Competition – Tony Harries

Tony Harries writes: ‘I was born in Manchester and my first job was a baker. I was lucky enough to win a competition with the prize being the chance to study literature at Oxford. I followed this with a degree in Drama at London University, which lead to my present job as a teacher at a school in Essex. I live with my wife, daughter and two cats in a house in Colchester.

I have played guitar in a punk rock band, performed as a stand-up comedian and currently release CD’s as a musical satirist. I also produce a small wine magazine on the Internet entitled, ‘Winefullness’ where I always find time to discuss the wines of California.’ This is his unedited entry in our seminal wine competition.

What made me fall in love with wine? I’d say that it was the result of two very different things. Firstly, Napa Valley and secondly, Sherlock Holmes!

It was nineteen-ninety and I was working in the old Abbey National headquarters that covered 221b Baker Street, answering all the letters that were sent from around the world to the legendary detective in a role entitled, ‘The Secretary to Sherlock Holmes’.

The majority of the letters that arrived on my desk came from the U.S.A. and I joked with a colleague that a tour could be organised to talk to Sherlock Holmes fans about my unusual job. Their response was a raised eyebrow (like Roger Moore) accompanied by a loud tut (like a disapproving teacher).

Three months later I was coming to the end of a two month lecture tour as the Secretary to Sherlock Holmes with only dates in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego to go, and it was at the end of the first of these that a couple came up to me and politely asked if I would like to add one more date to the tour.

I asked them where they had in mind and was told that it was only an hour north of San Francisco, in a place called Napa Valley.

‘They make great wine up there.’ My host informed me.

‘You mean like Paul Masson’s Californian Carafes?’ I replied, not wanting to appear gauche.

The slight laugh, snort and willingness of my host to repeat my comment to people sitting nearby informed me that I had made a faux pas akin to wondering why John Wayne never did Shakespeare.

‘Of course I’ll come and do my talk,’ I quickly responded trying to dig myself out of an obvious hole. ‘Perhaps I might try some of this Napa Valley stuff?’ How sophisticated I was in those days!

Times and lifts to Napa were arranged for the next day, and finding myself at a lose end I went to a bar in Union Square.

‘Could I have a glass of wine from the Napa Valley?’ I asked the bartender. This was going to be easy. Surely they only made three, red, white and blush.

Thirty minutes later the bartender had not only told me about that different grape varieties that flourished in Napa, he’d also informed about his favourite wineries (I still thought they were called vineyards in those days) and thrown in the odd bit of gossip about which owner’s son was going out with which winemaker’s daughter.

This was all accompanied by various selections that he thought might help with my Napa Valley education. The Robert Mondavi Fume Blanc was an eye opener and unlike anything I’d tasted up until that point (I cannot remember any of the years because I was so new to this wine lark). It had a beautiful viscous fruity quality that made me quickly put the thin, insipid Paul Masson in the out tray of tasting experiences.

The bartender didn’t let my taste-buds rest for a moment and a glass of Chateau Montelena Chardonnay was placed before me.

‘It’s like chewing a barrel,’ I told him.

‘You don’t like it? That’s the Napa style. Make the Chardonnay’s so woody you could build a log cabin out of them, and this winery beat the French in a blind tasting!’

‘Really?’ I nodded, not knowing what the heck a blind tasting was but pleased that people with disabilities were given a chance.

It wasn’t that I disliked the oaky taste, it was just so new to me, and as I took a couple more sips I realised that it was a taste that I actually enjoyed.

There were others that I tried that night including a Cabernet Sauvignon from ‘up valley’ (I didn’t understand this term, but thought it best to ponder this term to hide my ignorance) and something he told me was called a Zinfandel. Each tasted better than the last, was intriguing in its complexity and made me eager to go visit this ‘Napa Valley’.

I still remember my first visit as the rolling pastures of the Carneros (it didn’t seem to have been cultivated to quite the same extent as it has since become) gave way to the rows of vines to the north of the city of Napa, but the thing that blew my mind was the smell of sunshine baking those ripening grapes.

Among the many highlights were private tours of Inglenook and the location for a show called, ‘Falcon’s Crest’, brief stops for a glass of a recent vintage and a quick gossip with the knowledgeable pourers.

A picnic at V Sattui and a quick (a relative term in Napa) tour of the Alexander Valley also laid some of the groundwork for the start of my love affair with this region, as well as an evening tasting back at my hosts house.

I have since been back many times, have named my daughter after Calistoga (for which she was honoured by the mayor) and continue to seek out and collect wines from the area, but nothing will ever be as memorable as the first time I was driven up Napa Valley with the sun beating down and its heat baking the grapes and giving off that wonderful aroma.

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