In today’s food-and-drink-obsessed culture, learning about wine is the new rite of passage to legal partying.
I thought a lot about my 21st birthday.
I knew the night wasn’t going to be about how much tequila I could down in three hours. It was was going to be a well-thought-out affair, where, with the help of friends and a couple months of planning, I’d swing through the city, including a stop at one of DC’s finest cocktail bars.
My fascination with craft drinks started at age 19, with what I could legally consume: coffee.
Two summers ago, I worked at a coffee shop that sent me to Oakland, California for an employee training where, for the first time, I started to think about the potential for flavor in beverages. My first shot of espresso was an eye-opening experience. It was ridiculously bold, and I was shocked at the level of intensity in a one-ounce drink. I learned about peachy, floral Ethiopian coffees and equally delicious sweet, nutty brews from Venezuela.
I became a little coffee-obsessed and started working at another specialty shop. Interspersed with conversations about coffee, my older coworkers constantly talked about eating and drinking at fancy restaurants and bars. I felt like I was missing out on an exciting, experiential part of being an adult. The gears started turning for how I would plan my big day.
I also casually started to take an interest in wine. I got a job hosting at a new fine dining restaurant next door to the coffee shop—where servers and chefs made their daily caffeine rounds—to learn about wine, the most artistic and complex alcoholic beverage.
At the restaurant, wine was emphasized more than I had ever seen. Complicated explanations flew as I watched people spinning, sniffing, aerating, pouring out entire bottles, putting coasters on top of glasses and decanting into strange vessels.
From that point on, time seemed to move in slow motion as I was awaiting 21. Finally, the day arrived.
I booked a birthday dinner, and the chef-owner of the restaurant where I worked got me a reservation at Columbia Room, a bar recognized as one of the best in the country and a place I was told by a friend would “ruin bars” for me.
In eight hours, across five restaurants and bars, I tasted petillant naturel (a naturally sparkling wine, and a trending style), Champagne, cognac, sherry, gin, rum, a host of adult beverages. Yes, I drank, but it wasn’t as if I was slamming sake bombs. I was on a mission to experience a wide variety of drinks. I doubt most newly minted 21-year-olds are sipping brandy instead of chugging Fireball. This was the start of an education.
As I slowly made my way back to reality in the aftermath of the celebration, I only had one question: Where should I buy my first bottle of wine? Everyone referred me to Domestique, a natural wine shop in DC’s Shaw neighborhood. A few days later, I made my way over to the first wine store I had ever been inside of, and let it be known I just turned 21. A friendly face helped me pick out a Celine et Laurent Tripoz Limone Bourgongne Aligoté and sent me on my way with a gratis wine key and a quick how-to-open primer.
A few days later, I went back. A week later, I went back. Now, I’m an employee.
Just like my experiences with coffee, I felt like I was stepping into a totally new world governed by its own rules and terminology. The seemingly endless possibilities in wine enchant me. Now, I’m armed with a copy of Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World, a Vacu Vin and the courage to pretend like I know what I’m talking about.
When I have the opportunity to engage with a product—coffee, beer, spirits, wine—that someone worked tirelessly to create and is excellent, why wouldn’t I want to learn as much as I can to understand exactly how it’s this enjoyable?
For some, a 21st birthday is the ultimate pass to drink yourself beyond drunk, but it can be much more. You can use your first chance at legal drinking to really get the lay of the land for an entirely new world of flavors, nuances and sensations that make life better and more exciting.
Peter Njoroge is a junior at George Mason University and, thus far, learned everything he knows about wine from Frasier.