WWC24 – Chianti spritzer on the beach, circa 1964, by Melanie Webber

Photograph of the Chianti bottle

We were thrilled to receive a record 211 submissions to our 2024 wine writing competition. After a preliminary round of judging, we have selected those that we are particularly proud to publish here, unedited, throughout July and August. To kick things off, Melanie Webber, author of shortlisted WWC23 entry The Wine Student, returns to write about the wine moment she'll never forget: her first taste of wine. See also this guide to our writing competition.

Melanie Webber writes Melanie Webber, DipWSET, SWS/FWS, is a certified wine educator and wine writer. She serves as an adjunct professor of Wine Studies at California’s College of the Canyon’s Institute of Culinary Education and is director of MWWine School, an approved program provider of WSG and WSET courses in Paso Robles, California and Asheville, North Carolina, where she has helped hundreds of industry professionals and wine lovers achieve their wine certifications. Melanie writes about wine under the BottlePoet handle, and is part of the founding team of the world-renowned Garagiste Wine Festival.

The Wine Moment I Will Never Forget: Chianti Spritzer on the Beach, circa 1964

It was on the map but, as we came around the mountain, the village wasn’t there. A set of bells sat, incongruously, on the side of the road, and the only building, a tower, rose up from the center, stalwart against the mountains. All else was gray, blasted, like a bomb had hit it. It was deathly quiet and, in the car, my parents, who had their own experience of bombs a little over 20 years earlier, were deeply moved. 

It was the summer of 1964 and we were four countries, a busted fan belt, flat tire, blown piston and two-times run-out-of-petrol, away from the foggy English morning when my parents packed me, my brother, and a lot of camping equipment, into our little Zodiac car for a trip with a caravan of their friends across the ‘continent.’ 

I was 8 years old and had never tasted wine.

The night before, we had crossed from Germany into Austria, making camp in utter darkness, awakening to fields of green, enveloped by the magnificence of snow-capped mountains, and the heady sizzle of sausage and bacon from the camp stove, before heading for Italy down the steep Brenner Pass where our not-so-hardy Zodiac stalled, spurring a torrent of Italian curses (and at least one clenched fist) from angry lorry drivers. Then, several rounds of hair-raising bends, up and down those Alps, before we turned the corner into the disappeared town of Longarone and its silenced bells. 

From that quiet shock, we descended 60 miles south to Lido di Jesolo, where Dad pitched our bright orange tent on the beach, a hop, skip and a boat trip from Venice. Crowded with tents, and the rowdy chaos of children and families, it was bursting with sunlight across blue skies, heat shimmering off the sand and gentle waves of the Adriatic Sea.  

It was like going from a black and white film into technicolor.  

We rushed into our bathing costumes and bounced into the temperate water of the Adriatic, thick with salt that buoyed us up and, where, a few days later, I would swim on my own for the first time. 

The decimated Longarone had unsettled the grownups, especially my parents who had lived through the firestorm of the Plymouth Blitz, and its obliterated buildings, stolen lives and rubble left in its wake. The possibility of that ever happening again often filtered through the imaginings of my childhood dreams and nightmares, revived in Longarone’s empty gray place between those sharp, granite mountains, the slashes of dried mud, the space where life once thrived, echoing with ghosts. 

Dad had asked about it when he stopped for petrol and found out that, the previous October, Longarone had been the victim of a deadly surge of water over a poorly constructed dam, warning signs ignored, drowning 2,000 people in their sleep. Over 350 families completely lost. Even more deaths than in the Plymouth Blitz. A devastating tragedy.

The Adriatic’s salt water washed some of that sad film off and, back at the campsite, Dad greeted us with armfuls of watermelons and baskets of wine. I had never seen or eaten watermelon before, its scarlet flesh in relief against its thick green rind - a wonder, like the Italian flag. The watery, sugary pink juice from its crisp flesh making our faces and fingers sticky. 

The grownups filled their glasses with red wine from pear-shaped wine bottles cradled in raffia baskets, and topped them off with Vichy mineral water, made fizzy by a metal tap on the top of a bottle. The spritz seemed to magnify the effect of the wine in my parents, lifting their spirits. I don’t remember if I asked, or my brother asked, but, at some point, we were allowed to taste the wine, each given a tiny finger of ruby liquid in a glass, topped off with a rush of minerally bubbles. It was my very first taste of wine. 

It was bitter, like the tea we Brits drank incessantly, sour/sweet like a cherry, a little salty like the sea, and, like anything fermented, tasting wildly of something alive. Whatever that wine was - probably a very rustic, rough-hewn Chianti - it would not have sent any tasting panels into raptures, but it did send 8-year-old me into a moment that has lasted my whole life. 

And that’s the thing. 

The memory of that wine tingling on my tongue is all tied up in a moment that brought together the Austrian alps spiraling heavenward, a truck driver’s curse, quiet bells on hallowed ground devastated by tragedy, a beach teeming with life, renewal and color, bright blue against gold, red against green, our young bodies tossed gently on salty waves -- and how that frothing wine gradually released the tension of terrible memories from my Mum’s shoulders, from my Dad’s worried eyes, fueling collective merriment and the unleashing of so much.

There are no pictures from that day, no Instagram posts, no digital memory cards, not even a polaroid, brownie snapshot, or slide. There is only my memory, blurred at the edges by time, of that basket bottle: a child’s first taste of wine, melding a dissonance of moments into one. 

As it has been so many times since, wine was my camera that day, recording across my senses in a way that today’s instant and performative barrage of social posts, that strive to trump reality, can never achieve. 

So, here is my digital snapshot, my Instagram post of that moment, in a sip of Chianti wine, circa 1964:  8-year-old me, poised outside the flaps of an orange canvas tent, in all my juvenile awkwardness, red wine on my tongue, watermelon juice dripping down my chin, and there is my dad, lithe and handsome, as effervescent as the Vichy water, pouring wine from a basket bottle for my beautiful mum with one hand, and, with the other, ‘carpe diem!’ spritzing away the weight of that day. #thewinemomentIwillneverforget