I guess most people can look back and pick out a critical time or moment that shaped the rest of their life. Often, that key point in time involved a pivotal decision, or a memorable event. Other times, you have no clue why or how things turned out like they did.
When people ask me how I got involved in wine, I can point to a specific moment, an exact place that set me on the path to becoming wine obsessed. I was teaching at a boarding school in New York, and was visiting my older sister in Cleveland over winter break. I was sitting on her couch, a bit bored, and, as luck would have it, there was a Bicycling magazine on her coffee table.
I picked up the magazine and quickly read it cover to cover (OK, I did not read it “cover-to-cover” but rather I leafed through, looking at the bike porn). Eventually, I got to the final few pages, which contained the publication’s classified ads and there was a section in those ads on cycle tourism.
I sat there for a while, reading the 2 ads that had tours in Europe, contemplating responding. Since this was before the widespread use of the internet, I was limited to my imagination and the brief blurb before me. I had been wondering what I would do for the summer since the boarding school where I lived and taught was out in the middle of nowhere and I needed some kind of work.
What could be better than riding your bike through Europe and getting paid for it?
I called the first company. After a brief discussion, they told me that if I were to be hired, I would have to work domestically the first year, maybe lead a trip or two in the U.S. and then the following year, if there were any openings, I might be able to lead a few trips in Europe. Oh, and that first year? No pay.
No pay? Not an option.
Figuring that the second company would be more of the same, I put the magazine down, dejected. Over the next couple of days, I would periodically think about calling the other company since I studied in France while in college and ever since I had been itching to get back. On my last day in Cleveland, I went to get the magazine, but it was gone. My sister informed me that she had thrown it out, and it was on the curb, waiting for the trash collector. After chastising her for not recycling it, I rushed outside, grabbed the bag, ripped it open, and rescued the magazine.
After such a dramatic scene, I knew I had to call the other company. On that second call, the conversation was brief, but they really wanted me to send in a résumé. It did not seem as though they said it just to get me off the phone, it sounded sincere. So when I got back to the boarding school, I sent off a résumé.
Several months later, I came back to my apartment after a class and saw the little light on my answering machine flashing. It turned out to be one of the owners of the company–he was going to be in New York the following week and wanted to know if I could come down and meet, to discuss the job.
I picked up the phone and was ready to dial even before he left his number on the message.
We met in NYC for about an hour, at the end of which, I was hired for the upcoming summer.
Within days of landing in Paris, I was on an overnight train down to the city of Hendaye, near the Spanish border. The person who hired me was leading the trip, and he was going to “show me the ropes” a bit before sending me out on my own.
Even though they were bike tours, there was more of a focus on culture than the bike–and a huge part of the culture in Europe is food and wine. At the time, I knew next to bupkis about wine. Sure, I had studied in Strasbourg, but I was a poor college student and my alcohol consumption was limited to the liter bottles of Kronenbourg that we could get at the gas station for about 50 cents. On these tours, it was clear, that I needed to get some wine knowledge quickly.
One night, after going through a fair amount of wine with the co-owner (who had a vast knowledge of wine), I admitted that I was overwhelmed—there was so much to learn and I had no idea where to start. It was at that moment that I got some very valuable advice—he suggested that I start with one region, get to know it very well, and then branch out from there (I chose Champagne as that first region).
During that very first trip, I also spent a lot of time with a couple from Boston—we hit it off fairly well, seeming to have a lot in common. We kept in touch for a few years, but eventually stopped corresponding.
Several years later, I was living in California, and as I was leaving a movie theater, I ran into her on the street. I immediately recognized her, and addressed her by name.
Of course, she had forgotten mine (story of my life).
She was with a different boyfriend now, but we agreed to get together soon. Eventually, she invited me to a baseball game with a bunch of her friends.
One of those friends is now my wife.
I am sure that my story is similar to the other 5 billion or so people on the planet, but I often think back to that Bicycling magazine. What if it had not been on my sister’s table? What if the garbage collectors came the day before?
Was it fate? Luck?
If not for that magazine, would I be married now? Would I have kids? Would I be this obsessed with wine?
Would I be a [gasp] beer drinker?!?