Dear ______,I was reading McSweeney’s today. It’s another wretched habit of mine I cannot break. They have a new sporadically-appearing column that started today: “Dispatches From a Guy Trying Unsuccessfully to Sell a Song in Nashville.” I immediately thought of you, since songwriting has long been an interest of yours. (The songwriting part reminded me of you, not the unsuccessful part. Just want to be clear on that.) Perhaps you will gain information from this column. But you will not laugh.Now comes the sour grapes part: McSweeney’s sponsored a contest inviting writers to submit entries for their own columns. The winners, of which there were seven, will have their columns occasionally featured on the website. I submitted one. Guess how that turned out?It turned out like this: There is absolutely no interest in a column called “ADVICE FROM A MIDDLE-AGED WINE-DRINKING INTERNET JUNKIE”! What’s up with that?The columns on McSweeney’s are supposed to be humorous. While the column is kind of interesting, if there is supposed to be humor in it, I am entirely missing it.FIRST HINT: The column immediately starts out on a negative note because it contains the word “UNSUCCESSFULLY.” It’s right there in the title, see? So it’s already something of a bummer. Does the writer not realize that his glass is half-full? The good news is, even though failing miserably as a songwriter–one assumes–he can now bill his column as “Dispatches from a Guy Successfully Getting His Lame Column Published on McSweeney’s.”McSweeney’s, we are over. I have a blog now, which occupies me completely. And is a much better kisser.Oh that stings, doesn’t it?LBS
I must interrupt my 2-part (or is it 3-part?…let’s just say, never-ending) wine-tasting saga, to teach you all an important lesson about making choices. Let it be known right now that I have a hard time making choices. I am the classic Libra: I can see both sides of every issue. All sides, as a matter of fact. This means I would be either a really great Supreme Court Justice, or a really terrible one. I don’t know–BECAUSE I CAN’T DECIDE.
I already have a hard enough time choosing between red or white—when it comes to wine, or vanilla or chocolate—when it comes to Presidents. (Only kidding; I went for the mochaccino that time! Still delicious.) So imagine my difficulty when faced with choosing between having some authentic Italian gelato or an after-dinner drink, as we strolled down the Asbury Park boardwalk on a perfectly gorgeous Saturday night on the last weekend of summer. There was a full moon shining down on the ocean. There was a Black Crows concert going on at the Stone Pony. There were happy crowds. Perfect. Perfect for something interesting to happen.
I was already stressing out about what flavor of gelato I would choose, when I was presented with yet another choice. As we approached the place, my sister-in-law told me this gelato was the most delicious she had ever tasted—just like Italy!—she promised. But then she suggested that we keep walking down the boardwalk to the Beach Bar (on the side of the Convention Center, overlooking the ocean) and see if we wanted to stop there for a drink.
Because we had just eaten dinner, walking a bit seemed like a good plan. By the time we got to the Beach Bar, our food digested, the moment of truth had arrived: gelato or a drink? We noticed it seemed a little packed in the bar (there was a section cordoned off for a private party—more on that later), so it seemed like a little too much of a hassle to get in. So we decided to walk back for the gelato.
That evening I came home, turned on the computer and obsessively checked to see if anyone had commented on my blog. (This was back in that medieval time before I had joined Facebook.) No one had. Perhaps because it was a beautiful, clear, full-mooned Saturday evening on Labor Day weekend and people have something better to do than look at a stupid blog! Duh. But apparently I didn’t have anything better to do, so after checking mine, I looked at a friend’s blog and…WHAT?!!!:
YOU WILL NOT BELIEVE! My friend J. had been there—in AP that night—at the private party at the aforementioned bar. She got her picture taken with BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN that night. BECAUSE HE WAS AT THAT BAR! As far as the reconstructed timing goes, J. was having her picture taken with Bruce at about the same time we were deciding that we would HAVE A FUCKING GELATO INSTEAD OF STOPPING THERE FOR A DRINK!
This, I think, is when it all crystallized for me: When in doubt—CHOOSE BOOZE! More interesting things happen around alcohol than ice cream.
[In case you were wondering, the gelato flavor I chose that night, after much angsting about it, was Nutella. At the time it was really, really delicious. Just like Italy! But later on, the taste I felt in my mouth was kind of bitter. I think they call that flavor Disappointment.]
I. Wine Baby
Now that the heat of summer is less intense, and the browning and crisping of leaves signals harvest time is near—my thoughts turn to wine. I know that the best season of the year is coming. Autumn is in the air, and the beautiful month of October brings not only crisp, clear weather, but my birthday and wedding anniversary. Which, of course, makes me think about wine. Come to think of it, it doesn’t take much to make me think about wine. A couple of years ago, my husband asked me what I wanted for our 25th anniversary. I drolly offered, “Um…a divorce?” Ignoring that, he continued with: “How about a trip to the wine country in California?” I countered with, “Throw in an extra case of wine, and it’s a deal!” “Done.” And so we went.
I’d been drinking wine for most of my adult life by the time we made the trip to Napa Valley. And though I already thought of myself as something of a “winethusiast”—in that I enjoy drinking wine and am always enthusiastic about it—I was eager to learn more about wine. I hoped that this trip to California’s famed wine country would enhance my wine knowledge. Secretly, I was also hoping to pick up some pretentious wine terminology that I could impress others with, thereby upping my cool quotient. But what I discovered there was that I was a classic “wine baby.”
In the lead-up to this trip, which I kept calling the “Sideways tour,” referring to that film with Paul Giamatti that I liked so much, I imagined there might be some parallels between this movie and my trip. But the only similarity was the wine-drinking part. That and my steadfast refusal to use the spit-bucket. As far as I remember, I did not drunk-dial anyone, nor make it my mission to get my traveling companion laid, nor obsess over a failed past relationship. This would have been weird since my traveling companion was my husband and the purpose of our trip was to celebrate our anniversary. So I stopped calling it that.
But back to the topic at hand—wine. Out in California, the label they give to novices in wine appreciation is “wine baby.” And if this isn’t enough to lower your self-confidence, wait till you walk into some high-end wine tasting room, because then you will want to cry. People in the trade take it upon themselves to give any tourist (read: potential wine buyer) a crash course in the intricacies of wine-making and wine-tasting, and they would have you believe it is an incredibly nuanced and complicated operation. Which it is, but that’s not the point.
The point is, I really like wine, but I do not necessarily like wine culture: how we write about it, talk about it, taste it, or buy it. What I like is drinking it. In fact, more than anything else I can think of, besides the bloviations of a second-tier university English professor, wine means pretentiousness. There is no avoiding it—and believe me I try—but to talk about wine is to talk like an asshole.
James Waller, in his leather-bound little tome called Drink-ol-o-gy: Wine—A Guide to the Grape (which I picked up in the gift shop of one of those high-end wine operations), explains the term “wine baby” for us. A wine baby is someone who has “not yet learned the basic facts… and lacks the proper vocabulary to intelligently appreciate and discuss wines”—so states Waller in his Drink-ol-o-gy book. (While I appreciate the author’s helpfulness in breaking this tricky word down into syllables for me, it is a term I am familiar with and have no trouble pronouncing.) I am beginning to notice a certain patronizing attitude among wine experts.
Heretofore, I did not consider myself a wine baby. Drinkology is a subject I have great interest in. In fact, in college I minored in it. I almost had enough credits to major in it, but I kept missing classes due to all the field work I was doing on the subject. Some people I knew in college continued their work in this area at the postgraduate level. They succeeded in earning the respected title of Drunkologist. I, however, did not set such lofty goals for myself and wound up with a B.A. in English. And here we are.
According to Waller, a wine baby is someone who has a basic familiarity with wine, in that they may have tasted it once, or maybe a few times, perhaps with their younger sister when left at home without parental supervision; or gotten drunk on it at, let’s say, the movies, with a few high school friends, maybe up in the balcony while watching a Woody Allen picture, like Annie Hall, or maybe it was Play It Again, Sam—look, what movie it was doesn’t really matter. Or perhaps they embarrassed themselves in front of their in-laws by making some wise-ass remark a little too loudly at someone’s bridal shower, or wedding, or funeral. Maybe they did these things, but what should be noted is that they really regret it now.
The point is that a wine baby may already know a few basic facts about wine—for instance, that it is made from a fruit known as the “grape.” This may sound elementary, but the true definition of wine is: “an alcoholic beverage made from fermented grape juice.” (By these standards Boone’s Farm Strawberry Wine does not count.) Unless preceded by a qualifying adjective—rice, elderberry—the word wine denotes a beverage made from grapes. It comes in different colors: red, white, or pink (rose to those who have progressed to the level of wine toddler). It can be inexpensive or wantonly overpriced.
Some wine babies know more: there are still wines and there are sparkling wines; they know that you can’t call sparkling wine “champagne” unless it comes from the eponymously named region in France. I don’t mean to imply that the champagne police will come and arrest you for calling it this, but you will not seem wine-savvy if you do. And you know how the French can be.
Wines can be described as either dry or sweet, but they are almost always wet, especially when spilled. Sometimes they are named for the type of grape from which they’re made, i.e., Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Welch, etc. But here’s where it can get confusing—sometimes wines are named for their regions as well: Bordeaux, Sauternes, Burgundy (a region, not a color; there are only three colors and they were named above—try to pay attention, will you?), Chianti–a region where wine bottles are encased in straw with drippy candle wax running down the sides. (Some people think these bottles make cool candleholders, but these things went out with the 70s; I’m just saying it will not make you seem sophisticated if you order this on a date.)
This is about the level I was at in terms of wine knowledge when I arrived in Napa Valley. I was like a sponge, ready to absorb as much wine as I could. Did I say “wine”?—I meant “wine facts.” Yes. Anyway. On to the tasting room.
Next—Part II: Time to Get Your Drink On!