Reflections on the beginnings of a Life in Wine and Gastronomy
by Colman Andrews
I was six or seven when I tasted alcohol for the first time. Mom used to give me Coke in pretty little straight-sided tumblers with gold rims, and one evening I saw one of these obviously Coke-filled glasses fizzing away on her dresser and helped myself to a swig — then sputtered and spit it out. She laughed and told me that the Coke had been mixed with something called rum, which I was far too young to drink.
A few years later, after one of my parents’ parties, I noticed a not-quite-empty bottle of Blatz beer behind the wet bar in our playroom and thought I’d see what grownups liked about the stuff. I took a sip, then spit that out too. I had never tasted anything so bitter in my life. It gave me a mild case of diarrhea and pretty much turned me off alcohol for years.
My father was a serious drinker, mostly whiskey/whiskey of one kind of another. As a young man in Chicago in the early 1930s, his standard tipple was a blended scotch called Old Rarity slightly diluted with Perrier — back in the days when Perrier came in little bulb-shaped bottles and hardly anybody had ever heard of it. Decades later, when my mother, who was not a serious drinker, the occasional rum and Coke aside, started nagging him to cut down his booze consumption, he used to tip busboys in restaurants to bring him water glasses filled with vodka in the hope that she wouldn’t notice. (She usually did.)
Though I took after Dad in some ways — like him, I’ve never been much of an athlete; like him, I’m a writer — I don’t think his drinking particularly affected me in one way or the other. That taste of Blatz may have left a bad taste in my mouth metaphorically as well as physically, but when peer pressure nudged me into trying beer again in high school, I found that I sort of liked it (and definitely liked the fact that I wasn’t supposed to drink it).
I came back around to rum again, too, over the summer after high school — this time trading intentional shots of 151-proof Myers with a couple of slightly dissolute waiters after hours at the country club in Ojai where I worked for a few months as a lifeguard.
When I went off to college in Los Angeles, where I lived on campus for my freshman year, I discovered something called Kalani — a kind of tropical wine punch that came in two flavors, green and red. There was always a bottle of one or the other stashed in my closet, which made me a popular guy on my end of the dorm.
I don’t remember when I first tasted real wine — I’m always a suspicious of people who claim to have discovered its wonders when they took a sip of Chambolle-Musigny or Niersteiner Pettenthal and heard the angels sing — but it was probably when I dropped out of college for a few years and went to work in the local art museum bookshop. This gave me a little spending money, at least on payday, and wine was one of the things I started spending it on.
“Wine appealed to me because it came with lots of lore and legend, and seemed much more adult — and certainly infinitely more varied — than beer or high-octane spirits. It was a mystery to me, though. Back in those days, I literally didn’t know Bordeaux from Burgundy, Zinfandel from Pinot Noir.”
One night, out with my girlfriend at our favorite Italian restaurant, I decided to show off by splurging on the most expensive white wine on the list to go with our linguine with clams. It was French. Something called Château d’Yquem. It probably cost $35. (Today, it would run $600 to $800.) Luckily, our waiter very nicely suggested that perhaps that wasn’t the best choice, since, while it was excellent, it was a Sauternes — a very sweet dessert wine. He suggested a nice Verdicchio instead.
In an effort to learn a little more about oenological matters and avoid future embarrassment, I got some wine books out of the library — classic works like “Wine” by Hugh Johnson and “Wines of the World” by André Simon — and got into the habit of stopping at a liquor store on my way home from work on paycheck Fridays and picking out an affordable bottle or two at random.
A lot of the wines I bought at the time, just because they were on the shelves, I suppose, were from minor Bordeaux châteaux, and I found that in general, I liked them better than most of the California cabernets I’d encountered. They were just more interesting; they had character, definition, an edge. That’s why I made them the subject of the first article I ever wrote about wine, for a small local arts magazine called Coast. I had no trouble getting them to run it, because by that time I had become the magazine’s editor-in-chief. That was the beginning of my on-again, off-again wine writing career that included a decade as wine columnist for Los Angeles Magazine.
The man who taught me the most about wine was a fellow almost 30 years my senior named Roy Brady. Brady, who died in 1998, was a laconic former mathematician and aerospace systems analyst who had decided for no particular reason, back around the time I was born, to teach himself about wine. He started visiting the California wine country back when a lot of people probably didn’t even realize that California made wine, and from the beginning, as he learned more and more about the subject, he was an enemy of jargon and cliché.
If Roy heard a young wine-lover (like, oh, say, me) declaiming about the “flavors” of raspberry in a wine, he’d ask “How many flavors does a raspberry have?” A good point, and one which I’ve impressed upon other wine writers as an editor on numerous occasions.
Roy taught me all kinds of valuable things about wine — for instance, that, with rare exceptions, most older wines, even from celebrated vintages, were often too old to be genuinely enjoyable and tended to be valued more for prestige (or snob appeal) than for flavor.
The most important lesson he imparted, though, was that wine should be judged by how it smells and tastes, not by its label or its price — and that once I’d made a personal assessment of this wine or that, to keep my mouth shut about it unless I had something intelligent to say.
The definitive Roy Brady story, which he told on himself, was about the time he once sat through a long, boring wine dinner at which it became apparent that every dinner was expected to comment to the assembled diners on one of the wines. When it was Roy’s turn, he stood up, drained his glass of whatever it contained, and, after a suitable pause, said “Mighty tasty” — then sat back down.