Or, a casual steakhouse affair with a glass of Cab, after which you return to your beloved Vodka martini. Nope. I'm talking about the head-turning, life altering, seminal moment many have experienced that plunges them head-first into a mesmerizing and totally foreign journey. The moment from which there's no turning back.
I was a content and happy-go-lucky 25-year-old cameraman working in Chicago, the city of broad shoulders, and slowly becoming polished in my profession if still a bit culturally frayed around the edges. With so many deep-dish pizzerias and Italian beef options, I was leery, even fearful of fine dining where wine was a four-letter word. However, my Chicago bliss was rudely interrupted. Unknown to me, I had been evaluated and selected for a life-changing upgrade. My talents (not my sophistication, I promise you) were deemed worthy of a promotion... a big one. As a result, my wife and I packed up and headed for Europe, where I would join the International Press Corps. as a staff cameraman and member of the NBC News Frankfurt bureau.
From the outset, the job was a dream come true. I was traveling through all of Europe (and the world, too, soon enough) covering news for a major American news network. But when I would gather with my colleagues for crew lunches, or when my wife and I would join friends for dinner, we felt like the gourmet's version of a square peg in a round hole. Trying to blend in, we replaced my Coke and her Sprite with bottles of something called 'mineral water'. (Who came up with that name, by the way, and was it intended to sound appealing?) And the meals were marathons. Lunches could last THREE HOURS and dinners often had no end in sight. The common thread throughout went something like this: once seated, a senior colleague, usually European, would utter some unidentifiable words to our waiter and, like clockwork, completely different bottles would appear. Their labels seemed to contain a secret code of uninterpretable French or, God forbid, German writing. Deciphering these codes was foolhardy at best and maddening at worst. Instead, we mimicked our friends and my coworkers and forced down the ubiquitous liquid, pretending to enjoy every drop. At least we no longer stuck out like sore American thumbs.
Eventually, I broke from the pack of lemmings and realized that I actually liked some of what I was imbibing. My taste – or 'palate' – leaned more to the white stuff over the red. I noticed that the white wines with French labels were subtly different from one another but generally tasted good. Those with German labels were generally off-puttingly sweet. And the red stuff with French labels just tasted like dirt. But the learning curve was mind-numbing and intimidating. What was the difference between a Pouilly Fuisse and a Pouilly Fume? And, what was a Pouilly to begin with? Asking such questions in a public forum would reveal me as the ignorant American rube that I was. Instead, I'd need to keep quiet and steal glances at labels when no one noticed.
My budding intrigue with wine remained closeted until one fateful night at an Italian restaurant in Frankfurt. I was dining with a dear friend and colleague. He's about my age, but with Italian-Uruguayan heritage, he was more culturally savvy than I'd ever hoped to be, given what my Dayton, OH. upbringing had provided. Naturally, he took control and, to accompany our Italian meal, ordered an Italian wine. Without taking notice of what it was, I took a drink to get the evening going.
And that's when it all started. Or, more accurately, stopped. All movement in the room seemed to cease as I savored the entirely new nuances dancing over my tongue. I no longer heard my friend or the waiter. Didn't see the surrounding tables or menu in front of me. I was solely focused on the glass in my hand and the flavor in my mouth.
When I finally snapped out of my self-induced trance, with the seriousness of a surgeon, I inquired, "What did you just order?"
To which my friend replied, "Brunello di Montalcino. Is like liquid velvet, no?"
Damn right, and Voila! The light bulb above my head was shining brightly. As the taste still lingered in my mouth, I ordered another bottle. Even the name was seductive . . . Brunello di Montalcino. What did it mean? Where did it come from? I had to know more. This thing had grabbed me by the so-called palate and wouldn't let go. At that point, I was fully seduced – or worse, hooked. Even as we left the restaurant, the thought was unshakeable. "Brunello di Montalcino." There was no turning back.
Not long after that dinner, NBC News transferred me from Germany to Italy. Rome, Italy. I would be just a stone's throw from the city of Montalcino, home to my beloved Brunello. But this proved to be both a blessing and a curse. Yes, Brunello di Montalcino would be much more accessible. Yet, the Italian shops and restaurants featured not just one Brunello, but 20 or 30 different Brunellos from a variety of producers and vineyard sites – offering many separate vintages for me to choose from. Making sense of it all was almost as maddening as deciphering that first German label had been.
Somehow, I mustered the courage to tackle the course, and with a glass in each hand I tasted my way through the many producers of Brunello. The legendary leader was Biondi Santi, whose winemaking roots could be traced back to the 1800s. And there were others, many others, of whom I would become a lifelong fan – like Ciacci, Il Poggione, Col d'Orcia, and Sassetti to name just a few. Being employed by a television news network has its perks. Occasionally, we'd take a well-deserved break from the hard news of the day to file 'feature stories' from scenic locations like... say, Montalcino. Visiting picturesque wineries was a photographic must for these assignments. Our Italian hosts would insist on educating and sampling us on the local grape. Persistence pays off, as well, and I was just beginning to learn one piece, the Brunello piece, of the much bigger puzzle.
After a fruitful overseas run with NBC News, I returned to Chicago where, with the support of NBC and other news operations, I created a production company to continue covering the news. At this point, it had been seven years since I'd left the U.S. and I realized a lot had changed. I discovered two publications dedicated solely to wine coverage. Imagine that. What was next? An all-sports network, or one dedicated to cooking?! As I read through those magazines, I found that a plethora of ink had been devoted to the much heralded back-to-back '89 and '90 vintages in Bordeaux. While I knew nothing of this French region, review after review screamed that these were must-have wines. I had just grasped Brunello di Montalcino and was now confronted with the much larger and more complex right and left bank. Once again, I had to dive in. There was no turning back. Would it ever end?
Of course, the correct answer is no.
Once again, my professional TV life intersected with my burgeoning wine life. I was hired to produce a project on the growing wine auction business and invited to sample some of the Bordeaux and Burgundies being auctioned. There was that dirt component again from my earlier run-in with French reds. But this time, coupled with ripe fruit from great vintages, I found it was delicious. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a taste is worth ten thousand words, and after that auction project, I was a hopeless collector – with all of our available funds going into the cellar. Brunello, Bordeaux, and Burgundy would soon be followed with Napa Cabs, Barolo, Barabresco, Rioja and Priorate.
My cellar was growing and diversifying, and so too was my occupation. After decades of globe-trotting network news coverage, I was looking for television work that seemed less perilous and closer to home. I began to replace my exhausting news career with a new and popular format called reality TV. Work was plentiful and the compensation rewarding. But, I quickly discovered that there was nothing real about reality TV, and it proved to be even more exhausting than network news. It was decided. After 25 years in TV, I needed a break from television.
Living in Southern California and enjoying the fruits of my second marriage to a highly successful corporate executive who was also a fan of fine wine, I had the luxury of choosing a 'second act' without jeopardizing our financial solvency. We discussed a possible detour on my career path and agreed wine was my only other true passion – an avenue worth pursuing while I pressed the pause button on TV. But where to begin?
Retail shop clerk or cellar rat didn't appeal to me, and I didn't have the resume for the restaurant biz. Distribution or sales would be a radical departure, but perhaps something I could manage. I took a job as a sales rep for a prestigious importer and distributor with an impressive portfolio of wines. Learning the portfolio would be daunting but doable. But acquiring 'street cred' would be tougher. I soon found out "Emmy award-winning cameraman and producer" made for a meaningless introduction in the wine world. I had to get new credentials.
In the wine business, there are many qualifications and titles that project accomplishment, and numerous organizations that offer the necessary education and testing. Sommelier had a nice ring to it, so I decide to enter the gauntlet that is the Court of Master Sommeliers, having no idea what lay ahead. I learned there are 4 levels to that program: 1) Introductory, 2) Certified, 3) Advanced, and 4) Master. The mentoring from which I so benefitted during my news days would be mandatory if I hoped to survive this brave new world.
Fortunately, the wine world isn't just full of wine snobs. There are countless educated people in the wine business who genuinely enjoy sharing their knowledge with others. I quickly hitched my wagon to a friend who was studying to become a Master Sommelier with the Court of Masters. His level of study was fare more intense that mine, but he was happy to have me tag along and join his tasting group, an integral component to unlocking the secrets of 'blind tasting'. Concealing a wine's identity and trying to determine its origin and age solely by what's in the glass is a daunting task. But, with the right methodology (the Court of Masters' methodology) and plenty of practice, it can be mastered.
However, for someone who had never worked in a restaurant, the Court's required service component would be far more frightening for me. Luckily, the same gracious tutor also offered to mentor me on what would be expected for the exam's nerve-racking service component.
In addition to the blind tasting and service elements, as with most tests, there would be a written portion. The course syllabus' suggesting reading listed about 20 scholarly wine publications written by renowned wine authors, each of them encyclopedic in size. Unlike the group tastings, this would be independent study. But where in the world would I find the time to read through tens of thousands of pages on the world's wine types, regions, clones, soils, maps, graphs, and history, not to mention myriad different grape-growing and wine-making practices?
During my previous decades in news coverage, I had tried to understand the elusive path towards middle-Eastern peace. That path looked far easier than the Sommelier track, which I was contemplating.
Through the course of the next year, and after numerous blind tastings, early morning map studies, and a crash course in wine service, I somehow survived the first two levels of the Court of Master Sommeliers to become an official Certified Sommelier. Both the process and the achievement were a confidence-builder in my new profession. Whether with clients or colleagues, I could more freely and comfortably discuss all things wine-related. Additionally, that confidence opened up doors. Job opportunities appeared and introductions were made to collectors and vintners. I worked with a Paso Robles winemaker to produce two vintages of my own wine; Cab2, a blend of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. It was an enlightening and successful endeavor, but the long-distance relationship proved too challenging. I began attending casual wine groups with friends. Eventually, I was invited to join and inducted into the esteemed Confrèrie des Chevaliers du Tastevin. Regardless of how lofty or pedestrian the group may be, the goal is to enjoy fine wine with good friends . . . which always pairs nicely with any wine.
While my passion for wine became a full-time focus, professionally, I carved out a comfortable niche consulting for restaurants on a part-time basis, sharing my knowledge when needed. This allowed for an occasional return to journalism, producing interesting projects, also on a part-time basis. I was able to simultaneously pursue my two interests; wine and journalism. With two part-time pursuits, I could devote attention towards writing a memoir about those halcyon days spent abroad. As that rough manuscript became a finished book, I reflected on my earlier journeys. And, it became apparent that two different seeds had been planted at the same time. My young journalistic roots had grown intertwined with a budding love of wine. It would be a long and fruitful evolution that would last a lifetime.
Editor’s note: Tim Ortman is an Emmy Award-winning cameraman and producer and author of the new book, Newsreal: A View Through the Lens When... He is a certified Sommelier and member of La Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin. Connect with him on Facebook, @TimOrtmanWriter.