Baptism by Chenin

by Frank Dice

I wish I could say my journey to the vines began in Burgundy or the southern Rhône; an ecstatic stolen sip of Gigondas at thirteen that led upward and onward to palate greatness. Not so, friends and neighbors! I was saved by a $9 bottle of California Chenin Blanc.

From whence I currently stand as sommelier of the Underwood Bar & Bistro, deep in the heart of the Russian River AVA in Sonoma County, it seems like science fiction to ponder a time when the simple yet glorious pleasures of a Pinot Bianco from Alto Adige, let alone the hedonistic delirium of a Radio Coteau Syrah (in my very backyard!), were completely alien to me. Yet there I was, a veritable wine virgin, about to enter the primordial forest.

To wit: I return you now to the late nineties, when the dot-coms were riding high, and a sense of—dare I say, optimism?—ruled the wine world in Northern California. A table-scarred ten-year veteran of the restaurant business, I looked forward to when I could escape waiting tables. At the same time, I was less than desirous of seeking a real job (as in, a job with a desk.) All that rises must converge, and converge it did with a job in a Dry Creek Valley tasting room. Though tasting rooms thickly inhabit the landscape of Sonoma County, I had never been in one. I considered them drunken tourist traps and temples to faux wine geeks, at best. Now I was to work in one. Hmm.

The night before my first day was shivery and sleepless. What had I done?? First, I had to get to the tasting room by nine-thirty and, as a long-time restaurant night owl, I hadn’t seen the right side of morning in years. Second, and more importantly, I knew precious little about vino. Oh, I knew the usual surface-level cursory knowledge, just enough to not be exposed as a total rube at the tables I waited on. Furthermore, the restaurants that I sought out during my server career generally shared my devil-may-care spirit regarding the grape.

My restaurant period ranged from a stint as itinerant pie slinger (pizza, not apple, folks) to maestro of one particular “bohemian nouveau hipster” establishment. The dishes were culinarily quite ambitious, spanning such delights as fish steamed in banana leaves with fermented bean curd side-by-side with apple-brie-walnut-pesto pizzas. However, my kind of restaurant shunned wine in favor of esoteric microbrews. Yet it was here, in the aptly-named Bohemian Café located between the Russian River and the Sonoma Coast, that I tasted my first great wine via a mysterious benefactor. Vive le Montrachet! The bottle and vintage escape me; all I remember is its inherent qualities: it was light yet rich, with a vibrant acidity and delicious mouthfeel. This wine hinted at a whole new realm of possibility for my plebeian palate. Somewhere in my mind, I realized that my days of box-wine contentment were coming to an end.

Back to my historic first day in the tasting room, clutching my coffee like a drowning man clinging to a life raft. Pulling into the parking lot, my fear turned to amusement. What did this ivy-colored, brick monstrosity flanked by roses and picnic tables have to do with wine? It seemed like an elaborate ruse. (It turns out that the health of the roses can foretell the health of the vineyard. But I am getting ahead of myself.) To continue with my tall tale: once inside the monstrosity, I was greeted by the tasting room manager, a man who positively emanated wine gravitas. I was guided behind the bar by said sage manager and instructed to try out the line of wines they produced. Fifteen wines awaited me, for this was one of those 100,000-case, make-a-little-of-everything kind of wineries. I tried three Sauv Blancs, two Chards, three Zins, two Cabs, two Merlots, one Meritage, and one Chenin Blanc. What in the Sam Hill was Chenin Blanc?! All I knew was that it was one of the first wines I drank in that long line of 15 glasses, each containing about a 1-ounce pour.

Ten minutes later, I was feeling pleasantly wobbly, my coffee a distant memory of a distressing morning, lost in a vino-laced fog. The manager looked at me quizzically; fifteen empty wine glasses and no wine at all in the spit bucket! Spit bucket? Who knew? I just thought it was for what you couldn’t finish. Visualize the scene: one loopy neophyte, happy; one manager, aghast; two coworkers, amused. Two others worked behind the bar that day. One was a vineyard farm girl who could smell a corked bottle from across a three-person-deep tasting room. The other was a short, bespectacled, French expatriate with a huge nose framing a sphinx-like smile. To protect the guilty, let’s call him Arnaud. I gravitated towards him immediately, if for no other reason than his nationality. Little did I know.

That first day is mostly lost to me now, as I spent most of it hiding and trying to outrun my morning buzz. The second day, however, my journey to the Wine Chapel Perilous began in earnest. I arrived to, well, nothing for it was Sunday, a day without adults (managers, owners, wine-makers, bookkeepers, etc.) I, the new kid, showed up on time, and as such shivered in the morning fog, awaiting anyone with a key. Lo and behold! Here came Arnaud, carrying boxes of … pastry?! The pastry, he explained, was to complement our morning bottle of Chenin.

“To sell wine, you must drink wine!” my little wine Napoleon bellowed, popping the cork and filling my tasting room glass to capacity at 9.30am. Chenin was talismanic for Arnaud for it reminded him of his beloved Loire Valley roots. The very low alcohol level made it perfect for morning consumption. Kind of like a mimosa but without the OJ. We knocked out the bottle and an apple tart in quick succession and went about setting up for the soon-to-be-arriving hordes.

Arnaud seemed to sense my lack of wine savvy, and he began to pontificate as we opened the day’s bottles. “Sauvignon Blanc should never have oak! Chardonnay in California is an abomination,” and—this was the best one—“The oak gives me splinters!” Wait, there was one more: “Zinfandel is a fruity mess!” Arnaud paused momentarily to show me his little black book, with the numbers of dozens of women who were his for the asking. At this point, his litany was interrupted by the phone, which he dashed off to answer. Ten minutes later, he returned to tell me that he had just sold ten cases of Cab to a Texan, who was flying in to pick it up on his private jet. I was dizzy on several fronts; a confession was in order.

“Arnaud, what the heck is Chenin Blanc?” I stammered. “It is Vouvray!” he barked, as if this answered my question. Still confused but absolutely captivated, I listened to him wax on about a roving variety of topics including the pernicious influence of malolactic fermentation, the strange and random magic of botrytis, and the importance of oysters. “Wine is naked without food!” he all but shouted, startling the first couple of the morning, a young, placid duo from Minnesota.

The die was cast. I was on a short, slippery slope from total ignorance to Cabernet Franc (another Loire staple, with its curious red bell pepper qualities), the earth-wind-and-fire-like funk of Syrah, and the simple sex appeal of Grenache. I was hooked. Within a year, the Wall Street Journal named me a “charismatic impresario” for my wine knowledge. I became possessed of a voracious palate, with an insatiable curiosity for all things vine. Where is Arnaud today? It’s anyone’s guess. Hopefully, he’s sipping upon a peppery, wild-strawberry-laden, sparkling Loire, making eyes and spinning yarns in equal measure. What I do know is that Arnaud and his beloved morning Chenin were the catalysts to my success, my keys to the kingdom. My life and my world would never be the same.

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