A wine writer and her mentor share a bottle of wine without drinking it
My annual birthday tribute to someone who taught me more about wine than any textbook I’ve ever read.
Many people meet their mentors in offices. I met mine over a glass—make that several—of Riesling.
It wasn’t that Diane Teitelbaum and I were drinking a lot—to the contrary. We were two wine writers in Austria’s Wachau Valley powering through a technical tasting of Rieslings, Gruner Veltliners and Gewurztraminers. Or one of us was.
I was seated at a table before a sea of yellowy-gold liquids from which I was supposed to detect fruit, spice, mineral (including sulphur, slate, river stone, flint) and petrol. It didn’t help that I was jet-lagged from my trans-Atlantic flight and that another member of the group, a former television food personality, was bullying me, the obvious newbie in the group.
People swirled and sipped. I could do that. But when they wrote notes … non-stop notes to the 10 words I could muster up (“pale yellow, clear, stone fruit, bright acidity. Or not.”), I panicked knowing I was an imposter.
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Sitting next to me, Diane could see my confidence was in meltdown. The TV personality had made sport of cutting off my questions with corrective remarks. “Oh, you think that is mineral? It’s river rock.”
Diane slid her small hand through the tall stems on the table and circled my wrist. “You never mind him. He’s a has-been and this is his only stage.” She told me to sit with her and she’d get me through the tongue-twisting wines. And I did just that. We spent the week tag teaming: her guiding me through flavor profiles, and me helping her navigate uneven streets—a challenge after her recent knee surgery.
We were opposites in appearance: she with chin-length blonde hair, very pale skin and very blue eyes. She was short in her chair, fuller in her body. And she had a very soft voice. I was tall, dark haired and olive skinned with a voice I struggled to keep moderate. But we bonded over wine and the innate challenges of our work, especially as women in a male-dominated industry. We talked about good wine writing, when to use descriptors and when to throw them out the window and trust your palate. She taught me not to mimic others and not to panic if I couldn’t nail it.
At week’s end, I cried at our airport farewells. “When will we see each other again?” I lamented, knowing that I wouldn’t have much opportunity to travel to Dallas from my home base in Manhattan. Diane gave me a hug and a warm rub on my shoulder. “Good friends will stay friends,” she said.
And we did. When visiting her in Dallas, I was flabbergasted when she would open a prized bottle for simple grilled chicken (“When you love wine, you have to share it,” she said.)
A super taster, she had an ability to pin specific flavors, right down to a fruit’s inner core (pomegranate pith!) and did so with a complete lack of pretension and in her own carefree language. I’d call her when I was fretting over my wine studies and we would talk about wine but also about rescue dogs, our other sisters (because we were convinced we were separated at birth), whether to buy appliances on DealDash.
I once asked if she could remember her favorite wine. Oh yes, Diane said, without a second of hesitation.
It was a 1947 Joseph Drouhin Chambertin-Clos de Beze grand cru given to her by a friend who had died. When she pulled it from the rack for New Year’s Eve dinner with her husband, the bottle was a third empty. A wine like this, she figured, would have used 95 of its 100 chips. She stood it up for four days to let things settle out, but had a Plan B bottle because, she said “The older the wine or the more damaged, the less likely it is to be good, and the less time it would have in the glass.”
A few hours before dinner, she decanted it. She chose her stemware and poured the first glass.
“It was very elegant and delicate … very fragile and very delicious,” she told me. “It was like an elderly southern belle dressed in lace walking in her garden, And I thought that was just charming.”
My untrained palate couldn’t know what that would taste like; I conjured up talc-dusted flowers, dried roses … grandmother’s purse? But I knew the feeling of that wine: something refined and shy that slowly reveals itself in layers, sharing its history.
Diane and her husband finished that glass and poured the remainder, expecting a fanning away of its restrained charm.
But it suddenly came alive, and it was heady and seductive … dynamic and deep. Their mouths filled with velvety textures and dark and brambly flavors. “It had bravado, like a great overture—it was everything that a wine would ever want to be,” she recalled.
And then it was gone, its final five chips used up in just a few minutes.
As she told me this story, Diane paused in reflection. Her always-modulated voice went sotto voce.
“It was really a dynamic experience wine-wise: a romantic dinner with my husband that also reminded me of my friend, so it was a gift all over again.”
I was transfixed. It was a story all about wine yet did not include a single technical note. It was then that I understood that real wine knowledge transcends technical notes and textbooks. Rather, it’s the understanding of wine’s mysterious power to create both taste and emotional memories; to let its narrative transport us.
It’s about knowing each glass is an experience that will never repeat itself because you’ll never have it again with the same group of friends, in the same late-afternoon light or with the same meal. You’ll never have it again while watching the same group of children tussling or lovers embracing or families celebrating. The context in which you drink a great wine—like the wine itself—is ephemeral, there for a moment, then only a memory.
Diane died a few years after telling me this story. When I shared it at her memorial service in Dallas, the many people who drank with her and learned from her wept. Yes, because they lost a friend, but also because that bottle of wine, whose story was told one more time, had one more gift left in it.