How a Wine Epiphany Showed Me Wine is Not Just For Rich People

Epiphany bottles are just that. Epiphanies. Every serious wine lover has one locked away in his or her mental cellar. It’s the one that sucked them into wine and makes them say, ‘I wish I knew how to quit you.’ 

My own epiphany bottle was a magnum of Bordeaux my photography partner Tony and had I absconded with after a studio shoot for the Chalone Wine Group. We shouldn’t have taken it, but as we left, Harold shouted from the car, “Grab the magnum!” So I did. We brought it home that evening and drank it with a pepperoni pizza – a very, very good pizza – and handily consumed the entire liter-and-a-half. In the process, the bottle prompted a sensory breakthrough that changed my life. 

Lafite Rothschild 1986.2

Before then, I had never experienced a wine that tasted so deep and expensive flavored. As I stared at the deep scarlet tint through our cheap Luminarc glasses, marveling at the wine’s near opacity, I realized this was no ordinary grape juice.

“Damn, this is good wine,” I said after almost every sip. It had the kind of pure fruit and balance I’d never noticed in a wine before, and I savored every drop. “Damn, this wine is good.” 

That catharsis made me realize that the appreciation of fabulous wines is not just for rich people. Little unsophisticated me can dig wine too, even if I can’t afford to buy it.

When our client from Chalone had asked about the magnum, we had no choice but to confess. My partner lied by telling her the wine had made a huge red mess all over our studio floor when it fell off the workbench. 

“Of course we’ll pay for it,” He told her. “We’re responsible.”

The wine? A Chateau Lafite-Rothschild 1986 Pauillac, valued at ninety dollars. A lot of money in 1994, when you could get a Napa Cabernet for $8. So, although I may not have known exactly what I liked about this cabernet, at least I knew a great wine when I tasted it. 

Shooting Covers for Wine Spectator

Back in the early 1990’s I shot covers for Wine Spectator. The relationship started just as I was forming a business relationship with Tony Carlson, who I had recently fell in love with. He had been working for WS on and off for a while, mostly shooting bottles on a pretty table cloth. This was when the WS HQ was still located in San Francisco, when the magazine was the size of concert posters.

One day the art director Kathy McGilvery called to ask if we’d like to shoot their first ever swimsuit issue. We did, and the shoot happened at Jeremiah Tower’s Stars restaurant in downtown San Francisco. It was a hard shoot, occurring mostly at a crowded cocktail hour, but it was a big hit. I’ll post an image when I find a copy.

We shot a lot of covers for WS at this time. But after Tony completely threw his back out by helping to move a baby grand piano, Kathy asked me to fly down to Venice Beach in Southern California to shoot actor Dudley Moore. He was a big wine enthusiast at the time and contributor Thomas Matthews managed to arrange an interview. Tony was pissed not to be involved, but hey, he was the one who opted to help move a piano up the stairs.

The shoot went well and Dudley was prominently featured on the cover. I hung the cover on our office wall at the studio where we were partners at a state-owned building down on Second Street near China Basin. (The Giant’s ballpark is located there now.) One morning we noticed a bullet hole in one of our windows facing 2nd Street. Then, we saw that the bullet had hit Dudley’s WS cover, right between his eyes. How bizarre, we thought, that he would be hit that way. The story is better told in a video I made in 2006 to enter into WS’s first video contest. It did not even place.

Kathy continued to give me jobs, at one point saying that I was better with people than Tony. That did not make him happy, but I took the jobs.

Here are a couple more covers.