Confessions of a Former Wine Virgin

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By Terry Sweeney

The other day while consulting on a new restaurant’s wine list, I heard myself asking, “Are their reds bold enough? Do they need a Super Tuscan to knock it out of the park?”

This from someone who, several decades ago, thought a straw-covered bottle of cheap Chianti was the height of bohemian Italian chic and romance (especially when paired with a red-checkered tablecloth!). If the candle holder in the center of the table was also a straw-covered Chianti bottle, well then I was truly living “La Dolce Vita” and felt only pity for my fellow beer-bellied Americans who would never know such sophistication. This jarring memory prompted me to take a closer look at my early wine drinking years and at a youthful wine industry that sort of had its share of adolescent acne and embarrassing moments way back when.

I began thinking about “my first time”; the moment when the first sip of wine made love to my young, inexperienced palate. It was a wine all the way from Portugal which, at the time, seemed excitingly foreign and exotic compared to my parents’ Long Island non-descript suburban tract home with aluminum siding in which I felt I was “serving time” for some unknown crime. Understandably, I was instantly smitten with the “baroque historic mansion” on its label (an actual drawing of Mateus Palace in Villa Real, Portugal). And the taste!

Medium-sweet, fizzy, and pink, it swept me off my feet. All $4 of it. Perhaps I shouldn’t have drunk so much of it, at my first tasting, but if I hadn’t I would have never known about “the morning after” when all virgins (wine and otherwise) feel a rush of guilt and, at the same time, the thrill of having completed a necessary rite of passage.

Mateus, Mateus, Mateus! I thought it went great with everything (early wine pairing). From a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to a chocolate-covered moon pie, Mateus was my ticket to the adult world; a world that until then I had only had my nose pressed up against the glass and looked upon longingly from the outside. I absolutely loved Mateus and would recommend it, Robert Parkeresque, to my fellow teens. Some would protest that Lancer’s Rose was better. Those were people I knew would never be in my inner circle (savages!!!).

Yet somehow, somewhere, my fascination with Mateus faded away and I got that sad feeling you get when you’ve outgrown a toy you once loved.

My wine childhood was officially over. Still I sometimes wondered about Mateus. Where was it now? The good news is, it’s alive and well. There are Mateus lovers all over the world. Some hunt down the old bottles before they changed the formula to a drier, fizzier style that more suits today’s wine market. Others enjoy the brave new world of a modern Mateus that has expanded its product line from Rose to a new variety — a Mateus rose tempranillo in a new bottle with silver foil aimed at the 20-something woman’s market. Nevertheless, the original Mateus still has its fans and friends in the most unexpected places. The wine bottles are used in Hungarian Folk Dancing and the girls balance the bottles on their heads as they dance (sounds like they drink a lot of ‘em first!). Reportedly when Queen Elizabeth II dines alone, that is her preferred wine. ( I knew the moment I tasted it — Mateus was the wine of Queens!)

Ask your friends about their “first time.” I did. For one it was floating down the Green River in North Carolina in an inner tube with high school friends happily drinking Boone’s Farm Apple Wine and lovin’ every minute of it. Boone’s Farm now has a fan club with its own website, where folks still sing its praises. Sort of. One girl wrote, “love Boone’s Farm cuz it gets you drunk and then you can make bad decisions and wake up with a headache.” (Been there, girlfriend!)

Old wine flames like Blue Nun, Reunite, and Cold Duck came to mind for some nostalgic Happy Winos I chatted with. Each accompanied by a charming and/or funny tale of innocence lost but wisdom gained.

And as for me, even though Mateus will not be on my fancy restaurant wine list, it will always have a special place in my Happy Wino heart.

Cheers!