One of the pleasures of learning about wine is a simple function of remaining open, interested, and alert during something as simple as the pouring and savoring of a drink. It’s like a friend who is always there and always, always, revealing some new side of his character, some hitherto unmentioned fascination. A more apt comparison might be an element of world affairs in which you take an interest, a story thread you’re following, so that the papers always have something to intrigue you. One of the pleasures of the wine journey is that much of it can happen silently, and even passively.

At a wedding once, for example, I was struck by the sheer banality of the wine choices: a tart and unpleasant sparkler right after the ceremony, and then bottles of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon on each table, despite the fact that neither made the slightest bit of sense with the meal. But there was, nevertheless, an experience to be had in noticing this; thoughts to savor about how all of us think about and buy and serve wine. The scripts in our minds, the obvious varietals. A very different example is a dinner I had recently at a San Francisco restaurant called A16, after an Italian highway through the wine country of the south. Being new to Italian wines, I took wild stabs on the by-the-glass menu, and came up with a 2005 Piero Mancini Vermentino di Gallura Sardegna and a 2006 Clelia Romano “Colli di Lapio” Fiano di Avellino. Both were surprising and interesting, both sent me home to my bookshelf to learn more, and all that happened simply in the far background of the pleasure I took in eating at a good restaurant with my wife.

Here’s the latest version: Kate and Lisa are friends we don’t see as often as we’d like, simply because everybody is too busy, and they came over the other night with their two sons. They aren’t much into food and wine: They enjoy it, and are fun to cook for, but simply don’t make a fuss. So I made a meal I thought would quietly appeal to them—a meal I hoped would please without begging for praise. I made farro with parsley, olive oil, and toasted walnuts; the same beet salad I’d made for some other friends (with mizuna, orange, avocado, and ricotta salata); and flageolet beans with garlic, olive oil, and rosemary. I also put out a Chardonnay I’d opened earlier in the day, a just-released 2006 Hess Collection Su’skol Vineyard. Opening the refrigerator for milk to serve the kids, I remembered that I’d chilled a Lucas & Lewellen 2006 Goodchild Vineyard Chardonnay as well.

And that was all it took. Popping this second bottle, I began a private little wine experience nobody else had to bother with, a comparison between the expertly crafted Napa wine from the Hess Collection and this new-to-me Santa Maria Valley version. So L and Kate and Lisa could all talk freely about education and mindfulness and a school we hope our kids can attend, and I could marvel at the enormous terroir difference between these wines. The Hess is a very Napa Chardonnay, rich and luscious with oak and vanilla flavors and tropical fruit, but not at all overbearing or out of balance—a beautiful and restrained wine. And the Lucas & Lewellen—despite what the literature on it says—hit my palate as a much higher-acid, more steely wine, in a way I liked very much.

And so on and so on, as conversation swirled around me and I ate and enjoyed a meatless meal and sip after sip from two side-by-side glasses gave my palate a little something to think about.

See more articles