Perhaps it’s an exaggeration to call it a genius move. But about 15 years ago I institutionalized a weekly wine tasting into my job as a radio host. Every Thursday afternoon at 12:30, I would descend the stairs into the basement of State Street Fruit Store, Deli Wines and Spirits and record a wine tasting that would air the next morning on 93.9 The River/WRSI.
The tasting and recording session became a sacred ritual. It was like going to church, without the guilt — and with wine that actually tastes good and hasn’t been turned into blood. The people that I tasted wine with in that basement, which I affectionately call “The Wine Bunker,” have become some of my best friends.
They have guided me through the best of times and the worst of times. The birth of children. The death of friends. The death of Prince. My obsession with “Hamilton.” The election of the 45th president. The pandemic. My ability to navigate through the asteroid field of good and bad that the universe threw at me is due, in no small part, to my weekly tasting with these wine snobs.
When I decided to leave my job, giving up that sacred Thursday tasting was one of the hardest parts to part with. I felt unmoored, as if my center of gravity shifted. However, in my new job as host of an afternoon radio program on New England Public Media, I have once again cleverly institutionalized wine tasting into my work week.
My co-host, Kaliis Smith, and I taste with different wine snobs, including but not limited to, just my favorites at State Street. What’s more, last month NEPM hosted its 36th Annual (give or take, due to pandemic) Wine & Food Lovers Weekend. Now I would get to drink, justify it as part of my job, and support our station’s bottom line at the same time!
The event was held at MGM Springfield. I have absolutely no interest in gambling, so I hadn’t spent any real time in the casino, but the event spaces there were lovely. To my delight, the tasting was one of the biggest I’d ever been to. Certainly, the biggest tasting I’d been to in Western Mass. The wines were wrangled by the folks at Provisions. They’ve got stores nearer to my old stomping grounds in Northampton and North Amherst, but they recently opened a store in Longmeadow, not far from my new radio studios in Springfield. And I’ve really enjoyed drinking on the radio with Provisions owners Benson Hyde and Bruce McAmis.
At the NEPM tasting, Bruce was hosting a table right across from one of my favorite Massachusetts wine importers, Ideal Wines and Spirits. The Ideal table was helmed by the handsomest man in the local wine world, Franck Seguin. Franck and Ideal had an interesting and delicious array of Italian vermouths and amaros from Antica Torino and Cappelletti — all between $25 and $35. Vermouth and amaro are not categories I’ve spent a great deal of time with, but I was impressed. I also got to catch up with another old friend, Cristiano Gazzara, from Charles River Wine Company, who was pouring a delightful brut sparkling from Zensa in Emilia Romagna that was an affordable $15.
But Benson from Provisions wanted to make sure I stopped by the tables of another Massachusetts wine importer called Vine Farmers. I spent some time chatting up Jace Chaffee who, along with his brother Kaden, grew this wine importing company after they both graduated from the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst last decade.
From what I gathered from Jace, these brothers from Franklin are living the dream. Jace told me about his travels through Italy, getting to know the farmers who are growing the grapes for the wines he is importing. As a certified sommelier, he brings his fine-tuned palate right to the vineyards where the grapes are growing. While the preponderance of wines Jace and Vine Farmers brought to the NEPM tasting were from Italy, the standout at their table and the entire tasting was the Weber Bruder Einklang Riesling from the Mosel in Germany.
I’ve rhapsodized many times in these pages about how magnificent a Riesling with the right balance of sweetness and acidity can be. And this Riesling from Vine Farmers nailed it. At an affordable $19.99 it was the best thing I sampled all night. Well, except for the Jasper Hill Farm cheese. The cheese stands alone.
It made me feel proud that the new company I had just started working for was putting on such a spectacular event that catered so specifically to my interests in both wine and supporting public media. I was saddened when, just a few days later, 17 of my new colleagues were laid off from NEPM, including the woman who poured her heart and soul into the Wine and Food Lovers Weekend. The layoffs were not unique to this one media company. NPR also laid off 10% of its workforce nationally that same week. The media business is rough.
But having a thriving local media is vital. Even this newspaper you are reading is operating at a fraction of the capacity it had when I started writing this column six years ago. I feel really lucky that I still get to do the kind of radio show that I am getting to do with NEPM, including my weekly forays into the world of wine tasting.
But I’ll pour some out for the former co-workers whom I was just starting to get excited to work with. As for you, if you want to keep reading about wine in this paper, go visit an advertiser featured in these pages and tell them you appreciate their support. And if you want to keep listening to a radio show about wine and local wine shops each week, definitely come to the NEPM Wine and Food Lover’s Weekend next year.