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September 24, 2011

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Wine can change your life

IN the life of every wine lover I've ever met there's a single defining moment when their life changes forever and they comprehend the profound beauty of wine. This is a memory that they'll remember all their lives and often share with aspiring wine connoisseurs. The place, time and wines are different but the experience and its effect on their lives are remarkably similar.

Though all of them appreciated wine up until "The Moment" it was not the consuming passion that it would become. All of a sudden there's a realization that wine is the most perfect beverage ever created in the history of mankind, something that makes life more beautiful and rewarding.

Naturally, I also had such a moment. Growing-up with my father, who enjoyed and collected wines for most of his life, I was exposed to wine since childhood. Starting at the age of seven or eight, whenever dad opened an exceptional bottle of wine he would have us smell the wine and take a small sip.

He felt it was never too early to develop one's palate. As I moved into my teens my wine education continued. Sometimes late on a school night my father would wake up my brother and I and command us to come downstairs to taste a wine he had opened with friends.

It was always for an exceptional wine. Because he started collecting in the late 1940s when a first growth Bordeaux like Chateau Lafite-Rothschild and Chateau Latour could be bought for only US$4 to US$5, he had an exceptional collection with vintages dating back to the late 19th century.

My brother and I would sleepily sample the wine, listen to my father and his friends expound on the merits of the wine and then we'd be asked to comment ourselves then head back to bed. By this time I already enjoyed tasting wines but still didn't have that defining moment of discovery. Then it happened.

Every January my family would rent a villa on the Caribbean island of Saint Martin.

Though we usually dined en mass, one lunch it was just my father and I at a small French restaurant overlooking the bay. We ordered our lunch then my father got down to the serious business of consulting the wine list. "No," he exclaimed, "no this can't be right." He called over the waiter, pointed to a particular wine on the list and asked if the price was correct. When the waiter confirmed the price, a sly smile appeared on my father's face.

Like winning the lottery

In a hushed voice he said, "John we will have a special wine this afternoon, a Chateau Haut Brion 1959, so I recommend you reconsider your choice of fish and order some meat."

What was so mystifying to my father was the price, only about US$150, which for the apex wine in a great vintage was a steal. We later learned the former owner was a wine collector and when he died the new owner bought the wine cellar together with the restaurant not knowing the individual cost and value of the wines. To my dad this was like winning the lottery.

Though over three decades have passed I still remember the scene vividly, the wine came to the table and was decanted. My father sniffed the wine making sure all was well with the bottle. Then we waited. About 30 minutes later when our main course was served, a grilled veal chop, the wine was poured and my life was about to change. The color was brick red indicating some age but still good condition, and when I put my nose into the glass the aromas were pure seduction. Then I tasted the wine, taking a generous sip and using all my mouth as my father had taught me. The experience was overwhelming.

As a writer and frequent speaker I'm seldom at a loss for words, but at that moment I had no words to explain the perfection in my mouth. The experience was truly ineffable. The complex combination of flavor, texture, perfume and perfect balance was a life changing experience. I got it! Finally I understood why my father cared so much and spent so much time and money on wines.

Wine at its finest is an art and like great paintings and other art forms has the potential to overwhelm us with beauty.

Some of you have already had this eureka moment, while others are still waiting for this special day. Here are some bottles that may change your life. The vintages are of course more recent, but one of these great wines may just change your life.


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