top of page


When I returned from ten years living in Germany, I settled in Washington DC, determined to get some sort of job – any sort of job – in the wine business. I first met David Schildknecht while making the rounds of the power-retailers, of whom DC had many, thanks to a combination of good demographics, liberal alc-bev laws, and the usual imponderables.

David was the buyer at Rex Wines and Spirits, about which there was nothing imponderable. It was right on the DC/MD line, and Maryland’s Montgomery County had (and still has) archaic laws that inhibited the formation of a fine-wine retail sector. But one foot over the border was Rex -- whose customers were routinely spied-on from a nearby high-rise by binocular-toting County authorities and would take circuitous routes to return into Maryland. Of all the retail wine titans I met in those days, David was the one who spoke German, had a background in Germany, and seemed open to learning more about those wines.

I had no portfolio of German wines to sell at the beginning, but we made fast friends. In the formative days of assembling what would become my portfolio, David and I traveled together. There was a brothers-in-arms quality about it, and while David has amassed a formidable body of knowledge over wine in general, it’s hardly a secret that he retains a particular attachment to wines from umlaut-lands. He has often and kindly (and for no good reason I can discern) called me his “mentor,” but had I known the prodigious nature of his synoptic intellect I’d have been too intimidated to presume to mentor him!

David had a career in the trade, first in (various) retail stores and then in wholesale, before he became a full time wine writer, which is how most of you know him. He and I had an active social life – he was my main tasting pal, and many were the wines I obtained in order to eventually drink them with David – but when he left the DC area for the wilds of Cincinnati, OH, our opportunities thinned, to our mutual dismay. There are lots of people I enjoy drinking wine with, but nobody to whom I refer as I do to David. I have wines growing moribund in my cellar because it simply makes no sense not to drink them with him.

As a writer, his many gifts are on dazzling display. There seems to be no pertinent information that eludes his grasp. He both absorbs and processes knowledge almost alarmingly promptly and comprehensively. And he writes with a smile. Underlying his prose, especially his tasting notes, is a teasing wittiness that may at times seem esoteric, but that’s only because his mind moves so much faster than ours. Naturally my reading of David’s work can’t help being informed by my knowing him socially and as a decades-long friend. But here’s a telling anecdote: after many years of correspondence, Jancis Robinson and David finally met in 2007, and I happened to see Jancis shortly thereafter. “I finally met your friend David,” she said. “Does he always smile?” I mustered up such lame wit as I could – “Only with you, M’Lady, as all of us do…” - but she identified the most telling thing about David. His default position is cheer. He is the only pleasure-seeker I know who isn’t hedonistic. He seems to be proceeding with the idea that life is an interesting business, and it’s endlessly pleasant to engage with it.

In the following conversation you will certainly find the Schildknecht you know, but I hope that, here and there, you’ll find more than snippets of the David I know.

TT: You had a career as a culinarian before you entered the wine trade. You remain a fine cook. To what degree do your thoughts about food inform your thoughts about wine?

DS: I think it’s been largely the other way around. As long as I enjoyed wine solely under the aspect of food, I took it too much for granted. It was only after having experiences with [great] wines that I began trying to conceptualize flavors, and then to begin thinking about food generally not just in terms of visceral and sensual appeal, but also aesthetically and from the standpoint of where it comes from and how it’s grown.

TT: Is there a discernible nexus in which food and wine mingle?

DS: I’m not sure I know what you have in mind.

TT: We often seem to have the two things in “silos,” (sorry for the buzz word) and seem to have two sets of vocabularies for discussing them.

DS: Well, at the risk of sounding like a smart-ass, of course there’s a nexus: in one’s mouth ... or, more delicately put, on one’s palate. From that interaction of food and wine I take away two realizations, and it never ceases to amaze me how many wine and food lovers - including professionals - seem to ignore them.

The first is simply that there really are potential antagonisms between certain foods and wines but also genuine synergies.

TT: This idea isn’t just ignored; there’s actually blowback to it, from some populist standpoint of drink-whatever-you-want, no rules, life’s complicated enough…all that.

DS: Sommeliers I guess largely believe on some level that “the right wine” will make a dish more delicious, but I think I can be forgiven for often wondering whether that’s the case, so intent are they on telling you about this or that wine in its own right. As for chefs comprehending that the eventual choice of wine will profoundly affect how diners perceive their culinary creations – I’d say based on my long experience that not one in twenty does.

TT: The late Charlie Trotter was that one, maybe one in a hundred. He would actually alter a prep to account for the wine on the guest’s table. He once explained this by saying that the wine was immutable but the food could easily be adapted.

DS: For me the second realization is that the combining of wine with food is chemical. I guess there’s a temptation to think of it as entirely physical, like mixing paints together on a different kind of palette. Or to think of it simply in terms of experiencing two or more sets of distinct impressions simultaneously. And for sure there’s a temptation on the part of professionals to place faith in their powers of imagination.

TT: The counter argument here would seem to be, however objectively “true” these things may be, there are too many subjective variables once we take actual humans into account.

DS: The starting point for discussing taste, which we manifestly succeed in doing, has to be – granted, incomplete – intersubjective agreement in experience. But chemistry complicates our experience because seemingly tiny differences can catalyze a major event in the mouth. Do you know The Aesthetics Of Wine? It’s a sophisticated philosophical tomb. [sic], by my friend Ole Skilleås and his co-author Douglas Burnham, who even treat an ability to predict imaginatively how certain wines and certain foods will perform together as a marker of expertise. I like to say that if such a thing were really possible, we could dispense with everything known about chemistry since Lavoisier – and why bother actually experimenting if imagination suffices?!

No: two or more things combine and then we get a molecular rearrangement and some new thing(s). Don’t get me wrong. When it comes to predicting food and wine compatibilities or synergies, imagination and some rules of thumb are useful, and it’s a bit of a thrill when we discover that we managed to nail a prediction that this particular wine and dish really will speak to and support one another. But imagination and rules of thumb can take you only so far; and it’s at least as thrilling when chance combinations surprise us with their synergies.

TT: When you are not assessing wine for reviewing purposes, how would you describe your everyday private-citizen relationship to it?

DS: Once you start down the path of professional association and obsession, you can never enjoy wine as an “ordinary wine lover.”

TT: I don’t agree, but I do admit it takes a certain effort. One worth making, in my view.

DS: You can try to recapture a certain sort of innocence ... but that’s another matter, which maybe we can get to later. As for “everyday” non-professional contexts, I keep wine commentary at table to a minimum – there are plenty of other things to discuss – but I can’t keep from making mental tasting notes. During this Covid interlude where I’m doing sampling from bottles that stay in my possession, I get to revisit a wine and also take it for a spin or two at table; so at that point, notes I’m making about how it performs get incorporated into my professional assessments. I know you’ve also mentioned how you’re enjoying spending a longer time assessing any one wine.

TT: Oh yes. It’s made me realize that the ability to write notes under pressures of time limits and fractured attention is a kind of professionalism I’m glad to have possessed and even more glad I can now toss overboard. Do you ever write tasting notes at home for wine you drink recreationally?

DS: Sometimes I’ll write-down the mental notes I mentioned while still at table, but only if it’s just [my wife] Cathy and I – and even then I might get censured with rolled eyeballs. I said I’m enjoying the opportunity to take professional sample bottles to the table. But normally, for as much as I adore the wines of Germany and Austria, I relish the opportunity when it’s – as you put it – “recreational” to open bottles of French, Italian or American wine. Lately, if I’m especially carried away by the beauty or intrigued by one of these, I’ve taken to jotting down a few telegraphic notes and prompts right on the label and photographing it. And of course, if it’s something with significant bottle age that I’m drinking, then I’m more likely to write a note soon after. It’s a nice break while doing dishes and cleaning up the kitchen, which often takes me longer than it did to make the meal.

TT: You had many years in retail, which of course entails dealing with the public. Which in turn entails a certain practice of persuasion. What are the salient lessons you learned from your retail experience? And do those lessons play any role in the way you approach wines for reviewing?

DS: Persuasion, yeah ... that’s really a hugely important subject when it comes to wine. I honestly felt from early on in my retail career – and I had some success with this approach even after I switched to wholesale and was selling to professionals – that if you want to sell a bottle of wine to anybody other than a geek, it’s more important to convey your personal enthusiasm for its contents than it is what you know about them

TT: Absolutely. You instruct with information but you sell with charm. Not like I led dozens of “sales seminars” but I had a little proverb: Your conviction creates their curiosity.

DS: Well put! Though, of course, some informing is also called for. And that goes for a critic’s notes, too, assuming they’re positive and thus implied recommendations. But what makes persuasion such an important topic for a critic – and this is something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and writing about over the last couple of decades – is trying to understand how people can be persuaded to change their taste preferences [TT: my emphasis] Even if they’re influenced by your enthusiasm, what makes them come to share (or reject) that enthusiasm?

TT: The obvious answer would be that your passion is confirmed by their experience. But you have to surmount the barriers of habit, self-assumed preferences, and simple prejudice.

DS: “Being persuaded” in this sense could involve becoming open to a greater range of taste experiences, but it can also involve profound change. In food and wine, just like in music or visual art, someone can come not just to respect but to love something that he or she initially experienced as unintelligible, off-putting, or maybe even slightly repulsive. And I think persuasion here can constitute calling a taster’s attention to how certain intersubjective experiential elements hang together or are arranged, such that the person you’re trying to persuade starts to perceive the object in question in a different way.

TT: That assumes both a high intelligence and a fluid one. I’m less optimistic than you – but still optimistic. How could I have survived otherwise?

DS: The old de gustibus line has some validity, but not, I think, profoundly. Yes, some taste preferences are idiosyncratic. And no, you can’t always explain – let alone do you need to explain – why you relish a particular set of flavors. But as soon as you realize that a big part of the pleasure that you’re taking in wine has to do with the juxtaposition, arrangement, interaction of myriad flavor perceptions, then you’re in the realm of aesthetics. And there, persuasion – which means, also disputation – has a place. Only that place is hard to clarify. There may of course be psychological explanations for how perceptions are altered – and in fact, a huge theoretical literature is accumulating about wine perception – but there can also be reasons why, and that’s the slippery, intriguing thing to consider.

TT: You are famous among people who know you as a person who absorbs information unusually quickly and thoroughly. Have there been times when, on reflection or with more exposure, you found your original conclusions hasty?

DS: Oh dear: I sure hope that I continue to revise my opinions and conclusions! Heaven knows I often feel as though the more I learn the less sure I am of any of them. As for information – if it’s genuine, i.e. doesn’t prove to be misinformation – then all one can do is add to it and try to keep it organized, which becomes harder the longer it accumulates and the older and therefore slightly less mentally retentive one gets. And when it comes to wine, misinformation abounds, because winegrowers, wine critics, wine merchants, we all desperately want to make a point of this or that, and even honest individuals often inadvertently overstate, get carried away in their conclusions, or fill-in gaps for the sake of completeness with stuff that will crumble under more rigorous inspection. I’m just now revising the Austrian and German entries for an upcoming fifth edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine. I hope readers will believe that when I last did this I approached the responsibility with utmost seriousness and conscientiousness. But I’m shocked now at how much I have learned in five years since then and of how much I wrote that is liable to have conveyed a less accurate account than I now consider myself capable of delivering.

TT: How does a wine lover avoid becoming glib?

DS: I think you’re only going to become glib if you turn disingenuous for the sake of effect, or if you become jaded. The former is always a risk, so I try to stay aware of it to avoid it. As for becoming jaded, if that were to happen, I’m pretty confident I would just hang it up as far as professional tasting and wine writing is concerned.

TT: Of the many people you know in the wine world, who are a few with whom you particularly enjoy tasting or drinking, and why?

DS: Well, you realize – so I hope your readers will believe – that it isn’t mere flattery when I say that I enjoyed and was enlightened more from tastings that the two of us did together than from almost any others. But it saddens me to say that you and I sitting down (let alone standing in a cellar) together to muse about a shared glass of wine – which for a decade happened almost weekly – has happened very rarely and fleetingly since the early 1990s and only once in the past decade. I seldom host wine professionals at my home; I no longer belong to any tasting groups – I don’t know where I’d find time to participate; and those among my friends with whom I share wine impressions are mostly e-mail correspondents whom I am lucky if I visit with personally every few years.

So really, the people with whom I taste regularly – typically once a year – are winegrowers. Among these, I most enjoy tasting with someone who is keenly self-critical and – here it comes, again – someone who can persuade me to perceive his or her wine in a different way, but who is also capable of being persuaded to perceive his or her own handiwork differently. That eliminates a whole bunch of folks with whom I enjoy tasting in the sense of deriving pleasure and knowledge from our annual sessions together, but with whom I don’t share a critical mutual activity that you could call tasting-together, of drilling down into the wine in our glass, questioning what makes it tick, and assessing its aesthetic virtues. Of course, any vintner is going to want to tell you what he or she is trying to accomplish; but to express aesthetic goals with something other than stock vocabulary? That’s rare. Which isn’t a criticism – a winegrower has more important talents to hone – just a fact.

There are rare individuals who not only meet my aforementioned criteria but convey their work as winegrowers within an inspiring, historically-informed vision. People like Karl-Josef Loewen and Ulli Stein; or Helmut Dönnhoff and Michi Moosbrugger for whom the larger vision is one of legacy – in Helmut’s case, inherited; in Michi’s adopted. I could draw a similar comparison between Rudi Pichler and Roland Velich – or, in Burgundy, between Laurent Ponsot and Mounir Saouma. There are some astute and articulate tasters whose visions are global – like several especially environmentally-conscious winegrowers whom I got to know through my time in Oregon: Robert Brittan, Mimi Casteel, and Jayson Lett. With Florian Weingart, I need to prepare for serious philosophical discussion! And then there are rare individuals, like Heidi Schröck or Steve Edmunds, whose sensitivity and articulate insight extend to personal revelations of their intimacy with the wines they grow, and who as a result encourage me to try opening a window into my own soul. (With Steve, it’s as if his wines are an extension of his songs, or vice-versa.) It’s an amazing experience and privilege to taste and converse with such folks, which naturally also puts doing so into the category of most-enjoyable about which you asked.

TT: Is there a sentimental side of you that people don’t get to see? And if so, is it because you prefer to keep it private?

DS:, I thought maybe I’d better consult the OED before answering! Am I “[as] a person, excessively prone to feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia”? Excessively, no; plenty, yes. I imagine – certainly hope – that people who read my reports, columns and articles can tell there is a lot of nostalgia and sadness for things that have been lost viticulturally and in wine sensitivity and a lot of tenderness toward certain wines and people who grow them. I see that the OED also defines “sentimental” as “[in] a work of literature, music, or art dealing with feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia, typically in an exaggerated and self-indulgent way.” I do try when I write, though I’m sure not always successfully, to avoid exaggeration or self-indulgence.

TT: I’m maybe more forgiving of sentimentality, though I hate mawkishness and I rise up and quake furiously if I feel I’m being manipulated by mere sentiment. I think sentimentality can be forgivably primitive, one might say, and while it risks being a cheap emotion, at least it’s an emotion.

DS: In that case, a question for you: I once briefly entertained in print the possibility that a wine can inherently evoke specific emotional responses, quite independent of a taster’s strictly personal experiences and associations with that wine. I did this by considering a couple of your more evocatively metaphoric tasting notes, and asking whether they don’t suggest an emotional tone that would strike most tasters of the wine in question as apt, whereas other metaphors and the emotions would strike most tasters as simply inappropriate to that wine. If in fact wines can sometimes have an inherent emotional tone and evoke an intersubjective emotional response – and I believe they can – that’s a pretty remarkable fact.

TT: I agree.

DS: Have you ever thought about how wine can manage to do this?

TT: I wonder whether the “how” could ever be understood. I do think it’s worthwhile trying to describe the what, that is, to convey the thing phenomenologically, or if that’s too affected, then calmly and attentively and thankfully. I’d also worry that if we understood the “how,” then someone would come along and engineer it. ON SALE THIS WEEK: TEARJERKER VINEYARDS, ALL FLAVORS, $19.99! And try Satori, our best-selling PetNat!

As best I can, I observe that among all the aesthetic pleasures, wine is the least mitigated. Its beauty is entirely abstract. It carries with it various penumbras of meanings and values, but once it’s in the glass and on your palate, it is just that thing. At least at the moment of impact. The other things come along later. Even if you carry them with you in the forms of memories or anticipation, even if you bring them to the lip of the glass, there still comes a point where it is only the wine.

It has no purpose except to be beautiful for you. Sure it will wash your meal down, but so will many other beverages. Let me put it this way; you may have studied all the elements that go into creating the sunset, the refraction of light, the nature of the sky and the clouds, but at the instant you’re dumbstruck by it everything you know is obliterated.

So while I’ve asked “How in the world can this emotion exist, what is it made of, how does it come to me?” when I’ve had a certain wine in my glass, those are the lovely and fruitless questions that are sweet to ask because the answers cannot be known.

DS: Can you recollect instances where a particular wine seemed to clearly evoke a shared emotional response among tasters?

TT: Certainly, as long as we agree that by “shared” we don’t mean “common” let alone “identical.” Maybe we all were moved, but each of was moved in her own way, and while we may have agreed that the moment was profound, its elements change as it makes different weather in each of our subjective universes. That said, I want what you want, which is to have a society, however small, of fellow tasters who are free to feel and dream if that’s what the wine is asking for. Those would be very special friends. And it would be a highly refined sort of intimacy, don’t you think? A few souls arriving at some sort of union, because they are mutually staggered by a wine’s capacity for absurd beauty.

DS: Yes, it is refined. And I’m happy to say I’ve been privileged to experience a union of winetasting souls like you describe. Only I want to make clear: I wasn’t just referring to being blown away by beauty or its absurdity. One of the examples from your notes that I employed to suggest how wines might convey a shared emotional tone was your having written of one: “[I]t’s a citric circus on the finish, all the little Scheu clowns performing their bumps and pratfalls. Laughing is good.”

TT: You like that note! You also cited it in a World Of Fine Wines piece. And yes, you “got” that the note left the usual associations behind and tried to depict a certain giddy and ticklish quality that wine had. I don’t do any of this consciously, but I imagine I’m asking myself the question, what’s the best way to say what it’s like to drink this?

DS: Well, I thought: If a bunch of wine lovers were sharing a bottle of that Christian Bernhard Scheurebe you were describing, would any of them deny that it’s somehow a fun-loving, have-a-good-laugh-and-don’t-take-me-too-seriously sort of wine? Or maybe I should put it this way: Would any say it was a brooding, somber wine? I can’t conceive of that. On the other hand, if it were Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle Grosses Gewächs in our glasses, our mutual – and entirely appropriate – response might be: “Listen up and straighten up: some serious stuff going down here!”

And I just recalled, now that I’ve mentioned Hermannshöhle, something that I found a remarkable instance of wine conveying an intersubjectively shared tone. On the wall of the Dönnhoff tasting room, as you’ll doubtless recall, hang three adjacent, identically-sized panels – abstract oil or acrylic paintings. When I first noticed them, Helmut started to explain that there is this artist who tries to capture the character of wine on canvass. I took another look and it was like a sudden flash of recognition: “It’s Hermannshöhle!” “Yeah,” said Helmut, “that was exactly my reaction when I got invited to a showing of her works and came to this one.” Now, sure, each of us had reasons why he could have guessed at the artist’s intended subject. Helmut knew his wine was the subject of one of the works on display at that show, and I might have guessed that an abstract work intended to depict a wine that ended up on a wall of his tasting room wasn’t there solely due to intrinsic intrigue and artistic merit. Only, we didn’t either of us cogitate and conclude that this work was intended to depict Dönnhoff Hermannshöhle – we simply experienced a moment of realization. “And by the way,” quipped Helmut, “she said when she has to go to three panels, it’s because she’s really impressed with the depth of the wine.”

TT: He and I had a similar discussion, which led me to consider mixing him a playlist in which each of the vineyards was “described” by the music that corresponded to it. Helmut loved that idea, and shame on me; I really need to set about doing it.

DS: Not to go off on a self-advertising tangent here, but as you know, since I’ve written about this at length, I find it fascinating and extremely important for our understanding of wine that we can similarly sometimes identify what’s in our glass by puzzling it out from the evidence – both sensual and circumstantial – but sometimes it’s a result of something very much like facial recognition.

TT: Yes, and like facial recognition, we don’t tease out a wine’s identity by adding up a combination of details – a certain kind of nose, the shapes of the eyes, the mouth and chin line all equal this person – but rather we see the gestalt of the face, and we recognize it before we recognize it, one might say.

DS: A related question – now let’s leave the realm of emotions: I’m wondering how you conceive of metaphors generally as managing to capture the taste characteristics of wine. Not your particular personal experience or associations with that wine – though you do sometimes get biographical – but capture via metaphor sensory impressions that other tasters are likely to share?

TT: I wonder whether I conceive of metaphors generally. At the moment I deploy one, I’m not concerned with whether anyone else will comprehend it. If that note’s meant to be published, I can clean it up if needed. At first I just want to grab the imagination-nugget. I may well string together a bunch of images or metaphors and then choose the most effective one. But let’s remember that much of wine description is metaphorical because of the poverty of vocabulary by which to describe those flavors and impressions. Even a commonly used texture word like “crisp” is a metaphor. No wine is actually “crisp” (except maybe certain sparkling wines…), and so the task becomes to find words with a lot of chi. One of my favorite examples is when Parker started using “boisterous” in his notes. That’s a great word and I know exactly how that wine will be. If I write that a Forster Kirchenstück has its “crags” or its “medieval scholar face,” I hope that even a reader who doesn’t know exactly what I mean, will take away a vivid image-tone.

I do think wine offers us a rare chance to stretch these fantasy muscles in our brains, because metaphor seems to be the native language by which it is best apprehended. I once had a wine that showed its pedigree of origin until a jarring moment as it moved around the palate, and I spent a lot of words seeking to describe that moment in literal detail until I gave up and just wrote “It’s like Nijinsky flying through the air with all his graceful muscularity and command, and landing on a rusty nail.” Never did publish that note….

DS: Wine as a sort of playground or fitness center for exercising our metaphor-making mental muscles. I like that metaphor.

TT: My wife often says “I never metaphor I didn’t like.” But you’re the first person I know who’s understood that metaphor is best perceived metaphorically.

Lest all of our heads start spinning uncontrollably, let me change tack: Looking back, as I myself do, on a 3-4 decade relationship with wine, are there things/memories that generate nostalgia? If so, what are they, and why those memories?

DS: Well, it’s impossible not to be nostalgic about one’s seminal tasting experiences, wishing it were possible to go back and recapture the first goosebump-engendering encounter with this or that wine. (I’m going to refrain from offering a bunch of examples lest I come off as a snob.) But that sort of nostalgia has a positive, forward-looking aspect to it that you and I have often discussed, which is that it reminds you how important it is to try to retain or recapture a sense of wonder in the face of wine. For my part, I’d go further and say that being blindsided by a wine where your preconceptions have been left behind can also be a fruitful path to rediscovery. Now you’ve got me onto a tangent, but hopefully it’s worthwhile.

In a recent column, I borrowed from Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim’s Zen-inspired musical project called “Beginner’s Ear” and espoused the benefits of trying to taste with a “beginner’s palate.” I trust you (and my publisher at The World of Fine Wine) will indulge my quoting the conclusion to that column:

Rather than breaking his or her head trying to guess what’s in the glass, a wine expert could do worse than to perceive ignorance as an opportunity. Experience the wine at least partly as if you were a beginner, and enjoy the ride. All of the mental baggage that constitutes your hard-earned expertise will still be there waiting for you when it’s over.

TT: That statement is both lovely, and true, and difficult. But it can be done, I think. It’s a tweak of a certain cognitive muscle. You learn how to temporarily erase all your knowledge. Like shaking the etch-a-sketch to make it blank again. For me it helps to recall my first exposures to Austrian wine, when I felt like a novice again, and it was wonderful.

DS: I’ll never forget my first real experience with it, either. I’d spent time in Austria and drank wine, but not reflectively. You opened several Rieslings in the living room of your Silver Spring, Maryland apartment – I’m pretty sure, and hope I saved my scribbled notes somewhere.

It was in fact a good example of having to be persuaded, or at least, having to learn to perceive things differently, because at first I found the wines puzzling, being as different as they were from my experience with Germany and Alsace. My epiphany came a few months later once your first Austrian container landed. Knoll had said he didn’t have any wine you could offer for resale in your inaugural catalog, but he sold you a few mixed cases of his 1993s which you offered to share. The first of those bottles I opened was the Grüner Veltliner Loibenberg Smaragd. I remember exactly what I had just cooked for dinner. I checked for cork merely by ascertaining that it didn’t smell off. So, I poured two glasses, and after a couple of sips, Cathy gave me this look and asked “What is this, and why haven’t we been drinking it?” “It’s called Grüner Veltliner.” Well, that was the start of a love affair – with that grape, I mean – and also of my longstanding joke that one raised eyebrow from my wife was worth at least five Parker-points ... which Bob eventually found hilarious.

But back to nostalgia; naturally, nostalgia also extends to those occasions when the wonders of wine were imparted not just in the glass but by a particular mentor. Happily, though, most of the individuals who mentored me and whose wine wisdom changed my life are, like present company, still around to exchange ideas, though a few have departed, like Erich Salomon or – very recently, Wilhelm Haag and Michel Lafarge.

And then there is nostalgia for things you just know can’t be recaptured because you would need to reinsert yourself into a lost world. The experience of German Riesling when 90 Oechsle was a rarity and there were vintages that offered the bittersweet rewards of tasting through hundreds of wines to find a transcendent handful. The experience of Burgundy before notoriety and ascending prices began making it difficult for a grower to remain a farmer at heart. The experience of Bordeaux when it was the rare wine that reached 13% alcohol.

TT: Apropos nostalgia and the (not always so) good old days, I doubt that most of your readers know your “origin story” with wine. Did your relationship to wine (as an object of particular interest) develop gradually, or did you have “the” bottle that woke the beast? And if so, what bottle was it, and what were the “beast’s” first words or thoughts?

DS: I came to genuine wine-loving late. Ironically, my childhood and early adult years brought me into close proximity with some of the prestigious German-speaking places (and in some fabled vintages) with which I would eventually become closely associated ... to all of which, wine-wise, I was at the time nearly oblivious.

Let me preface what I’m about to say about bottles that “woke the beast” by noting that among my earliest experiences with how delicious and interesting wine could be, some did indeed come from Riesling. I especially recall a 1969 Schloss Vollrads “Blausilber” Kabinett and a 1971 Hugel Riesling Réserve Personnelle – the sorts of libation bought in our family to enjoy as a special treat at holidays. I kept those empty bottles for more than a decade ... until I became a geek, at which point I soaked-off the labels and saved them. But – further irony – the two experiences with wine that catapulted me from enjoyment and curiosity to rapture and wonder didn’t involve grapes or places people would later associate with my wine writing.

[It was] three bottles, poured from unmarked decanters, and tasted over an entire evening – we spent it savoring and comparing, but not obsessing, about their contents; enjoying them with a meal, but with no other vinous distractions save for a bottle of bubbly beforehand – that was how I experienced my first wine epiphany.

Maybe I should set the stage. I finished – or should I say “gave up”? – graduate study in 1977 and returned stateside from Toronto. I couldn’t seem to monetize my modest academic talents. (Surprise! The economy was in recession, and they really were modest.) I was doing some really menial retail work. So I appealed for a job to the owner-operators of several sandwich shop-type restaurants, at one of which my wife and I liked to dine. I had become just enough of a friend as well as customer to these guys that they felt they had to – after swallowing hard – say “okay.” I learned later that they couldn’t imagine me lasting long in a high-pressure kitchen. But I did.

TT: You and “high pressure” don’t seem like mutually exclusive things….but do continue.

DS: By one of the incredibly lucky flukes in my personal and professional life, Cathy and I were living in North Carolina at the time, a State whose post-prohibition legacy allowed for dual licensing. The Arthur’s restaurants there doubled as wine shops, which supplied an outlet for the obsession of partner Robert Balsley, whose right-hand I was going to become. I was also going to learn that the fifty or sixty linear feet of colorful bottles lining the dining area encompassed among other things every California winery of the time that had any serious pretensions. They were all places Robert knew first-hand. (There were fewer back then than you might think. Mondavi was still viewed as a “newcomer”; Rutherford had just gone private; Duckhorn was getting ready to bottle – and sell us – their first vintage.)

So, Robert says “come over to our place for dinner.” And there sat those three decanters. I didn’t have words to describe their captivating contents – but I didn’t need them. I was just caught up in and amazed that you could spend a whole evening returning again and again to the same three wines, comparing them and discovering that they kept offering new enticements. Incidentally, it took thirty years for me to appreciate fully what that night in 1978 taught me about tasting.

TT: Many lessons or insights are only gleaned retrospectively. And it’s a curious coincidence; 1978 was also my first year tasting with “intent.” In my case it was German Riesling, as you know. But don’t keep us in suspense; what were the wines?

DS: By the end of the evening, I was guessing with considerable confidence that by no means just any wines could be this distinctively and fascinatingly delicious, and that my boss was trying to entrap me. I was correct on both counts. The wines were 1968 B.V. Private Reserve, Freemark Abbey, and Heitz Martha’s Vineyard - Cabernets whose like had rarely been equaled before then and has, sadly, long-since all but disappeared from Napa Valley.

Soon after this epiphany came a new and empowering thrill. I’d begun to “study” wine and had in effect been inducted into a society of local tasters, immersing myself in the attendant rituals, including blind tasting –which I view as more benign and within limits even useful than you do. And I’ll never forget my thrill the first time I realized that I had met the wine in my glass before. It was ’68 BV again. I began to understand the vinous equivalent of facial recognition.

The next life-changing wine experience came from a recently-bottled Alain Voge Cornas, vintage 1979. I’d just taken up my new career as a wine buyer in Washington DC and been introduced by my predecessor Richard Watson to his soon-to-be partner Bobby Kacher (two among many soon-to-be-importer DC wine reps I would befriend). Bobby was working for London-based importer Peter Hallgarten and the two of them were especially involved with Rhône wines. Those three Cabernets had gotten me started asking what could make wine so fascinating if grown in certain places and raised by certain people. But this bottle of Cornas posed more radical questions about fermented grape juice: How could it smell more intensely of cherries and cassis than anything actually made from those fruits; and how on earth could it smell so deliciously like bloody, singed red meat

This took place on the cusp of my “discovering” Burgundy – thanks in no small part to you, Terry, with those Albert Morot wines you brought to Bobby’s and my attention; and just ahead of my coming to experience German Riesling in a completely new and revelatory way – thanks almost entirely to you. Burgundian Pinot and German Riesling, I discovered, raised both intrigue and sensual seduction to another level.

After three years at Rex, which my predecessors had been laying odds I wouldn’t survive, the agreement with my boss was that I could take time off to return to Europe, now as a wine taster. You wrote down the places I should visit in Germany. (There were asterisks after some of the names. But not because they were the stars; those were the places that also had overnight accommodations.) I spent time in Alsace and Champagne; then by prior arrangement, Becky Wasserman fatefully took me under her wing in Burgundy.

When I got back, I had the proverbial stars in my eyes. Oh, and Cathy met me at BWI with “Schatz, I’m pregnant!” 1984 was a terrible vintage for French and German winegrowers, but not for me. It was a no-turning-back-now year. My retail work got the attention of our budding local wine writer, Mr. Parker. Steve Tanzer, another Marylander originally, came to town to canvass retail shelves, met you in my shop, and asked to sit the two of us down for a couple of interviews about German wine, where I pretended to know more than I did. You and he both encouraged me to write, so I did, beginning with Alsace. And Bob eventually paid me the highest compliment by saying he was glad I only planned to do that as a sidelight. The rest is history – at least when it comes to you three!

491 views3 comments

Recent Posts

See All


Before starting in on the samples, I had a quick look at a few 2023’s last week, not enough to offer a judgment but enough to offer a speculation. In Germany, based on samples from Dönnhoff and Selbac


Marvelous. Many thanks to you and David.


May 12, 2021

Miss you both.


May 12, 2021


bottom of page