Drink, Memory

How a wine writer and her mentor shared a bottle of wine without drinking it.

Many people meet their mentors in glassy office towers and the like. I met mine over a glass (make that several) of wine.

It wasn’t that Diane Teitelbaum and I were drinking a lot. But, as two wine writers on assignment in Austria’s Wachau Valley, we were powering through a technical tasting of Rieslings, Grüner Veltliners and Gewürztraminers.

Or, one of us was.

Sitting next to me, Diane could see I was in a slow meltdown. All morning, another writer at the table had made sport of cutting off my questions with corrective remarks.

“Oh, you think that’s mineral? It’s more like river rock,” he had just countered.

Diane slid her small hand through the tall stems on the table and circled my wrist.

“Never mind him,” she said, and promised to get me through the tongue-twisting wines. We spent the week tag-teaming: she guiding me through flavor profiles, and me helping her navigate uneven terrain, a challenge for her after a recent knee surgery.

At week’s end, I cried at our airport farewell, convinced I wouldn’t see her again.

“Good friends will stay friends,” she said.

My inexpert palate didn’t know what that might taste like, but I knew the sense of that wine: something refined and shy that slowly reveals itself in layers, sharing its history.

And we did, though she lived in Dallas and I in New York City. She advised me on my wine studies by phone. When I’d visit her, she’d open prized bottles—just to taste.

“When you love wine, you have to share it,” she said, in response to my astonishment.

A skilled taster, Diane could pin specific and peculiar flavors and, unlike many, did so with a total lack of pretension. I once asked if she could recall her favorite wine.
Oh yes, she said, without hesitation.

It was a 1947 Joseph Drouhin Chambertin Grand Cru Burgundy given to her by a friend who had died. She planned to have it for New Year’s Eve dinner with her husband. But when she pulled the bottle from the rack, it was one-third empty. A wine like this, she figured, would have used 95 of its 100 chips. She stood it up for four days to let things settle out. And she selected a Plan B bottle.

A few hours before dinner, she decanted it. She chose her stemware, poured the first glass and tasted.

“It was very fragile and very delicious,” she told me. “It was like an elderly Southern belle dressed in lace walking in her garden.”

My inexpert palate didn’t know what that might taste like, but I knew the sense of that wine: something refined and shy that slowly reveals itself in layers, sharing its history.

Diane and her husband finished that glass and poured the remainder, expecting a fanning away of its restrained charm.

But suddenly it came alive. And it was heady and seductive, dynamic and deep.

“It had bravado, like a great overture,” she said. “It was everything that a wine would ever want to be.”

And then it was gone, its final five chips used up in just a few minutes.

As she told me this story, Diane paused in reflection. Her always-modulated voice went sotto voce.

“It was really a dynamic experience wine-wise: a romantic dinner with my husband that also reminded me of my friend. So, it really was a gift all over again.”

I was transfixed. It was a story about wine, yet didn’t include a single technical note. It was then I understood that real wine wisdom transcends textbooks. Rather, it’s the understanding of wine’s mysterious power to create both taste and emotional memories—to let its narrative transport us.

It’s about knowing each glass is an experience that will never repeat itself—not with the same group of friends, in the same late-afternoon light nor with the same meal.

Diane died a few years after telling me this story. When I shared it at her memorial service, people who drank with her and learned from her wept. They cried because they lost a friend, but also because of the gift of that bottle: a story of friendship and love, told one more time.

Published on November 18, 2016
Topics: Wine Culture
About the Author
Lana Bortolot

Bortolot has written about community development, historic preservation and arts & culture for the Wall Street Journal and New York Post, on design for Entrepreneur magazine, on food and wine for Saveur and other magazines for the wine and spirits trade. She holds the Level 3 Advanced Wine & Spirits Education Trust certification and is working on the Level 4 Diploma. Having covered most European wine regions and a few in South America, she is always looking for a new wine-stained stamp on her passport.




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