Most wine enthusiasts know that wine is not just a drink like Pepsi. I have in the past written about how wine is a “mortar” solidifying friendships. It is also a vehicle for rememberences as memories get attached to tasting experiences. As I leaf through my 13 volumes of wine tasting notes (since 1995), in some ways these read as quasi memoirs, recording trips, parties, special events, and countless tastings which marked this season and that.

Today an article in the Wall Street Journal made me realize that wine can record memories in unpredictable ways. Certain vintages have events embedded in them, unique to that particular year, that they then carry along for as long as those wines are alive. The article had to do with 2008 wines from the Anderson Valley recording an unpleasant experience unique to that year: smoke from forest fires. Remember the summer of ’08? I bet you have already forgotten how smoky it was; how the smoke funnelled down south all the way from near the Oregon border through our valley. Well, it turns out that it is showing up in their Pinot Noirs as an unpleasant element the winemakers are calling “wet ashtray”. This apparently is different than the “tobacco”, “cigar box”, “smoky bacon” and other such endearing terms. Anderson Valley winemakers are experimenting with various methods to rid their product of the nasty element including reverse osmosis, other filering techniques, and strange additive like sturgeon-bladder powder also known as isinglass.

If the smoke tainted the pinot noir crop in Anderson, you know damn well it will show up in other varietals from various appellations in Northern California. Get ready for an onslaught of articles on “’08 smoke” and its various ramifications. It goes without saying that this vintage should be approached carefully when buying from the affected regions.

I have another example of unpleasant memories embedded in a vintage. The year was 2002 and I planned a dream trip to France. My idea was for a bunch of wine geeks, all guys, to go to Southern France with no wives or girlfriends, and drink our way through the country. Suck up as much of what it had to offer as our bodies allowed. No wives was important because I did not want to waste time in such nuisance sidetracks as shopping, sightseeing, museums etc. Heck I was even willing to give up sex, and seal myself in an ideal wine world.

I found two other guys who were willing to go along ,and began making plans. In the last minute I chikened out and cancelled the trip because I felt I could not afford to take the time off my practice. Wouldn’t you know it? 2002 was the year Southern France experienced torrential floods which, among other things ruined their grape crop. In the Rhone, 2002 to this day remains the worst vintage of the decade, as the disaster registered itself on the wines that are still around from then. Every time I drink an ’02 Rhone wine (it is less and less frequent), I am thankful that I cancelled that trip. We would have seen nothing but flooded fields and angst ridden winemakers.

Unusual events that attach themselves to wine vintages serve as mileposts in our memories which, as we get older, become more blurred with the speed of the passing time. The more unpleasant, the more memorable they are. This may be the ultimate metaphor for wine as a reflection of life. You can’t appreciate the joys of wine without gaining perspective on the unpleasant, the corked, overaoaked, overripe, unbalanced. And the ones from uniquely bad years.