Competition – Jake Smith


Jake Smith writes, 'I'm a certified sommelier and wine wholesaler based in Charleston, South Carolina. I'm 29 years old, and I was raised in the wine industry – both my mother and father have worked wine retail my whole life, and my younger sister also works in wine retail as well. My experience with a glass of Greenock Creek Alices Shiraz when I was 18 years old and working in my father's wine store in Memphis, TN impacted me greatly, unlocking a passion for wine that has guided my life and career ever since.' Here's his (unedited) entry in our seminal wine competition.

Somewhere on the oak tree of my heart, that name is carved, along with the names of all the other things in my life that I’ve loved, or that I’ve lost, or that have otherwise made an indelible mark on the course of my life.A few of those names have covered all three areas, but I don’t think any of them represent such a sudden and positive moment of enlightenment as this one.It was a flash of clarity, a bolt from the blue, an awakening.

Growing up in a household where both parents were in the beverage industry, wine was always there.I remember little glasses of watered-down wine at the table on special occasions and holidays, or sips from my father’s glass that he would offer me just to see what I would say.And like most kids, I found that wine didn’t agree with me.At least, not the stuff we had around the house – big French reds from the Rhone and Bordeaux and jammy Zinfandels from Lodi and Sonoma (it was definitely the 90’s).It certainly wasn’t as appealing to me as the wine we had at church, which was light-bodied, fruity, and fairly sweet.In some respects, I suppose I could say that Carlo Rossi Paisano was like my first kiss.It was explorational, experimental, and fun – a new experience conducted in an entirely judgment-free zone by two participants who clearly had no idea what they were doing.

When my dad opened his wine store in 2006, he poached me from my job at a bookstore by promising me an extra 50 cents an hour – an enticing incentive to a kid in high school.And while I mostly fulfilled the lowly (but important!) duties of stocking shelves and working a cash register, my natural curiosity found a new world to explore.The books under the store counter were filled with information about places and stories that I had never heard of before, and I took to that immediately.

But the thing that seemed to elude me for the longest time was tasting.It wasn’t my lack of skill at the parlor trick of blind tasting that everyone is so focused on today.It was something more crucial – it was the romance of it.I didn’t understand the joy on my father’s face when swirling a glass of Paulliac, or the gleam in my co-worker’s eye when he talked about Brunello di Montalcino.It made me feel distinctly childish.To be fair, I was – actually, and in fact – a child, but that didn’t lessen the embarrassment and shame of being the only person in a store dedicated to wine who didn’t love wine.

It was a long time coming, but when it finally happened, it was like a car wreck.It was intense and intricate, all at once; a moment that seemed to last an age.And all the details of it – the minute, individual sensations of that experience – stand in perfect relief in my memory, fresh and undimmed by all the years that have marched me further away from that warm summer afternoon when it happened.

The glass was sitting there on a shelf, left for me to try after a distributor had stopped by earlier in the day, and it was covered by the customary index card used to keep away unwary fruit flies from being lured to a delirious death.I picked it up without any ceremony or anticipation, but upon the first sniff, I could tell that something was different.Nothing had ever smelled this intense before, this deep.The aroma instantly reminded of the blackberry cobbler I once ate as a child on a trip to Georgia to visit a distant relative, and I was thrown back to that memory of foraging for berries on a moonlit southern night as profoundly as the madeleine had once transfixed Proust.But there was more.There was stewed rhubarb and violets and tar.There was soy sauce and mocha and licorice and black topsoil after a spring rain.

Then came the first sip.An explosion, a cacophony of flavors filled my mouth, and I had my first experience of synesthesia – I tasted violet, that deepest and rarest of colors reserved only for emperors and princes, but with a depth that I could only compare to that moment when twilight ends and it’s impossible to say when exactly the color of the sky has finally slipped away into the inky blackness of the night.The blackberry cobbler remained, but instead of being simply one of the faraway half-memories that belong to childhood, it was here.It was present.The texture of the wine was leaden silk, weighty and smooth, but not unbalanced.And upon finally swallowing, the finish lingered pleasantly and faintly, like the warmth of a lover when they’ve left the bed.

In the years since, I’ve come to despise nearly everything that that wine stood for.It was 17.5% alcohol, almost certainly the product of extreme manipulation both in the vineyard and in the winery, and at the time, it was marketed by a person who perhaps single-handedly ruined the reputation of Australian wine in the United States.In short, it’s not my bag.But like any first love, I still think about it from time to time.It was the first wine I drank when I turned 21, and I collected a few bottles once I finally got a good-paying job.I shared my last bottle with a group of friends at a birthday party in 2016 for no particular reason.

Sometimes, if you want to understand the magnitude of something, you have to visit the mountaintop.You have to experience the most extreme version of something to gain the perspective needed to appreciate it in its lowest form.That glass of Greenock Creek was my first moment on a mountaintop, and I’ve spent the rest of my life since that day chasing summits.