Pay The Corkage Fee

Are you looking for a New Year’s Resolution you can really keep?  One you can sustain for 365 days with minimal deprivation, asceticism, or hardship?  One you can contemptuously flaunt with derisive success while your neighbor schleps to Weight Watchers?  One that showcases your will power, persistence and gut-wrenching drive while your office mate surreptitiously scarfs down Krispy Kremes in a dark closet?  How about “drink more wine?”  For the second consecutive year, John and Dottie from the WSJ have compiled their annual list of wine resolutions.  They advocate wonderful stuff like engaging a sommelier and jotting down tasting notes from your first sip to the last swallow, observing how wine changes over time.  For their complete list, please click here. Sampling wines from different states sounds especially entertaining.  If you have competitive friends, craft a map of the United States as a Bingo card.  The first person to finish wines from all 50 states yells out “Sloshed!” before passing out and buying the next round of drinks.  Joshing aside, I fully champion the resolution to research your wine.  When you can’t tread the clay soil of Pomerol, at least you can Google it.  Every nugget of wine knowledge contributes to the story of that bottle, making it more personal and more enjoyable for you. 

To that end, I would add to their stellar list, “Pay a Restaurant Corkage Fee.”  Unearth that precious bottle of wine that you’ve been saving for a festive occasion and let someone else cook and clean for you.  Better yet, compile a crew of food and wine loving pals and ask each to contribute a bottle of wine that is meaningful to them.  Get lost in your friends’ rapturous wine tales and be transported.  This is what happened to us when we joined 2 other couples for dinner at a local Italian joint near Healdsburg over the holidays. 

As soon as we’d packed into the minivan (pathetically unhip but practical for transporting 6 adults), audible burbling of “What did you bring?” crackled in the Cheerio-scented air.  It was all very dishy and conspiratorial.  I reverently asked the driver if I could hold her bottle on my lap as it was rattling around precariously in the driver-side cup holder, one designed for a Venti Starbucks, not a 750 ml bottle.  None of us had discussed bringing wine in advance of our gathering, but it was obviously a given for such a vino-centric crowd.  One couple grew grapes and the other worked in wine distribution.  Amazingly our three bottles spanned 2 hemispheres, 3 countries (United States, Australia, and Italy) and three varietals (cab, Shiraz, and a Brunello di Montalcino).  But best of all, each wine told a unique story and embodied the sentiments and memories of the donor. 

We selected a 1997 Kenwood Artist Series Cabernet Sauvignon that was gifted to us by a winemaker friend.  This particular bottle represented the first vintage from his first year working at Kenwood.  It was presented with the caveat, “drink it…soon.”  Ever literal and with the giver’s warning still reverberating in our eager ears, we cracked it 24 hours later.  Plus we rarely purchase cabs ourselves so we felt inspired to pop open an old California classic, especially one from such a decorated local label.  (Beyond Kenwood’s long-standing reputation, the label showcases the green and gold rolling hills of a landscape portrait by French expressionist Rizo).  The grape growers proffered an Australian Langley Shiraz of deep personal importance.  Years ago, the wife passed an extended sojourn in Australia, befriended the daughter of the winemaker, and ultimately worked at his winery.  So for her, this wine was a potable reminder of her winemaking roots and cherished friends abroad.  Then double dipping in sentiment stew, this particular bottle had been gifted to her on her wedding day by the other couple dining with us, who understood how meaningful her Australian experience had been.  Since it was our first time dining with the grape growers, we were touched to be included in consuming this extra special bottle.  Lastly, the wine importers toted a youngish (2004) Gaja Brunello, a nod to our love of Tuscan wines and the regional fare of our Italian restaurant. 

Since the Gaja needed some air, we started with the old cab.  In fact when the poor waiter accidentally reached to decant the Kenwood instead of the Gaja, we all screamed, “Noooooooooooo” in geeky, panicked unison.  As for the old stalwart, the tannins were soft and supple.  Muted whiffs of dark berry and cherry complimented a smooth, mellow texture.  The shiraz was bright and fruity with a little spice, singing with homemade fennel-flecked sausage and lentils.  Lastly the Brunello was lusty, fruity and delicious.  Of course we were lucky to dine with friends who swoon over wines like tweens watching Gossip Girl.  But it was the story, passion, and conviction driving their wine choices that made each bottle magical.  Like knowing the musical themes before you first hear an opera or studying Michelangelo in print before a trip to Italy, Art, even drinkable art, becomes yours.  The stories forge connections.  Context and details make every wine more delicious. 

So in 2010 I say, dear Brigade, do your research, pick wine tales above fish tales, and pay the darn corkage fee. 

Cheers to a great 2010!