Many roads can lead to a real love of wine. And I’m not talking about flirting with Chardonnay because “everyone else is doing it.” Or, a casual steakhouse affair with a glass of Cab, after which you return to your beloved Vodka martini. Nope. I’m talking about the head-turning, life altering, seminal moment many have experienced that plunges them head-first into a mesmerizing and totally foreign journey. The moment from which there’s no turning back.
I was a content and happy-go-lucky 25-year-old cameraman working in Chicago, the city of broad shoulders, and slowly becoming polished in my profession if still a bit culturally frayed around the edges. With so many deep-dish pizzerias and Italian beef options, I was leery, even fearful of fine dining where wine was a four-letter word. However, my Chicago bliss was rudely interrupted.
Unknown to me, I had been evaluated and selected for a life-changing upgrade. My talents (not my sophistication, I promise you) were deemed worthy of a promotion… a big one. As a result, my wife and I packed up and headed for Europe, where I would join the International Press Corps. as a staff cameraman and member of the NBC News Frankfurt bureau.
From the outset, the job was a dream come true. I was traveling through all of Europe (and the world, too, soon enough) covering news for a major American news network. But when I would gather with my colleagues for crew lunches, or when my wife and I would join friends for dinner, we felt like the gourmet’s version of a square peg in a round hole. Trying to blend in, we replaced my Coke and her Sprite with bottles of something called ‘mineral water’. (Who came up with that name, by the way, and was it intended to sound appealing?) And the meals were marathons. Lunches could last THREE HOURS and dinners often had no end in sight. The common thread throughout went something like this: once seated, a senior colleague, usually European, would utter some unidentifiable words to our waiter and, like clockwork, completely different bottles would appear. Their labels seemed to contain a secret code of uninterpretable French or, God forbid, German writing. Deciphering these codes was foolhardy at best and maddening at worst. Instead, we mimicked our friends and my coworkers and forced down the ubiquitous liquid, pretending to enjoy every drop. At least we no longer stuck out like sore American thumbs.
Eventually, I broke from the pack of lemmings and realized that I actually liked some of what I was imbibing. My taste – or ‘palate’ – leaned more to the white stuff over the red. I noticed that the white wines with French labels were subtly different from one another but generally tasted good. Those with German labels were generally off-puttingly sweet. And the red stuff with French labels just tasted like dirt. But the learning curve was mind-numbing and intimidating. What was the difference between a Pouilly Fuisse and a Pouilly Fume? And, what was a Pouilly to begin with? Asking such questions in a public forum would reveal me as the ignorant American rube that I was. Instead, I’d need to keep quiet and steal glances at labels when no one noticed.
(Editor’s Note: This story is broken into four parts, please return to this website on the same weekday next week for part two.)
Tim Ortman is an Emmy Award-winning cameraman and producer and author of the new book, Newsreal: A View Through the Lens When… He is a certified Sommelier and member of La Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin. Connect with him on Facebook, @TimOrtmanWriter.