San Diego Wine Guy: Grandfather’s inspiration sparked a career in wine


My grandfather taught me my first lesson in wine when I was just 11 years old.

For whatever reason, I never forgot this brief and notably profound moment. I do know today that it was the first time I became aware of the cerebral aspect of wine.

Sept. 7 marked the 30th anniversary of Grandparents Day, which is observed each year on the first Sunday following Labor Day. The holiday provided a natural opportunity for me to relive a moment my grandfather authored - one that laid the foundation for what has become a passion for and an occupation in wine.

A cold winter morning in 1983 outside of Longville, Minn., found much of the extended Stuart family preparing for a snowmobile outing among the frozen lakes and forest typical of Northern Minnesota.

California wines were exploding in popularity in the 1980s. Jordan Vineyard and Winery, from Sonoma County, was one of these new and well thought of producers.

Jim Stuart, then a grandfather of 11, had squirreled away a few cases of the burgeoning winery’s initial release, the 1976 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon. At the time, even esteemed wines such as this were not above making their way into the back of a snowmobile cubby to quaff at a trailside weenie roast.

At the mid-ride campfire, some of the grandkids would collect firewood from the forest, while others whittled sticks for weenies and marshmallow s’mores. I would gulp Orange Crush, and sometimes get a smidgen of the adult’s wine to wash down the ash and smoke inhaled while tending to the can of chili bubbling away in the open fire.

Upon returning home, warming showers preceded adults enjoying cocktail hour while grandkids played table tennis and pool in the adjacent game room.

Precisely at this time, prior to dinner, while Grandpa Jim was sipping from his 1976 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon, he leaned to me and said, “I sure think it would be a neat skill to be able to taste wines and tell where they are from and what year they are.”

As any 11-year-old might, I said, “I don’t get it. Why don’t you just want to drink it?” Grandpa Jim smiled in an understanding manner and said no more.

Though I didn’t know it at the time, that moment left an impression on me.

Interested in career enhancement, in the spring of 2007 my wife and two dogs joined me in moving to St. Helena, Calif., where I attended the Culinary Institute of America. The CIA offers what is arguably the premier formal wine education in the United States.

After completing the intensive coursework and virtually endless hours of study, a certification exam is offered which consisted of 120 written questions and the all important tasting portion - three mystery wines, a blank sheet of paper and a sharpened pencil. To pass, students are to deduce the varietal, year and region of origin.

It was like I was 11 years old again, standing in my grandfather’s dining room, except this time I fully understood what he meant - paying contemplative attention to what one tastes can be more compelling than simply the social aspect of the beverage. This time I was prepared to answer as an educated, almost Certified Wine Professional.

Now, as a CWP and columnist, I continue to convey his original message of wine being both mentally stimulating as well as sybaritic. Perhaps the greatest tribute is that the power of those 30 fateful seconds spent with my grandfather Jim and his 1976 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon will live on through my work for another generation to experience.

Thanks grandpa.