The online home of Mark “The Cork Head” Stuart, Certified Wine Professional, speaker/educator, judge, and columnist.

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December 2017
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At 11 years old my grandfather taught me my first wine lesson.

Grandparents Day, celebrated each year on the first Sunday following Labor Day, provides a natural opportunity to relive a moment he authored which laid the foundation for what has become a passion and occupation.

A cold winter morning in 1983 outside of Longville, MN found much of the extended Stuart family preparing for a snowmobile outing over vast frozen lakes and through snow covered forest typical of Northern Minnesota.

In the early 1980’s, California wines were exploding in popularity. One representative of these new and well thought of producers was from Sonoma County, called Jordan Vineyard and Winery.

Jim Stuart, then grandfather of 11, had squirreled away a few cases of the burgeoning winery’s initial release, the 1976 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon. At the time, even esteemed wines such as this were not above making their way into the back of a snowmobile cubby to quaff at a trailside weenie roast.

The grandkids all had different jobs at the mid-ride campfire. Some collect firewood from the forest, while others whittled sticks for weenies and marshmallow s’mores. I would gulp Orange Crush, and sometimes get a smidgen of the adult’s wine, to wash down the ash and smoke inhaled while tending to the can of chili bubbling away in the open fire.

Upon returning home, warming showers preceded adults enjoying cocktail hour while grandkids played table tennis and pool in the adjacent game room.

Precisely at this time, prior to dinner, while Grandpa Jim was sipping from his 1976 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon, he leaned to me and said, “I sure think it would be a neat skill to be able to taste wines and tell where they are from and what year they are.”

As any 11 year old might, I said “I don’t get it. Why don’t you just want to drink it?” Grandpa Jim smiled in an understanding manner and said no more.

For whatever reason, I never forgot the details of this brief and notably profound moment. I do know today that it was the first time I ever heard of the cerebral aspect of wine.

Other notable wine experiences have left their impressions on me as well. Most notably a bicycle trip through the Loire Valley in France, with my mother Ellen, where I learned wine can be as integral to dinner as is food, or my first pleasure trip to Northern California’s wine country with my wife-to-be Karla, among numerous others.

There is no doubt, however, that the first moment I knew wine was different than any other beverage was that winter day with Grandpa Jim.

Interested in career enhancement, in the spring of 2007 my wife and 2 dogs joined me in moving to St. Helena, California where I attended the Culinary Institute of America. The CIA offers what is arguably the premier formal wine education in the United States.

After completing the intensive coursework and virtually endless hours of study, a certification exam is offered which consisted of 120 written questions and the all important tasting portion—3 mystery wines, a blank sheet of paper, and a sharpened pencil. To pass, students are to deduce the varietal, year, and region of origin.

It was like I was 11 years old again standing in my grandfather’s dining room, except this time I fully understood what he meant—paying contemplative attention to what one tastes can be more compelling than simply enjoying the social aspect of the beverage. This time I was prepared to answer as an educated, almost Certified Wine Professional.

Now, as CWP and columnist, I continue to convey his original message of wine being both mentally stimulating as well as sybaritic; and the power of those 30 fateful seconds spent with my grandfather Jim and his 1976 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon will live on through my work for another generation to experience.

Thanks grandpa.

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