Drunk on a tiny tropical island.

My Wine Epiphany


My epiphany wine was a 2000 Turley Zinfandel (sorry, don’t remember the vineyard) drunk on a tiny tropical island. Here’s the story:

Tropical Whine
Imagine yourself on a tropical island, with azure waters and swaying palms. Imagine savory meals of fresh lobster, mangrove crab and toothsome tuna. Now imagine pairing those appealing meals with wine that tastes like it was squeezed out of a sailor’s socks. That’s not rain on a parade—it’s acid rain.

That’s what my sweetheart Alice and I braved during our year on the Micronesian island of Kosrae, a strongly skipped stone above the equator in the North Pacific. Having been accustomed to the California bounty of wines at home, it was a sad island education to learn how difficult it was to get decent wine.

Kosrae is out there. WAY out there. Hawaii’s more than 2,500 miles away, Australia is about the same. That isolation means removal from primary markets and shipping lanes. And with a population of 8,000, wine marketers aren’t going to get bang for their buck. Factor in very high temperatures: any goods shipped to the island are subject to thermal torment.
Other island issues bode even less favorably: Kosrae received droves of 19th-century Christian missionaries, and they got their hooks in good. “Liquor Is Sin” still prevails; thus you have remarkable laws like one declaring you can be arrested for having a drink on Sunday—in your own home. Weigh that onus with a regulatory one, such that wine imports were taxed at 30%, add stinging shipping charges, and you have the dreary phenomenon of a liter of, say, Almaden Mountain Burgundy costing $25.00.

The wine shopping experience was revelatory, too. There were a few California wines available, but all of the bulk/table variety. No bottom-tier Kendall-Jackson or a Ravenswood. And Kosrae’s not the place where the old saw of dust on the bottles indicates a worthy vintage. I saw (and once—but never again!—tasted) a bottle of Australian Chardonnay that bore the colors of blush wine—with much to blush about—and next-day hangover urine. In the few island restaurants, you saw a few Australian wines, but none familiar. Tellingly, when I went to check the stock in the best restaurant, I gawked at the sign: $27.00 a bottle, red or white, fresh-faced Chard or big-bellied Shiraz. Wine as commodity.

To clarify: I’m no wine geek. But I’ve lived in the greater Bay Area for 25 years, and if you’re a wine drinker at all, exposure to good wine is a casual component. (And I’m not talking about any Screaming Eagle. I’m happy to drink a $10 bottle of Polite Pigeon.) The upshot: Alice and I were dying for a basic, good Wednesday-wine-with-dinner, an Acacia Chardonnay, a Bonny Doon Big House Red.

What to do? I knew that shipments from our favorite wineries were improbable and expensive. Few corporations ship to Kosrae, much less wineries. So, the only sensible resort was subterfuge. Nothing too high-handed: just side-stepping around the USPS regulations about shipping bottled liquids (and liquors) overseas. So, wine orders from my California family sold themselves on customs forms as “books,” “CDs” or best yet, “school supplies.”
We asked our comrades to surprise us. My, did they. A 2000 Turley Zinfandel. A 2002 Poderi di Luigi Einaudi Dolcetto. A 2000 Kistler Pinot. A 2001 Siduri Russian River Valley Pinot. A 1999 Provenance Cabernet. Good. Very, very good.

In fact, the Turley, the first bottle we opened, was one of those “So this is what it’s like to get stoned” experiences: we’d been months without the lifeboat of good wine, sinking steadily, and rather than simply being rescued, we were taken from dying breath to being ensconced in a baronial stateroom—coddled, delivered, generously dazzled. The Turley had everything: ripe power, generous mouthfeel, lingering finish. It offered relief that bordered on the spiritual. Wow.

At one point, we had only the Provenance left. A time where just anticipating drinking it was almost as good as the deed. “Maybe we’ll have the Provenance this Saturday.” “Maybe we should save it until we have people over.” (No chance on that one, by the way.) Of course, we knew we’d have to beg again for our kin to ship us another vinous care package. With the unpredictability of the Micronesian mail, the delays would build the anticipation factor all the more. I’m unsure if I’d recommend moving thousands of miles from good wine to restore your heartfelt appreciation for it, but once you got a bottle in your thirsty hands there, you’d marvel at your finely focused attention. I won’t even begin to talk about the beer.

I’m a writer and editor who has run a copywriting business out of my Central California home for many years. I have a blog on writing-related subjects at http://www.tombentley.com

Mentioned in this article


  • Love a big zin at times and can imagine stuck on that island I'd really love one!

    Aug 23, 2011 at 8:18 PM

  • Snooth User: lingprof
    Hand of Snooth
    155607 1,110

    really liked: 1) "Polite Pigeon" This should really catch on as a cover term. 2) The idea of wine as "school supplies". I'm a teacher and I definitely consider wine to be a school supply.

    Aug 31, 2011 at 5:29 PM

  • Coley B -- it is amazing how deprivation can really tune your senses to what you've been missing. The chocolate there was awful too and when someone sent us a gourmet brownie mix, my God, it was dizzying how good those brownies were. Or maybe I was just dizzy—that place was hot!

    Aug 31, 2011 at 5:54 PM

  • Lingprof— I don't know if Polite Pigeon would take wing, but I've seen weirder wine names. I fully agree with the school supplies issue; I'm not sure if your administration would concur that a good wine is a sound aid to grading papers, but they don't need to know everything, do they?

    Aug 31, 2011 at 5:57 PM

  • Snooth User: lingprof
    Hand of Snooth
    155607 1,110

    Ha ha, well, what happens in the office, stays in the office. As for Polite Pigeon, I feel strongly that we need this term. "Oh, I was going to open that bottle of Quintessa for them, but then I remembered that they're more Polite Pigeon types, so I got out the Blackstone Merlot instead."

    Aug 31, 2011 at 7:30 PM

  • You've convinced me. And I'm proud to have contributed to the lingua vinous of the wine world.

    Sep 01, 2011 at 10:40 AM

  • And your kindness in sharing it with me will never be forgotten Tom! I still swear it was the best I'd ever tasted, but then it had been months + months...the travelling bar is welcome in the UK anytime!

    Sep 03, 2011 at 3:28 AM

  • Ally, I'd forgotten about the traveling bar! There are some good island memories, though being wine-deprived wasn't one of them. Of course, deprivation is what made it so special, so I guess I'm wrong in a way.

    Hope we all get to open a fine bottle together sometime in the future.

    Sep 04, 2011 at 11:56 AM

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