I love Italians. And the French. Actually, I admire any culture that feeds wine to its offspring at a young age.
I could say that I grew up with wine, but I fear that would a) make me look like a total alcoholic, or b) reveal too much disturbing familial subtext. But it’s true. From as far back as I can remember, special occasions were always marked with wine, be it for Easter, Christmas, birthdays, or Mom getting home from work and deciding it was a Violi’s night.
New Year’s Day dawned early with the traditional Scottish good luck offerings of a slice of fruitcake and a thimbleful of red wine. I reluctantly picked at the cake, but sucked back that dry, puckering mouthful of grown-up juice without hesitation, twisting my face around the tannins and wondering what the big deal was about this stuff. (It wasn’t until much later on that I figured out why it was touted as “the best mouthwash in the world” after a long night of partying. Bit of the hair of the dog, and all that.)
But best of all was Pop’s wine. Grapes picked from salt-and-asphalt crusted vines growing wild beside the highway, or dandelion heads popped off their stalks from the neighbour’s yard, all and sundry found its way into my grandfather’s old shed, where he worked his true “brew-by-you” magic, long before anyone had ever heard of Wine Kitz or imported Tetra paks of starter yeast.
The musty, acidic stew would fill up two Rubbermaid garbage bins, each draped with cheesecloth to keep out the flies. You could smell this stuff from the road. I loved that smell – a sweet and sour mix of sweat, dirt, WD-40, worn wood and Old Spice, swirled in with the heady aroma of fermenting grapes.
I considered it a distinct privilege when Pop would invite me in to see how the latest batch was doing. The blackish-purple syrup stained every surface and smelled like Smuckers jam on toast. He would hand me the large wooden paddle he used to stir the must, and I would slowly turn it, eyes wide, silent in my reverence during what I considered to be a most sacred and awe-inspiring ritual.
I never saw him strain or bottle his wine; nor did I ever learn any secret recipes (more's the pity). All I knew was that it tasted wonderful. The whites were grassy one minute and honeyed the next. The reds made for a necessary accompaniment to Pop’s “burnt offerings” on the Q, or to Nanny’s succulent roast beef or meat pie. Bottles were generously handed out to friends and neighbours, exchanged for services rendered and favours owed, and guzzled with exuberance at our regular family gatherings.
To this day, there will be the odd time that the fusion of aromas in a wine brings me back to the cool confines of that shed, prompting me to write “Pop’s wine” in my tasting notes. What I wouldn’t give to have a bottle of his backyard vintage in my cellar, even if it had turned to vinegar by now. To know his hands had picked those grapes, stirred that pot and filled that bottle would be far more valuable than any Bordeaux on the shelf.