Everything I know about wine I learned from my mother. Not my biological mother. Her relationship to wine consists of one wine cooler a year and White Zinfandel at family gatherings. Everything I know about wine I learned from my Wine Mother. And as we approach Mothers Day, I thought I would reflect on the person who birthed me into a world of wine snobbery.
Over a decade ago, I told the brain trust at the radio station where I work that I was interested in developing a weekly wine feature, where I would endeavor to penetrate the posh world of wine. I was looking for an expert to guide me and was introduced to Judy O’Brien, the longtime wine buyer for State Street Wines & Spirits in Northampton. Twenty years earlier, Judy had smashed through the glass ceiling of the boy’s club of the Western Mass wine world. For decades, she had been a major player in alcoholic beverage purchasing. Feared and loved by wine salesman far and wide. And for some reason, she agreed to take me on as mentee.
She taught me that whatever it is that you like about a wine is right, unless it’s wrong. And whatever scents you sense in a Sancerre are there, unless they’re not. She taught me how to expertly cut the foil on the neck of the bottle (right around the small lip) and how to properly wash a wine glass (when you’re cleaning the bowl don’t hold it by the stem, lest you twist the glass by accident and break it). I owe my love of Champagne to my Wine Mother. She would threaten ne’er-do-well wine salespeople (I’m looking at you, Cork Dork!) that, if they didn’t live up to her exacting expectations, they would owe her a bottle of Salon — a Champagne that you might be lucky enough to find for $500 a bottle. She taught me to drink Champagne, and other suitable sparklers, anytime — not just at weddings or on New Year’s Eve. Every day is a day to celebrate.
The Wine Mother trained, worked with, touched the hearts of, or emotionally punched virtually every important mover and shaker in wine in Western Mass. And, up until she succumbed in her second battle with cancer, she continued to tutor me in how lychee nuts manifest themselves on the bouquet, and why French oak barrels are superior to American oak barrels. In thinking of my Wine Mother this Mother’s Day, I thought I would reach out to other mothers on social media to hear about their relationship to wine.
Northampton’s erstwhile Poet Laureate, Amy Dryansky, writes, “After my kids were born, I stopped being able to drink red wine. Maybe coincidental. Maybe just one more joy the little demons stole from me (JK, I LOVE them!). And white is too… white. So now I drink pink. With bubbles and without. I think my fave with bubbles are those splits of Cremant they sell at Whole Amazon. Just enough for one cranky mom. I also discovered a cheap every day Spanish pink I really like — Arrumaco.”
“I’m a mother with kind of a strange story related to wine and womanhood,” writes Valle Dwight from Florence. “I was never a big fan of wine. Never understood the attraction. Then I got breast cancer. After surgery the doctor put me on tamoxifen. Tamoxifen blocks estrogen from doing its thing. Suddenly, I not only like wine, I crave it! I come home and I can’t imagine anything nicer than sitting on the porch with a glass of wine and a book. Other than the wine part, I hated everything else about tamoxifen, so I stopped taking it. And the love of wine disappeared.”
“This mama does it all for the bubble,” says Lisa Turcotte Gaimari from Greenfield. “My sipping of choice is Lamarca Prosecco. My Champagne of choice is Veuve Clicquot — mostly just to say it. When my girls were young, I was a big fan of a white wine spritzer and dubbed those drinks ‘Soccer Moms.’”
Laurie Salame from Amherst writes, “Raising a special needs child on my own was difficult. But I tried hard to be consistent and fully present from after school until his bedtime — or what I liked to call “wine-o-clock.” Just one glass, not only to relax, but to remind myself that I was living a (somewhat) normal adult life. Of course, I love my child to the moon and back, but I still remember how enjoyable that quiet time to myself was.”
Suzette Snow-Cobb from Great Falls — a major player in the world of local co-ops — writes, “I’m a big fan of the Riojana wines. Particularly Riojana’s Malbec Reserva. AND they are a co-operative in Argentina, which I’m just a little enamored with. Very reasonably priced, which is good when wine is a staple.”
“I lost my mom in 2016 and often think of her when I am enjoying a glass of wine,” writes Pam Kinsmith from Greenfield. “One of my favorite memories is when I would visit my parents and after dinner we would drink wine and play cards. My mom liked whites — Riesling or Chardonnays. I’ve always been a drier, red girl opting for a blend or Cabernet. Now Dad and I usually have red and toast her.”
“I am a mother and I do enjoy wine — white mostly,” says Andrea Kennedy from Northampton. “Lab is a favorite. It’s really good and only $6.99. I also have recently started drinking canned wines — House Wine Rose Bubbles is delicious. Great for a mom on the go! I kid.”
Lynn Nichols from Gill says, “My 86-year-old mom didn’t have a relationship with fine wine. But a little over two years ago, after her husband died, she reconnected with the man she was in love [with] when she was 17. He is a wine connoisseur who has a cellar. He particularly likes French wines. My mom has come to understand much more about wine and has a real appreciation for it now.”
“My first experience with wine was with my great-grandmother, Immaculata Siciliano, in Springfield,” writes Michelle Ryan from Chesterfield. “We had this ritual when I’d visit: she’d make me sit at the picnic table under the arbor in her backyard. Then, she’d come out with a small flowered plate with two Stella D’Oro anisette toasts, and a small jelly glass filled with homemade red wine, mixed with water. She put these on the table in front of me, then she’d kiss me on the top of my head, and tell me to eat and drink, in a mixture of English and Italian. I was 5 or 6 at the time, and I’ll never forget those moments, almost 50 years ago now. The dappled sunshine under the grape leaves, her dark eyes looking at me with love and quiet amusement, saying things to me in Italian that I could only just grasp, the pleasure of being with her and doing something I thought was ‘adult’ (drinking wine!!) and hence, the fun at being a little subversive together. Ever since, when I have a glass of wine, it touches a place of deep nostalgia. It still feels a little decadent, too!”
In the lead up to Mother’s Day, even with all of these amazing reflections on motherhood and wine (and many more I didn’t have room to write about), my dearly departed Wine Mother would be extremely disappointed that I am writing this wine column. Monte — who can’t help but compare the scent of a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc to cat pee or the nose of a Cabernet Franc to poop. But here I write, with a formidable female force ghost jedi — my Wine Mother Judy O’Brien — as mentor. I think about her every time I open a bottle. So, I think about her every day.
Tweet Monte Belmonte at @montebelmonte.