As I’ve delved deeper into the wine world, I’m constantly asked why it is that I’m so passionate about wine or how it is that I got to be such a wine geek at only 24. The question’s not so off-base when you consider that most very serious wine professionals are much older than I am now when they even started becoming interested in wine.
For me, the answer is complicated and the foundations for my passion can be found in unlikely places. A big part of my love for wine comes from growing up in Los Angeles, a surprising start for a story like mine.
When I think about Los Angeles, I can’t help but to think of one of my favorite places there – a certain turnout on Mulholland Drive that looks out across the L.A. basin towards the sea. At night, the basin is awash with sizzling orange lights – millions of street lamps – that cast a rancid glow over the entire scene. This little spot, tucked into the westerly side of the Santa Monica Mountains is brushed by a dry desert wind that is as natural as the orange glow is artificial. It’s a place of utmost contradiction – a place where an ancient breath, as simple and old as the mountains, mingles with the lights of a glittering wasteland.
I grew up in a small, wealthy enclave of Los Angeles tucked into a series of bluffs on the coast. I don’t, for a minute, take for granted my charmed upbringing – a childhood awash with sea breezes and tramping through the chaparral that came so close, and so wild, right up against the backs of property lines. Along the bluffs that hang over the Pacific Ocean where I grew up racing through the stalks of wild fennel, its even possible to find views that afford a glimpse of how the coast must have looked when first seen by enterprising human eyes.
I live with these two conflicting images of Los Angeles; that of a sea of orange lights abutting the sudden darkness of the ocean and the wild beauty that still lingers, clinging to the bluffs on which I grew up.
Sometimes, when I think about the word “terroir” I think of bottling up all these little memories – the vivid striking ones that have stuck with me. I think of the smell of dusty eucalyptus and wild fennel. I think of a sea breeze raked through a wild hillside and mingling with the scents of sweet pollen and dried leaves. It’s all steeped in water scooped up from a spring rainstorm, gently tinged with the smell of wet asphalt.
And then there’s my strange craving for history. Growing up in a city where the past is daily demolished, swept away, and replaced with something new leaves a certain kind of nostalgia in its place. It’s a respect for old things borne out of awe that they’ve survived. It leaves you with an inclination to find history in obscure places like the wind coming down the mountain or the view from a bluff.
Living under the shadow of Hollywood, those nine white letters that sit high above the city and hold such power over the people who live there, has left me acutely sensitive to fakeness and instilled a preference for authenticity. It could have gone either way – I could have been drawn, enticed, and enchanted by the dream those letters represent, but I wasn’t.
Instead, somewhere in between the freeways, strip malls, and rolling housing developments I was completely entranced by a terraced and landscaped hill on which still stand dozens of mature fruit trees and wild berry brambles. That hill rose behind a house my family moved into when I was about ten years old.
That hillside awakened something visceral in me – a connection to the earth that has haunted me since. One summer’s harvest of peaches left me spellbound; plums offered proof that nature is sometimes best left to her own devices. Handfuls of sun-warmed blackberries were revelatory – and the apples? To bite into one of those little orbs was to understand why Eve could not resist. Everything I picked from a tree in our backyard tasted so much more like itself I was surprised I even recognized it.
Eventually we moved and I took to wandering the stalls of the farmers market, searching for the scents of that hillside, while my mother complained about the dearth of parking on Sundays.
When I graduated high school, more than I wanted to see the grand cities of Europe, I dreamed of visiting the Italian countryside – of eating local rustic food and wandering through olive groves and vineyards. So, my father took me to Tuscany where, for the first time, I tasted wine while looking out over the ancient gnarled vines that had produced it.
That is a quality of wine that endlessly fascinates me – wine’s unique ability to capture the essence of a place, or a season, or even a feeling and to convey it through taste. And just like the place from whence a wine comes, the wine – even trapped in a bottle, continues to shift and change slowly over time. You’ll often hear the notion that wine is a living breathing thing, and that’s true to an extent. But it’s also a moment, an impression, bottled and preserved. Wine’s connection to the land it came from is undeniable and that connection, for me, is irresistible.
So while there is no way for me to visit my memories of home except by closing my eyes and remembering, every time I take a sip of wine I’m gleaning some insight into the moments that produced it. I close my eyes and think about the vineyards the grapes came from, the smells that drifted over the vats of crushed grapes as they fermented, and the things that grew in the soil around the vines, imbuing each grape cluster with a tinge of memory.
That connection between the land, its own particular set of memories and impressions and the stuff in my glass is enthralling and exciting. Every bottle of wine is different, yes, but every sip of every glass is different, too. While there is an element of preservation in wine, there’s also the energy of change and chance that comes with every bottle. A glass of wine is a direct link to the place it came from and a unique impression of a moment – what could be more delicious than to taste the direct distillation of some wonderful place?