Rex Pickett's Sideways Column: Pinot Noir Saved My Life

Pinot Noir Saved My Life

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Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir Saved My Life

© Shutterstock

My wine epiphany fulgurated when I was 19 years old. I went to a liquor store with my room mate Mark. We had just returned from a two-month tour of Europe where we had discovered the explosive hoppiness of German and Dutch beers. In the mood for wine, we were eager to transit the saccharine treacle of Mateus and Blue Nun. While Mark occupied the attention of the clerk – a sallow, burst-capillary faced guy with failing eyesight – I slid a bottle of 1967 Beaulieu Georges de Latour Private Reserve under my coat.

Once home, we climbed to the roof of our apartment complex in San Diego where a sundeck rose to the night sky: under the stars, new neural pathways opened. We had no clue what this wine was, or who had made it, but it was unlike anything we had ever tasted. It possessed powerful tannins that mysteriously clung to the roofs of our mouths; it had the structure of a thoroughbred; the evolved fruit of plum preserves. From that day on I was in search of the impossible.

In the decade to come, I bought better bottles – now that I was of age – and occasionally I approached the haunting spectre of that ’67 BV, but I hadn’t converted to full wine geekdom yet. Until Epicurus. Epicurus was a wine store in Santa Monica where I was living at the time I wrote Sideways.

For most wine lovers, that sense of place is always a vineyard, or a tasting room or cellar, set in some sublime, sylvan, vinous paradise: Montalcino, Pommard, whatever. For me, place was a narrow, rectangular store squashed between a video store and a massage parlour where hands travelled profanely. In the rear of Epicurus lived a tiny, cordoned-off area for the Saturday tastings.

My novel Sideways opens there. The tastings started civilly enough, but they often degenerated into raucous laughter, detonated from a tiny group of us as the wine rep lost control of his or her tasting, threw caution to the wind and joined in the revelry.

Sideways author and columnist Rex Pickett in a Sta. Rita Hills vineyard.

© Jock McDonald

Pinot blowout

Julian Davies did not get the credit he deserved for Sideways. He co-ran Epicurus with the philandering owner who knew a fraction of what Julian did about wine. When the owner left, theft commenced. Julian, you see, was deeply mortified by his salary and he exacted retribution on the owner’s unaudited inventory. We became firm friends, brokered by my other friend, Roy Gittens, who became the model for ‘Jack’ in Sideways. I was impecunious and Julian needed a drinking partner who could chauffeur him home to Hollywood after yet another bibulous night. In that unholy cauldron of frightening over-imbibition an epic rapport was forged.

One stifling Sunday, the Santa Ana winds sparking fires in the tinder-dry canyons, Julian, an impish look on his ruddy face, locked the front door and proclaimed to me and a few dumbfounded stragglers: “Let’s have a Pinot blowout!” The owner had decamped to Napa to tryst with his mistress, so it was an opportune time to undertake some serious pillaging. I had started, slowly, to become enthralled with Pinot, after many visits to the Santa Ynez Valley, and my reading about Burgundy in Jancis Robinson’s marvellously comprehensive The Oxford Companion to Wine, but I had never gone deep.

Julian decided I needed to go deep. He was sick of me asking questions about the damn variety, tip-toeing around it as if it was booby-trapped, as if I wasn’t sure if I should like it or not, and decided it was high time to settle the issue once and for all. On that scorcher of an afternoon he furiously uncorked bottle after bottle. He jarringly upended them into decanters to oxygenate them. And then, the Pinots standing sentinel on a narrow marble ledge, the tasting got underway.

I don’t remember all the ones we drank that Sunday afternoon: Rochioli, Gary Farrell, Whitcraft, Steele, Au Bon Climat...it was a mini tsunami of California’s finest at the time. The floral aromatics thrilled through me. It was love at first taste, and my virginity was broken not by a stolen moment in the backseat of a car, but by a veritable orgy where I experienced a sensorial lust that I can remember to this day.

Larceny and prophecy

As people drifted through the still-open back door, the party grew to now legendary stature in Epicurus’s too-brief history. Julian, on an inebriated tear, darted upstairs to fetch the keys for the locked case. Out came the owner’s prized collection of Williams Selyem, all single-vineyard wines. I probably didn’t even know what a single-vineyard wine was, let alone how prized the grapes from Olivet Lane or Allen were.

All I remember is that Julian hoisted me up to Pinot’s celestial heights. The Pinot neural pathways flared wide like the jets on a Jaguar carburettor with the accelerator flat to the floor. We laid waste to the Williams Selyem. Julian was sacked. Fom then on it was Pinot Noir forever, the greatest love story of my life.

For me, place will always surface from the dark, bottomless lagoon of vinous memory. Epicurus wine emporium will forever be associated with grand larceny and the generosity of one man. Did Julian prophesy I was going to write a book one day in first person where my alter ego would rhapsodise about Pinot Noir in a hyperbolic prose that would one day elevate its standing in the wine world? Did he realise I had better know my subject? No.

But this is how writers operate, they ideate. We thirst for revelation. Like thieves, we’re always working. An extemporaneous moment combusts, we experience an epiphany, something wraithlike courses through us, and we know we have to write about it. And there and then the seed was sown for my book and the movie that, literally, saved my life.

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