Like the first kiss from my bride, I fondly and vividly recall my first glass of wine. This doesn't count the California Coolers I drank in college, though as I recall, I didn't care for them, so my palate must have had some taste even then.
No, my first glass of wine came 11 years ago.
In 1989, I began working for the Tri-City Herald newspaper in Kennewick, Wash., as a copy editor after spending a year at a newspaper in Twin Falls, Idaho. Some friends from Twin Falls and I planned to gather for Thanksgiving in Boise, and I was assigned to bring the wine, since cooking and carrying the turkey five hours over snowy highways wasn't such a hot idea.
At the time, I knew as much about wine as I knew about the political intricacies of Chechnya, so I sauntered across the newsroom to Bob Woehler, farm reporter and wine columnist since 1978.
Bob can be a bit overwhelming at first glance. He stands 6-foot-7 with broad shoulders and a gruff, gravelly voice. As a newspaper reporter, he's intimidated more than his share of small-town government officials.
So even though I'm not a little man by any stretch, I approached Big Bob with no small amount of trepidation and asked him the question he's heard so many times: "Hey, Bob. What wine do you recommend?"
No doubt, Bob has tired of this question in his years as a wine critic. But the glint in his eye told me he not only enjoyed his role as the resident wine expert, but he also relished the opportunity to introduce another novice to Pacific Northwest wine.
Bob leaned away from his computer terminal, looked up at me - probably trying to remember my name - and in his most authoritative voice, commanded me to buy two bottles of Hyatt Vineyards' 1987 Merlot.
Did I mention I knew nothing about wine? I hadn't heard of Hyatt, wasn't totally clear where the Yakima Valley was, didn't know how to spell "Merlot" and wasn't entirely sure if it was red, white or otherwise.
But I traipsed off to the grocery store and rummaged around until I came across the Zillah, Wash., winery's selections. And I even managed to find a couple of bottles of the '87 Merlot on the first try.
And off to Boise I headed.
You're probably thinking it wasn't good idea to recommend a dry red to someone whose previous wine experience meant drinking with his buddies Bartles & Jaymes.
Knowing what I know now, I'd probably have recommended a sweeter Northwest Riesling or Gewurztraminer.
But Bob must be smarter than he lets on because he nailed this one.
The road to Boise was nasty, even by late November standards, but I traversed the mountains without incident and found my way to my friends' home. But as I walked up the front walk, disaster nearly struck. The plastic bag I had the wine in ripped, and both bottles fell out. Luckily, they landed softly in a half-foot of snow, and I was able to deliver them the last few yards with no problem.
Hyatt does not use screw-tops, so I had no idea how to get the bottles open (except to go back outside and drop them a few more times). Fortunately, my hosts had opened a bottle or two in their time.
As dinner was served and the wine was passed around, we raised a glass to the occasion and our friendship. I had no idea how the wine would taste, as I'd literally never had a glass until this moment.
It was heavenly. I didn't know how to describe wine. But I knew this was smooth, fruity and delicious. My hosts fashioned themselves as wine geeks and were duly impressed, too. I proudly proclaimed everything I knew, that this wine was made somewhere near my new home. Between the wine, the food and the friendship, it was a truly memorable holiday.
When I returned home, I went back to the grocery store to try to find more of this delicious beverage. Alas, I could not find any more from Hyatt, so I grabbed something else called "Merlot" from 1987. Unfortunately, I learned my second lesson in wine drinking: All wines are not equal. The wine, from California, tasted nothing like the Hyatt Merlot and to my untrained palate was not good. It sent my tastebuds into dormancy for a few years until I happened across a Hogue Cellars Riesling that propelled me on my current course toward lifelong wine appreciation.
In the past few years, I've tasted better than 1,000 Northwest wines. My palate is more refined now, and I've wondered what I would think of that '87 Merlot if I could taste it again. Recently, I got a partial answer when I evaluated a bottle of Hyatt's latest release, the 1997 Merlot. It's a decade later and a different vintage, but it's again smooth, fruity and delicious.
My fortunate first experience embodies what wine is all about - happy memories.