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Enthusiast’s Corner: Through Mother’s Eyes

This year marks my mother’s 80th birthday, and for a gift I arranged for her to fly to California for a San Francisco/Wine Country visit with her son, yours truly.

Much has transpired in the past 80 years, and I began our sojourn wondering how an octogenarian who experienced the growth of the telephone and radio, witnessed the invention of the television, and who is now having to absorb the ramifications of the Internet would react to discovering wine in America. And what a discovery it would be.

Like many Americans, Mom had never visited the Napa Valley, the heartbeat of this country’s wine industry. Imagine growing up, as my mother did, during Depression times, when people sold apples on street corners. Now she would have to try to come to grips with somebody paying a half-million dollars for a single oversized bottle of Screaming Eagle, which is exactly what a cyber billionaire did at the recent Napa Valley Wine Auction.

During the prime of Mom’s life, the mentality of this country was very different than it is today. People stuck together, and fought a mighty big war in Europe that would pave the way for the successes of the rest of the 20th century. Mom and her generation faced threats to their very existence that we cannot relate to, as food was rationed to provide for the boys “over there,” my dad among them. For certain, the foie gras appetizer the two of us enjoyed on our first evening together in San Francisco was not on the menu during those turbulent times.

Mom once listened to radio reports about hills that were being taken at the expense of lives. In Napa, she and I discussed how hills like Atlas Peak, Howell Mountain and Spring Mountain have been taken for entirely different reasons, not by armies of soldiers but by grape growers. There’s even a small hill in the middle of the valley that has been hollowed out and transformed into a stunning working winery: the ethereal Jarvis Vineyards.

Here, Mom and I were met by Leticia and Bill Jarvis, the owners of this one-of-a-kind winery. They greeted us out front, before a pair of huge hand-carved doors that opened automatically, as if Ali Baba had said, “Open sesame.” We toured the Jarvis’s dazzling concert hall, which is adorned with giant rock crystals. And we meandered through their barrel chai, which is filled with the sounds of rushing underground springs. I could tell that Mom was stunned.

We had a lovely day in Napa, yet I’m not sure Mom really grasped how far wine has come in America. To fully comprehend what has happened, you need a perspective that includes memories and experiences. The two living people who most influenced the American wine scene, Ernest Gallo and Robert Mondavi, are both well past 80 years of age, and Gallo has hit the 90 mark. They understand and appreciate how affluence has influenced their industry. Sometimes I find it hard not to envy members of the older generation, because they have lived through times of prosperity and times when people managed with much less.

Through my mother’s eyes, I gained a new perspective about how much we have to be grateful for.

· · ·In this issue, we tour Spain, with tasting director Mark Mazur reporting on his April trip to eight wine regions. Mazur’s story (page 24) is accompanied by ratings and reviews of more than 100 Spanish wines (see Buying Guide).

Since we are now in the heat of summer, we thought it appropriate to bring you an update on summer wines. They’re light, they’re white (at least most of them are), and they’re right for sipping with friends in the backyard, on the beach, or on a boat. Our editors’ takes on 36 warm-weather wines begin on page 34.

Continuing on the theme of summer, we also offer a summary of eight American restaurants that excel in outdoor dining. Whether you’re looking to escape the concrete of the Big Apple or hoping to catch the mist off the Pacific in L.A., your next alfresco experience will be better with our advice in hand (see page 44).