WWC24 – An inconvenient memory, by Jason Millar

Vine and Leaf

Freelance wine writer and educator Jason Millar writes this entry to the WWC24 about the unforgettable memory of sharing a bottle of wine with his parents.

Jason Millar writes after a decade in wine retailing and buying, I’m now working freelance as a writer, presenter and educator specialising in the wines of Italy and South Africa. I’ve written for Decanter, Harpers Wine & Spirit, Drinks Retailing and a variety of other publications. I also judge regularly for IWSC and Decanter World Wine Awards. Wine most definitely crept up on me. I wasn’t in a university wine club; I didn’t get started until my late twenties. But the seed was planted much earlier.

An Inconvenient Memory

The wine moment I’ll never forget comes down to a forgettable bottle of wine. I don’t remember what it tasted like, or the vintage, or how much it cost. I’m not sure where it was purchased, and I don’t even remember what we were eating.

Come to think of it, it’s barely a memory at all.

Maybe I should have picked something else. This isn’t a competition-ready wine memory. I’ve had many better wine moments since then. I should, perhaps, have chosen to write about some of those. 

How about an elusive vertical painstakingly assembled from brokers and contacts that delivered organoleptic ecstasy? Or a story about meeting some hard-to-meet winemaker in Burgundy or Barolo? Perhaps drinking an old vintage of something incredible — an 1850 Madeira comes to mind, vinified and bottled before Italy or Germany were countries. That was a better wine, but a less important one for me.

To write about that Madeira, or any of the others, wouldn’t be totally honest, because there is one original wine, the first wine I remember. Without it, who knows if any of the others could have existed?

It wasn’t a glamorous wine. It was about as unglamorous as they get, in fact. Almost no one reading this will ever have drunk it, not because it is rare and expensive, but because it is very ordinary. It is actually a rather embarrassing wine to talk about, given the audience.

You see, the wine moment I’ll never forget was drinking an Ernest & Julio Gallo Turning Leaf Merlot. It would have been in the early 2000s, a few years before Sideways made Merlot irredeemably uncool. But I didn’t know that, because I didn’t grow up with wine.

I grew up in Northern Ireland in the 1990s, watching the British Army march drills down my street, listening to Donna Traynor sombrely read out lists of kneecappings and car bombs on the news each evening and seeing, as a young gay man, the rigid social conservatism of the people around me. I lived in a town where Catholics and Protestants didn’t mix, and the two sides of my extended family combined probably drank in a year what I recycle in a month.

The Good Friday Agreement of 1997 started a thaw in the region’s politics, but it was too late for me. I wanted out of Northern Ireland and away from it all. I didn’t fit in; I still don’t have a proper accent. Most people think I’m Scottish, or Canadian, except for people in Northern Ireland, who think I’m English. It’s a problem in the U.K., where accents really matter.

My parents didn’t grow up with wine either and barely drank. A gin and tonic at a wedding for my mum, pints in the pub at a Christmas work do for my dad, but the drink of choice at dinner was good Presbyterian tap water.

Suddenly, inexplicably, my parents started to buy wine. It was a friend who suggested to my dad that he should try the Turning Leaf, which had an ersatz label as naff as a 90s movie trailer, but it was probably a pound or two more than we usually paid, so we would have opened it at the weekend, with a roast chicken or some Sunday beef. 

My mum would have set the table. We would have had the good cutlery and the nice glasses, but they certainly weren’t Riedels. We drank the wine, and for a moment it stopped our conversation. We didn’t give tasting notes, except to say that it was ‘smooth’. I remember that much and wince, knowing now that it is one of the most reviled words among wine lovers. We looked at the bottle more closely, repeated the name, talked about bit more about it, and said we should buy it again. We had another glass, and enjoyed the wine together.

That’s the moment I’ll never forget. It doesn’t look like much on paper but something happened that day that would reverberate over the years like an echo, except instead of getting weaker it would get stronger.

Maybe it was a change from all the arguments about sectarian politics that went on for hours. Maybe it was that, for a moment, wine managed to bring us together as equal adults and I felt like a grown-up instead of a kid trying to get away. Maybe that smooth Californian wine was a respite from the lingering bitterness and insularity of Northern Ireland at the turn of the century. Maybe I’m overthinking it.

Whatever it was, we shared some liquid in a glass that had something to say. Or maybe it had nothing much to say, in fact, but a job to do, which was to bring us together around a table and create, for a minute or two, peace and pleasure.

Years later at university there would be some Chianti with clichéd Raphaelite cherubs on the label. Much later still there would be Vintage Port, Barolo and a job in the wine trade. The Turning Leaf was left behind. Today I don’t even own a varietal Merlot. 

Left behind, but not forgotten. My earliest wine memory is a stubborn one, so it must have stuck around for a reason. My theory is that it’s there to remind me that context matters more than detail, that wine’s highest achievement isn’t a perfect score or even enormous complexity, but a greater power. It can bring people together for a moment or two, even when the world is trying to pull them apart.

Credit for the photo belongs to Flor Saurina.