had the epiphany that each bottle clandestinely furnished to the kitchen at the end of my shift had likely been stolen from the restaurant’s cellar. I would have sought greater moral provenance had I known it then. Silver Oak was the only specific bottle that I remember obtaining and I explicitly remember not caring much for it and having the pillow talk tasting with Nick about it weeks later when we drank it. We agreed that we must be missing something for not liking in, because by all objective accounts, we were told it was a great wine.

And that, that is my defining wine memory. That moment. Silver Oak is my epiphany wine, but not in the way DRC is for some. The question seems to annoyingly come up around day one of professional wine trips, among my fellow American colleagues: “What was the wine that made you get into wine?” My story is generally too long to share in that moment, when people are looking for one incredible wine everyone can “ooh” and “ahh” over, coupled with an elevator pitch of the circumstances when it was consumed, but now as a sommelier, I fondly reflect upon this memory and it serves to remind me to never tell someone what they should like to drink or find pleasure in. More of us could use to be disarmed of our judgmental piety in both our work and in our day to day lives.

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