WWC23 – David Berkley, by Eric Brooks

David Berkley

In this entry to our 2023 wine writing competition, IT analyst and wine lover Eric Brooks writes about David Berkley. See our WWC23 guide for more.

Eric Brooks writes I am an IT Systems Analyst and live in Northern California, about two hours from Napa. I am a passionate wine enthusiast and cook, and recently created my own website/blog (winedownwitheric.com) to share my knowledge and stories about wine. My interest in wine began with a wine appreciation class in college.  While still obtaining my degree, I worked at a few wine-related jobs that increased my exposure to the business. Things got more serious when I met my favorite wine person

“I hear you know something about wine.”

That was the first thing he ever said to me, and I clearly remember taking a step back before saying hello and shaking his hand.  

I was not ready for the wine consultant to the White House – the one in Washington D.C. – to acknowledge my interest in wine.  He had been visiting President Reagan when I was hired at his wine and specialty foods store as a grocery clerk.  While I did have some knowledge of California wines, I did not have the confidence to start talking wine with this man.

His follow up to our introduction was, “We can talk about wine after work today.”

Throughout the day, our “talk” was on my mind.  When the store closed, I was ready, but also nervous.  He had been at the wine bar most of the afternoon, tasting with wine reps and sharing samples with a few customers.  I could see at least 10 open bottles.

What was he going to pour for me?  Would I know what it was?  What if it was something “foreign” to me, like an Italian wine or one of those French wines I didn’t know how to pronounce? 

As the staff began their end of day tasks, the owner proceeded to walk through the store with a bottle of wine and a handful of glasses, offering a glass of wine to everyone.  I felt some disappointment in realizing that I would not be having my own moment with him, but also felt a sense of relief.  When he offered me a glass of white, I thanked him and continued my work. 

By the time I finished my tasks, most of the staff was gone.  I was one of the last to leave.  As I was walking towards the bar to return my glass, he spoke: “Eric, what did you think of the wine?”

I paused, then quickly responded, “I liked it.  A nicely oaked Chardonnay, with tropical fruit and buttery richness.  If I was having the store’s marinated swordfish for dinner, I would drink this with it.” 

He smiled, then said, “Good, I’m glad you liked it.  By the way, I am having that swordfish tonight – with the rest of this bottle.  When I’m here, make sure you come by the bar at the end of the day, and we can talk more about wine.”

So began a magical relationship with David Berkley – wine consultant to four U.S. presidents, advisor to winemakers and wineries, owner of a highly successful wine and specialty foods store in Sacramento, California, and my dear friend.

My end-of-day offering soon turned into tasting sessions, where I was asked my opinion about the samples provided by wineries and vendors.  Clearly, I had a lot to learn, but David’s interest in me was piqued, and the teaching began.  Varietal characteristics, discerning a wines ability to age, identifying flaws (“understanding flaws and knowing why a wine is of poor quality is necessary in order to recognize what is good”) and the important roles that food and cooking play in the enhancement and enjoyment of wine.  

These topics, and more, became my focus.  For me, looking forward to the end of the workday had nothing to do with going home – it had to do with tasting and learning about wine.  Lessons were never forced, as David has a gift for sharing information.  He embraced my enthusiasm with patience and sincerity.  He adopted my inexperience as an opportunity to expand my wine education and increase my passion for wine.  When he gave me a copy of Hugh Johnson’s Modern Encyclopedia of Wine, he told me to read it cover to cover.  When I told him I had finished it, he gave me more books.

He challenged me to be curious and have high expectations.  One day I mentioned that I was cooking a polenta stew for my wife’s family that night.  He walked over to the Italian section and handed me a bottle of San Felice’s Vigorello, then carefully instructed me how to evaluate it: “Open the bottle and take the first glass into another room, away from everyone, so you can focus on the wine.  Write down what you think.  Do not do any research before you taste it.”  

A few days later, we met in his office and discussed my notes (which were written from a California perspective, as I had no clue what Sangiovese was at the time.)  He explained the wine to me, told me where to learn more about Tuscan wines in the Encyclopedia, and invited me to spend more time working in the wine department – as an observer.  “You can keep the stock organized, check in orders, and taste with us.  Most importantly, though, I want you to listen.”

And I did just that.  Even though I was still a grocery clerk (and in college studying computer science as well,) I found the time to observe David (and Steve, the store manager) at work.  Whether they were selecting a single bottle for a picnic or 10 cases for the foundation of a cellar, I watched them treat each customer with respect under David’s motto that “quality is the fulfillment of any person’s expectations.”

Soon, I began to get pulled away from my “normal” work to taste throughout the day.  One morning, I was called over to the wine bar to join David and Steve to taste three 1985 red Burgundies – wines that were relatively unfamiliar to me.  I was enchanted with the aromatics of the first wine (Philippe Leclerc’s 1985 Gevrey-Chambertin "Les Cazetiers,”) and when I put it into my mouth, I knew it was special.  With a mouth full of wine, I mumbled, “you don’t spit this, do you?”  David and Steve both laughed and shook their heads with an affirmative “no.”

So began the adventures into fine wine:

  • Spending afternoons pouring and tasting wines with icons like Warren Winiarski of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Christian Bizot of Bollinger, John Shafer, Dick Ponzi, Franck Duboeuf, and Richard Ward of Saintsbury (whose passion for single-vineyard Pinot Noir left an indelible impression on me.) 
  • Evaluating 80 cru Beaujolais after work, then heading to a downtown restaurant to consume (I found out that tasting really is a lot of work!)
  • A memorable thank you dinner after the Christmas holidays, where we drank Champagne with Russian caviar, DRC out of magnum with rack of lamb, and finished with Yquem.
  • Blind tasting the candidate wines for the first Reagan-Gorbachev summit (I correctly picked the final blend from seven samples.)

David exposed me to the world of food and wine, and he spoiled me too.  I finished college and – with some regrets – left the store for a career in the tech industry.  However, our relationship did not end – it began to flourish.  When I was laid off from my first tech job, he quickly hired me to work during the busy holiday period until I found another job.

Soon after that, he asked if I would be interested in performing an inventory of his cellar, which also served as the store’s library.  I agreed without hesitation, and lovingly performed this “service” for 25 years – always in exchange for store credit to purchase wines for my own collection.  Naturally, my education continued.  When we worked on the inventory together, David tallied the counts while I announced the wines – and he gracefully corrected me when I mangled pronunciations. 

Education and appreciating the experiences associated with great wine were always paramount.  After spending the day alone in the cellar, and he would show up at the end of the day and ask, “What do you want to open?”  The challenge was upon me to find a wine I wanted to try – and justify the selection.  Other times, he would bring lunch and ask me to select the best match for the food.  He provided me with the knowledge and confidence to choose, and my respect for him compelled me to choose wisely.  We drank incredible bottles together.

After he retired, we prepared to sell a large portion of his collection, so we started moving wine into a separate storage facility.  We would frequently go to this other location to exchange wines between sites and validate the inventories.  One constant:  Empty boxes, two stems, a corkscrew, and a few bottles of water.  We drank well while we worked:  Shafer Hillside Select, Kistler Chardonnay, Solaia, and many Burgundies (David’s favorite.)

One time, we were busy counting inventory at the secondary location when David announced that it was time for a glass of wine.  He grabbed a Clos de Vougeot from Domaine Leroy and summoned me to get the corkscrew and wine glasses.  I went to the empty boxes…and there was no glassware!  What to do?  

We had a box cutter, and proceeded to cut our Aquafina water bottles in half, thereby creating a “proper” receptacle for the incredible Burgundy.  At the end of the day, as we finished the bottle, we laughingly decreed that Riedel should create an “Aquafina” line of plastic glasses.  “Perfect for picnics and poolside, but especially when you forget your glassware.”

When the collection sold, I said farewell to bottles that I had carefully and affectionately handled for many years.  I knew there would be no more challenges upon me to choose a bottle to open, no more incredible Burgundies to drink in a cellar.  My experiences and time together with David were going to diminish.  However, true to form, David rewarded my dedication and passion, and set aside several special bottles of wine for me to add to my collection.

I never imagined it at the time, but that first day with David Berkley would be the start of a life-altering journey.  I would receive the education of a lifetime, drink some of the finest wines made, and grow a passion for cooking, food and wine that continues to this day.  David recognized my passion, believed in my ability to learn, taught me to trust my instincts, encouraged me to strive for excellence, and made me a better person.

As for me, I try to be a positive influence as I share my knowledge and passion for wine with family, friends, and people willing to listen along the way.  I was published in the inaugural WWC (making David quite pleased,) and I recently created my own website/blog with the hope that I can inspire and educate others, just as David did for me.

Cheers, David.  With every special bottle I open, I raise a glass in appreciation to you.

Photo credit: Busselen/Bauer Photo Illustrators Inc.