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Wine Without Pretense: Drinking in the memory of my first taste of wine
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Wine of the month

Louis M. Martini Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2011

  • The wine: Full-bodied, dry red table wine.
  • The grapes: Cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petite sirah.
  • The source: Alexander Valley, Sonoma County, Calif.
  • The verdict: Well before Merlot became America’s go-to red wine, cabernet sauvignon led the parade. Here’s a sophisticated example of why we love cabernet, from one of California’s pioneer wineries, now led by its third generation of Martinis. Although Martini is in Napa Valley, its best wines, in my opinion, come from its holdings in Sonoma County. This wine is drinkable now, but will only improve with age. Hope I can find a bottle in five years. It is well-structured with assertive tannins that will soften with age. It shows what balance means; everything is in the right proportion. This wine, lightly chilled, will grace your dinner table and make your hearty meal even more enjoyable.
  • The price: About $35.

I had an “aha” moment recently. I pinpointed the precise moment I began to listen to the siren call of wine, and it predates my previous landmark by a few years.

I was a “spook” in the U.S. Army Security Agency, a branch of the military that no longer exists. For more than 20 years after I left the Army, I was forbidden to talk about what I did. Penalties were quite severe and I bowed to the steely code of silence.

Today I can talk about it. I was stationed in the vast, brooding moors of Yorkshire in northwest England. I adored England and still do.

In the midst of the sheep-laden, windswept moors, we eavesdropped on Soviet Union/Warsaw Pact communications. We listened to and recorded Morse code transmissions, commercial radio-telephone and teletype broadcasts, which were my specialty. We would pack up all this intercept material and rush it to the National Security Agency, which eventually took over the ASA mission after the agency was phased out by the Army.

It was exciting. We were told the Soviets had a nuclear missile targeting our operations station in case the balloon went up. But we were young and blissfully ignorant of the potentially deadly cat-and-mouse game called the Cold War. We were far more concerned about the incomprehensible operating hours of the local pubs.

To remind myself I really was civilized and living in a civilized society (England, not the Army), I would once a month take myself out for a fine meal in downtown Harrogate. It was the spa resort town nearest to our base at Menwith Hill.

The restaurant was The Tudor Grill, and it specialized in steaks and chops. It came highly recommended by some of my GI buddies, who were far more sophisticated than I. So I went alone.

I owe much to my waitress Patsy. On my first visit there, she took my order for a large steak, which I requested well done, and whatever else came with it. I’m sure peas were an integral part.

Patsy asked if I wanted wine with my meal.

I don’t recall choirs of angels harmonizing in the background, or beams of heavenly light piercing the ceiling, but that’s when it started.

“Why not?” I thought. But I didn’t have a clue what to order. Patsy gently suggested a bottle of St. Julien. It’s red, from Bordeaux. That’s in France, you know. It will be lovely with the steak.

Fine, I said. I’ll have it.

When I staggered out about two hours later — how was I to know one should not consume an entire bottle of Bordeaux by oneself? — I felt fulfilled and vaguely curious. Fortunately I could catch a bus back to the base.

On subsequent visits Patsy, who was much older than I, showed even more kindness, suggesting I would enjoy my steak more if it were not grilled to a near cinder.

“Try it medium, sir,” she offered.

I did. Of course, she was right. I’m now a medium-rare kind of guy.

After my aha moment in October, I researched the first good wine I ever consumed and found, to my surprise, I had pretty good taste back then.

St. Julien is in the Medoc region of the Left Bank of Bordeaux. It is the smallest appellation there. Yet, it has the largest ratio of classified growths of any Bordeaux region. You will find such stellar chateaux as Leoville Barton, Branaire Ducru and Ducru Beaucaillou.

I’m certain I was drinking a generic wine labeled simply “St. Julien” during my monthly visits to Tudor Grill. But it was enough to cast a spell. That red wine was a baited hook, which I chomped on without hesitation.

That was in the mid-1960s. It was not until about half a decade later that I was taken under the wing of a gentleman whose dedication to fine wines and “gourmet” cooking got my motor racing. Under his tutelage I began drinking only the finest Bordeaux and Burgundies.

California wine? As the French then referred to the products of our vineyards, “Vin du pipi.”

Fortunately, I got over that dark period of wine snobbery.

After the Tudor Grill memories surfaced in October, I was stunned I had not put my finger on that seminal moment for nearly half a century. That was important to me, and to what I have learned since that time.

Thanks, Patsy.

Randall Murray is a Gainesville-area resident. Have a question about wine? He can be contacted at His column appears on the first Wednesday of the month and on

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