Oh wine, how I love you

SAN FRANCISCO — My love affair with wine got off to a rocky start.

I stayed pretty much away from the stuff after I wound up under the table — literally and rather embarrassingly — at a family get together.

I’d gotten drunk on my Italian grandfather’s homemade wine. If memory serves, I was 12.

Fast forward about 20 years and I was ready to start again.

My discovery was aided by a good friend calling out of the blue, offering wine at $20 per case. It turns out the wine store where he worked had lost air conditioning in the midst of a Washington heat wave. He warned that the wine showed the negative impacts from the heat and what we bought could all be skunked.

We figured that at $1.67 per bottle plus tax, we’d be happy with taking the gamble and told ourselves all we needed was one good drinkable wine per case.

It turned out to be a very smart investment.

Before I arrived at my friend’s store, I pictured neat cases stacked by the back door waiting for me. I was surprised to find hundreds and hundreds of bottles strewn about in an empty shop. They’d borrowed an air conditioned area next door in a valiant but unsuccessful attempt to save their stock. Without knowing too much about the various bottles, I wandered the floor accumulating six cases of wine.

That night we opened a 2003 Chateau Boswell Cabernet Sauvignon. Priced by the store at $96, it seemed rather ridiculous to drink on a Sunday night but we reminded ourselves that bottle had cost less than $2.

The wine, despite showing a tiny amount of red seepage on the cork, was lovely perhaps made even more so by its lowly price tag.

That night in between taking sips of the fruity cab, I created a spreadsheet and then set about memorizing the tops of the most expensive bottles. (I knew nothing about vino except that I liked full bodied wines that tasted of berry fruits like blackberry.)

 Random Tuesday night dinner with some of the windfall wine.
Random Tuesday night dinner with some of the windfall wine. (All photos by Sarah Abruzzese)

I went back the next day and picked up eight more cases — my bottle top method proved worthwhile. When we tallied up our purchases, we found that for $280 we’d bought wine that was listed at retail for nearly $9,000.

That price tag of course grew when we had to buy a wine rack to store all of our purchases. (I was at a total loss on pictures for this story. So you get to see part of our wine rack, dinner on a random Tuesday night with windfall wine and a lunch in Spain because it was pretty.)

In the end, I would say fewer than 20 bottles were truly undrinkable. The reality was that the sooner we drank the bottles the better they tasted — many friends were thrilled to help us in this endeavor. (We had to mandate a wine cap because a few friends kept going down to the basement to try just one more bottle). Sadly, the longer the bottles sat in our basement the less they resembled the winemakers’ creations. This was especially true of the white wines.

Something of a regret. I never started a tasting book. It just seemed ridiculous to me when I began. My friend who was responsible for the cellar also added to my hesitation. As long as I’ve known him, he seemed to be preparing to take the sommelier tests. (And from now on let’s call him the Somm).

He has an impressive palate. An example, the Somm called me the other day to say that in a blind taste test, he had been able to identify the region of the wine he was given — an especially impressive feat as it came from France and he thought he was being given something from Napa.

Anyway, the Somm added to my hesitation when I gave him a glass of the windfall wine and he said it was good — a bit muted but you could still taste the flavors. I figured why keep a notebook if all the entries weren’t actually going to be representative of the true flavor.

The wine rack we had to buy to house all the wine.
The wine rack we had to buy to house all the wine.

By the time I arrived in San Francisco a few months ago — nearly three years after the great wine windfall — I was ready to expand my knowledge and deepen my love and understanding of wine.

The Bay Area has proven the perfect place to fall even more in love with wine.

I’m telling you all of this because I know I said I was going to write about wine, travel and food. And I haven’t really written about wine yet. So I thought I should give the reader a bit of background and try to give an indication of exactly what it is that I’m going to write about when it comes to wine.

I still don’t keep tasting notes but I’ve expanded the types of wine that I drink and put more thought into the pairing of wine and food. (I’ve noticed that some cookbooks even recommend pairings — I’ve come to love pancetta wrapped pork tenderloin served with a nice pinot noir for example. I got that recipe from the Cakebread Cellars cookbook that I picked up on a whim.)

I’ve also learned a little bit more about the affordable wines from higher end labels, which I’m more than happy to pass along.

But mostly I intend to write about my visits to various wineries. There are such vastly different vineyard tasting experiences. I probably will never get on a wine tasting bus; although, that adventure might be an hilarious one to recount.

Added to that there are so many wonderful ways to experience wine country and we’re not just talking Napa Valley. There are multiple wine growing areas within driving distance of San Francisco from Cupertino to Sonoma.

And thanks to our windfall wine, we now have a long list of vineyards to visit so that we can discover how the wine is supposed to taste.

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You can find a link to Sarah’s last story about Maryland’s Eastern Shore here.