The Wine Glass: Half Full? You Decide

These are the times that try people’s souls; the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in these crises, shrink from the service of their world. (Sincere apologies to Thomas Paine, The American Crisis.) As our daughter Zoë would say, “Word.”

We’re not going to list all of the crises that are visiting our planet. Even if we could, before you finished reading this there surely would be many more to add to it. But if we are to stay here, all of us together, we must find a way to proceed. Yes, you are in the right place. This is a wine column. We think our collective explorations with wines can help us all weather these distressing times. There are life-affirming lessons in those bottles, and no, we’re not suggesting that you rush to get to the bottom of them. We’re suggesting a meditation on what wine can mean.

Here are just a few of the lessons we’ve learned. And we could probably all benefit from some you have also learned so please share them at [email protected].

1) We cannot turn back time, but savoring memories can help dispel despair. “We” became “us” more than a half century ago over a bottle of André Cold Duck, a house-warming present to John from his parents. We chilled bottles of Taittinger in a birdbath when we got married in the backyard of Dottie’s childhood home. We touched a drop of Salon Champagne to Media’s lips moments after she was born. The Salon was a gift from the late Chip Cassidy, a wine merchant who had served in Vietnam as a medic and who taught us so much about friendship, and caring, and yes, wine. When Zoë was born, we welcomed her with Taittinger, a nod to the official joining of our families, her arrival completing ours.

(Our wedding day Taittinger)

2) We should move forward with deliberation and an affirmative openness to The Other--new people, new ideas and new wines. As the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wrote centuries ago, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” We have had a sparkling wine made from garlic that was so impressive that we think it was a ringer from Champagne. We also recently had a Modales Winery Nouveau of Zweigelt from the Lake Michigan Shore AVA. New experiences deepen and broaden our lives.

Edward Lee “Mac” McDonald, who founded Vision Cellars in Windsor, Sonoma County, in 1995 with his wife, Lil, received the support over generations from the Wagners of Caymus Vineyards and Wagner Family of Wine. McDonald’s gorgeous Pinot Noirs graced the wine lists of famous restaurants, but his personal success wasn’t enough. So in 2002, he and two other Black winemakers founded the Association of African American Vintners, with support from publicist Jo Diaz, to help make the wine industry more inclusive. In 2022, we attended the 20th anniversary celebration of the AAAV, which now includes among its 200 members 60 Black-owned wineries and huge corporations like Boisset, Bronco, Constellation, Gallo, Hyatt, Total Wines, Wine Enthusiast, and the Wine Group.

McDonald and others like sommelier and winemaker Andre Hueston Mack of Maison Noir Wines from Oregon; and Theodora Lee, a litigator who owns Theopolis Vineyards in Yorkville Highlands, Calif., have paid the help they received forward by mentoring a new generation. At the AAAV anniversary celebration, Lee introduced us to Iona Joseph, the first recipient of the Theopolis Vineyards Diversity Fund scholarship at the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology. Joseph, who received $10,000, studied drought, genetics and heat tolerance in North American grapevines. Since getting her masters degree last year, she has gone to work at Ginkgo Bioworks Inc., focusing on crop efficiency.

(Dottie, Iona Joseph, Theodora Lee, Mac McDonald)

3) Embracing the new is sometimes difficult but in the end it can be rewarding. We approach every bottle of wine hoping to find something about it we can like. Sometimes we do and sometimes we don’t. But when we do, we reflect on the tightwire act that is respectful, thoughtful winemaking. Each year presents the opportunity, just one opportunity, for a winemaker to express a chosen place and that single year in all of its vagaries. Attention should be paid when you encounter a special wine.

4) In a partnership with Nature, humans are always the junior partner. We recently tasted extraordinary wines from Burgundy specialist Domaine du Cellier aux Moines and Beaujolais producer Domaine Mont Bessay with owner Philippe Pascal and winemaker Guillaume Marko. They showed us a map of the vineyards that reflected their painstaking studies of their soil types and water needs. And both recalled watching in horror when hail destroyed the vines in one block one year. But thank goodness, they persevered and made gorgeous wines from their other blocks while replanting the damaged one.

4) Getting knocked about unfortunately happens in life. Getting off the mat takes courage. These are very difficult times for many reasons. Sometimes it is hard to find any reason to smile, but it is important to believe that things will get better. Melanie Hawks of Salt Lake City shared this sentiment, which resonated, about participating in Open That Bottle Night this year:

“I almost didn't celebrate OTBN this year because 2024 has sucked so hard and I didn't think I had it in me. But I kept it low-key and just tried to remember that the point isn't to impress anyone or do the fanciest anything. The bottle of Nyetimber Classic Cuvée I brought home from London in 2017 called to me, in part because 2017 had also started out badly and ended much better. I used to joke that I had the largest collection of English sparkling wine in Utah—3 bottles at the time. Even with just the one bottle remaining, I probably still held that honor, and I was reluctant to surrender the status. OTBN presented the perfect opportunity to let go of this silly self-designation as well as some of the pain and grief that’s been preventing me from enjoying my life these last few months. I was thrilled with the wine—it’s both vivacious and serious, with zippy acid & citrus notes brightening up the toasty, slightly spicy backbone. Drinking it didn’t wash away all my troubles, but it gave me some respite and reminded me that there will surely be better days ahead.”

5) Wine is a conduit of caring and generosity. A few weeks ago, we wrote about meeting Jerry Seps, 86, founder of Storybook Mountain Vineyards Winery, north of Calistoga, in January at a Wine Writers Symposium event. When we told him we were long-time fans of his elegant Zinfandels, he had asked if we had any old vintages in our cellar. We did not. Then he told us why he had asked. The Tubbs Lane fires in 2017 that killed 22 people, destroyed or damaged thousands of homes, and incinerated almost 37,000 acres, had also destroyed his library wine collection, from 1980 to 2012.

(Fire at Storybook)

Josh Greene, publisher and editor of Wines & Spirits, who had known Seps for a long time and tasted some of the lost wines, read about Storybook’s loss and on a trip a month later to Napa helped Seps tie some vines. A few days after Greene’s piece about the fire ran, people started sending bottles of the lost vintages back to Seps. When we met him, wines from every vintage had been returned except one, the 1981, which was his wife, Sigrid’s, favorite. After our column about that ran, we contacted some winemakers and wine industry folks we thought might have the 1981 or know of someone who might. None of them did and neither did others they suggested, but every single person we heard from expressed the genuine hope that the 1981 could be reunited with Sigrid and a couple people offered to pay for it if it were found. (We are still searching.)

6) Hold onto what is important to you and celebrate it. Yes, that thing or that person or that person’s memory. One of the sweetest stories we heard in 2021 was about Marc Taub, president and CEO of Palm Bay International and Taub Family Selections, and his late father, David, who he honored with the creation of Infiné 1939 Pinot Grigio and Infiné 1939 At Last, a white blend. David Taub, who was born in 1939 and died in 2012 from kidney disease, was a significant wine importer and distributor, credited with introducing Pinot Grigio to the U.S. The winery’s representative had sent us the wines. “I lost my dad too early, at a fairly young age. He was a man of incredible energy and depth and compassion and passion all at the same time. And I miss him and I wanted to make sure that he got the recognition that he deserved for what he brought to the industry, particularly with Pinot Grigio. I wanted something that embodied some of the things that he loved,” Marc had told us.

(David and Marc Taub)

7) Engage in random acts of kindness, even if it’s just saying “Hi” to a stranger you pass on a sidewalk. Kindness is free and we could all use more of it, especially right now. Santé.

Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher conceived and wrote The Wall Street Journal's wine column, "Tastings," from 1998 to 2010. Dorothy and John have been tasting and studying wine since 1973. In 2020, the University of California at Davis added their papers to the Warren Winiarski Wine Writers Collection in its library, which also includes the work of Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson. Dottie has had a distinguished career in journalism as a reporter, editor, columnist and editorial writer at The Miami Herald, The New York Times, and at The Journal. John was Page One Editor of The Journal, City Editor of The Miami Herald and a senior editor at Bloomberg News. They are well-known from their books and many television appearances, especially on Martha Stewart's show, and as the creators of the annual, international "Open That Bottle Night" celebration of wine and friendship. The first bottle they shared was André Cold Duck. They have two daughters.