The operative word is “store,” as a couple of retail shops played a nurturing role in the beginning of my career.
One of those shops was in Summit, New Jersey and it was named, oddly, The Beer Barrel. Despite its name, one of the store’s partners was a “wine guy.” At the time, 1976, I had just returned from two years in Iran, where I discovered the ancient connection to wine (and drank some fine Riesling and red wine for which I was unable to secure grape variety). My wife, Anne, and I bought our first home in Summit and I began to make wine in the basement. Also fermenting, but in my brain, was the idea of getting into the wine business.
I shopped at the Beer Barrel and came to know Cono, the partner with the wine interest. He watched what I bought and realized that I was an experimenter. Soon enough, he encouraged me by throwing a free bottle my way every so often of something new in the shop; then, he invited me to stop by and taste with him in the back room when he was evaluating wines for possible purchase for the store; then, when I asked for a part time job so that I could learn the business, he gave me one.
For three years, I commuted from Summit to New York City for my day job and worked at the shop a couple of nights a week and on Saturdays. The experience was divine, and my wine consumption rose exponentially. At the day job, I stashed a case of splits in my desk and pulled one bottle out each day to have with lunch, which often consisted of a cheese wedge and a baguette. Of course, we always had wine with dinner.
In 1979, we became pioneers and moved to Fort Greene, Brooklyn. There were no wine shops in the neighborhood then. But Anne discovered one that was located on Hicks Street in Brooklyn Heights. The first time she saw it, she knew that I would be hooked on the place. One day, she led me there and watched the expression on my face as we walked through the door. Racks of wine covered nearly every inch of Marcolini’s Wine Shop. Walking through the store gave me the same feeling I get when I walk through the Strand Bookstore in Manhattan: euphoria.
Armand Marcolini was as passionate about wine as any person that I have ever met, and he shared that passion openly. Once again, I was favored with sample bottles to take home and try out; once again, I sat with the owner and sipped in the back room; once again, I had access to an array of wines from the world over that seemed to be in endless supply.
Anne and I joined an organization named Les Amis du Vin, which was out of Maryland. It provided a nice monthly periodical and a series of wine events around town. In its earliest days, people like Robert Mondavi spoke at events. I didn’t meet him, but I met a couple of other wine professionals who engaged me with their passion. Still, the person whose passion served to push me over the edge from fermenting an idea to acting on it, was someone that I had met entirely by chance.
At the time, I was in the audio-visual business writing scripts, designing storyboards, and producing soundtracks for the corporate world. As I walked down 55th Street in Manhattan, on my way to a video studio located across from City Center to transfer a 35-millimeter slide show to video, a flag blowing in the wind caught my eye; it read "Tastings." As I came close to the flag, I saw that "Tastings" was a brand spanking new restaurant and wine bar. I peeked in the window.
Behind the window was a smiling young man in a suit who saw me and waved hello. He walked over to the front door, opened it and welcomed me in to take a look around. He noticed the boxes of slides I carried and with great interest he asked what I was doing with them. He was interested because upstairs, over the restaurant and wine bar, the International Wine Center had just gotten started and this fellow was its prime educator. He used audio-visual media to back up some of his presentations.
His name is Eddie Osterland, and he was the first American to hold Master Sommelier title. We instantly became friends.
I took Eddie’s sensory evaluation class, and followed that with a winemaking class from Rory Callahan who also taught in the early days of the center.
In 1984, I was on my way to the Finger Lakes, probably with the notion of becoming the East Coast version of Robert Mondavi. Of course, I didn’t fulfill the notion, but you won’t find any regrets in this story.
It’s been a joy ride for me all the way, from the part time job with Cono, to the many conversations with Armand, to learning from and socializing with Eddie (he gave me my first taste of Chateau Cheval Blanc and turned me onto Emile Peynaud, under whom he had studied). Certainly, the ride was made even more exciting when I produced my own commercial wine, owned with a partner a wine shop, and developed a wine writing career.
The world of wine and wine information is of course quite different from when I began. In early 1970s America, there was no 100-point scale (thank the heavens for that), there were no major wine magazines, and there certainly was no such thing as a blog. For me there was only a lovely future. I was an empty vessel to be filled with learning and knowledge. I had boundless energy and so I went many places and called on many people to help fill the vessel. Without exception, the people who taught me were patient, passionate, and kind.
Things began to change drastically in the late 70s and early 80s: magazines and gurus who wrote for them became important. Many of them claimed they were necessary because so much bad wine was being passed off on the public, a position that I never understood, since I remember a hell of a lot of good wine from those days. I think what the burgeoning critics were saying was that Americans had poor taste and that they were here to save us from ourselves, a message that I have yet to embrace. I don't think Americans have poor taste; I think we suffer from poor education, and I don't believe that you teach people by lecturing them.
In any event, I’ve said no regrets and I mean it. The only thing I miss is that tingling sense of discovery of the early days. I envy the young people who have that sense of discovery and embark on their wine journey. There’s so much joy in front of them. My only wish is that the cacophony of critics and know-it-alls would quiet to a gentle prodding so the seekers can have their vessels filled while they discover for themselves.
Now, back to work. I still have wine stories to write.
For whatever reason, the past few days have produced a small run on bloggers writing about point scores, from Tom Wark to Keith Levenberg, to the number 1dude, and points in between (enjoy the pun). I don’t know what brought this on, but the subject is tiring. Are we finally running out of things to talk about on wine blogs?
Also, it seems that bloggers are being tapped to give away tickets to wine tastings and events. Not sure that I like the marketing tinge associated with such activity, but I also know that the horse has left the barn on loose ethics on the Internet. I remember asking Frank Prial (NY Times wine writer pre-Asimov) if he’d like a review copy of my first book. His reply was that he didn’t get to set the book review agenda at the newspaper for obvious potential conflict of interest reasons. Of course, he may just have been trying to let me down easily…Wark
Copyright Thomas Pellechia
January 2011. All rights reserved.
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