Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Alcohol, Part 5: 21. Nxg7+ Kd8, 22. Qf6+! Nxf6, 23. Be7# 1-0

The doors slide shut.  You reach for the "Roof" button but the other passenger has already hit it.  You caught a glimpse of Him when you got on and had a really crazy thought, but now He's standing a step behind you and you can't be sure.

Your eardrums squirm as the ground floor fades.  He shuffles His feet and the thought you had before is back.  Could it be?  You work your peripheral vision like never before, straining, thinking, questioning, believing, until, in an incandescent pop of clarity and fear, it becomes true.

It's you and God alone in the elevator, and you have twenty seconds to make your pitch.

"I am..."

Whatever our individual faiths, our individual heresies, I think we organize our lives around welcoming or dreading some version of this moment--when, freed of distractions, we are called by whomever, ourselves maybe, to account for the things we've stood for, lived for, loved.

God, I love wine.  As much as I used to care why, I don't anymore.  I also really like beer, and I take comfort in imagining a "Single Malt Scotch" cell on budget.xls one day.  Here, at "money", the snake begins to eat its tail and I wish I could turn to the pages of a Kerouac or a Burroughs

for guidance.  Instead I just slump into the backseat of a cab in Williamsburg next to Rod Steiger and slur that I coulda been a contenda, I could have been sending my mouth to Speyside every night--not to mention curating a little cellar of Barbaresco, Meursault, Utopias, etc.--by now had I not shambled after this will-o-the-wisp, the credible delusion that lust for delicious beverages was the Ω of things to do with my life.

I did not foresee the afternoons lost gazing at labels on a shelf, too invested in the social contract to shoplift, taking sour solace in maybe knowing more about the wines than the people who would actually drink them.  I did not consider what it was like to be the janitor at Disneyland, watching people have delirious fun all day on the Tower of Terror and then cleaning up their vomit.

An obvious thing has only lately revealed itself to me: If you know the pleasure of good and great wines and want to experience it a few zillion times, it is a sensible if not sacrosanct course of action to be wealthy first.

Otherwise it's too easy to end up the scrappy clerk with the "sommelier" cert taking potshots at the elites you serve, positive that since you can recite the 1855 Classification to the tune of any Kermit Lynch song, the Yquem those troglodyte McKinsey bros are drinking tonight and tomorrow night would much rather end up as your sugary piss than theirs.  And anyway, you know a $38 sticky from the armpit of the Loire that's almost as good.  You can't really afford that one either, but the point is you know about it!

Yes, there are impressive cheap bottles accessible to any first-world slacker, but they're not the ones that make us quit our old, secure jobs and go for it in a field with a spectacular record of financial failure at every level.

Yes, many beverage jobs include access to fun, hangover-bait "industry tastings" where you get four hours to  pirouette around some cavernous convention center, spit a few times to keep up appearances, and try to distill valuable information from sales rep doggerel.  But this is an inferior experience to pouring yourself a big glass of (Hermi/Meri)tage and knowing you can and will have another when it's gone.

YES, enough people stay afloat in the wine biz and a few even thrive, and even if the American Dream is ready for the taxidermist right about now I've still had way more unearned advantages than anyone deserves and it would be a panicked retreat worthy of the firing squad to bail on this, the effort I've put into and the knowledge I've taken out of three years in wine.

There are other caveats and other emptors to my proposition and I'm not going to flail around the room windmill punching after each one.  I'll just beg your understanding or your best impression thereof about where I'm calling from, this queasy freeze-frame of realizing that amour fou for wine has put so much of it out of my reach.

So when I sort this out for reals and begin moving forward again, it will be with full understanding that the keys to the kingdom are pricey, and "passion" is not legal tender at the locksmith's.

It occurs to me that this post has nothing to do with alcohol.  I suppose the "Alcohol Suite" concluded in Part 4 and this is more of a bookend to my July navel-gaze about why I got into the trade in the first place.  But it dovetails with the alcohol question since I want to live long and prosper as much as the next Vulcan, and I've grown suspicious that being mad for wine and craft beer and the rest threatens both objectives.

Here's my last word on alcohol.  I bet you, if I had learned myself some real science, I could describe the universe entirely in terms of the toxins that seem to be hidden or not-so-hidden everywhere.  And watching how toxin-fear can become a ridiculous, consuming obsession for people makes alcohol seem less like the sweat dripping  off the Grim Reaper's mustache and more like a dull, everyday Venom Lite for my dull, everyday everyday.

And I still have total faith that being the creator of a wine or maybe a beer that others like and unlike me would consistently buy, drink, consider, enjoy, praise--I'll take any two of these--would be all I needed on the day of reckoning.  I'm not sure I can say the same about having consumed Barolo, Westvleteren 12, f***ing WHATEVER every day.

If it wasn't clear by now, I'm no Capablanca.

I haven't been anticipating the endgame square-for-square since 1. e4 and delighted in yanking the other chumps around the board to their inevitable doom.  I've just been following one vital organ

somewhat at the expense of another

and been glad enough to make it to the next day without causing any forklift accidents.  

When I look around and realize it's endgame, which may have already happened, I'll just remember that checkmate is a much more rare and satisfying conclusion than resignation, no matter which end of it you're on. 

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Alcohol, Part 4: ...And I Have A Drinking Problem

  • "I got 'em, no worries," I say. 'Em are forty-five pounds of dirty dishes, and I'm on my feet before any of the other dinner guests can try to one-up my irritating helpfulness.  With my empty, butter-streaked wineglass in hand, I slink to the scullery and begin filling the sink with water and detergent. While the mess submerges I find the cheap white wine that was opened for deglazing and pour myself an amount beyond any pretense of appreciation.  I have been planning this moment since the wine on the table ran out just before the spitefully cognac-less dessert.  It is warm and oxidized and tastes like victory.
  • At a DIY cocktail table at some reception, I prepare a gin and tonic for myself:  Five large ice cubes, a jigger of Hendrick's, Schweppes to the top.  Almost to the top.  I glance to to nine, twelve and three o'clock, then add more gin until the meniscus wobbles.  A little spills when I lift the glass but I don't care about that.  
  • My friends and I are going to be late for that thing we're going to.  One guy sits oblivious on the deck with his headphones too deep in his ears, another remains installed at his desk reloading Facebook, I'm on the couch swirling the dregs of beer three and ready to leave. From the bathroom, the girl practicing cartography on her face says she needs five, i.e. fifteen, more minutes. I smell opportunity, kill my last two gulps, and get another bottle.  Of the same, just in case anyone else is counting.  I check to be sure all my empties are in the recycling, buried, in case anyone else is counting.  I drink fast.  The volume of liquid I'm carrying will be a problem on the 40-minute drive (maybe it's a subway ride) but I don't care about that yet.
  • On a viscous summer night in New York City, maybe July, probably 2AM, I stumble purposefully down the street where I grew up.  I'm returning from some bar during a mostly aimless summer that partitions totally aimless middle years of college. Twenty paces to the door, I find my keys among the receipts and pennies in my cargo pocket.  I will soar up the twelve front steps, unlock, close, and lock the door in a single graceful pivot.  The motion is beautiful in my mind, and it is too in reality until the key makes a grinding noise as it gets stuck in the lock.  I jiggle it a bit too hard trying to free it, and the head snaps off in my hand.  Now what?  I sit down.
  • "How much did you have to drink tonight?" my girlfriend asks me.  "Just a couple of beers," I lie through red teeth.

These moments were real, there were others like them, there are still.  Out of consideration for the lives that have truly been run aground by drinking I will not say I'm an alcoholic--the same way I will not clap a Purple Heart winner on the shoulder, show him the ACE bandage on my tennis-weary wrist and say "I feel your pain, brother."

And yet, my wrist still hurts.  Which is to say alcohol exists for me in that navel-gazing Sartre-misreading way that it doesn't for people who can enjoy a drink, or a drunk, as often as they care to and then just get on with things.  It is a presence, there of course when I'm drinking, but also there when I'm not drinking: Reading Google News over my shoulder as I sleepwalk through cyberspace, leering at me from the far end of the pizza place, reeling me into the wine shop out of the upstream flow of pedestrians.  

I can talk to it and it talks back, though it says the same thing every time.  It goads me and motivates me  and is the only thing besides gravity that can insult me anytime and be guaranteed forgiveness.  It is the main structural unit for the second half of my day, the same way coffee is for the first.*

Once noon passes, the burden is on me to justify not drinking.  I have to drive to work in an hour.  I want to exercise today.  I still feel sick from last night.  These work often enough, but they don't work every time.  Or they work once, maybe twice, but not three times.  The 750ml of Westmalle in my fridge and the forever young bag-in-a-box of (quality!) Malbec in the pantry demand that I resubmit my proof every twenty minutes under cross-examination.  

You know how if you repeat anything over and over again it starts to sound meaningless?

If I've held my ground until ~6PM, a stark feeling of mental and physical unease sets in--the photo-negative image of my 6AM caffeine craving.*  A first drink doesn't buzz me at this point, it returns me to "Normal".  If this isn't a dependency, is anything?

So it's a dependency, it's an alcohol dependency, it's my alcohol dependency.  Not one worth an ABC after-school special, but still a surrender of control, even if it's over something that doesn't seem to matter much.  It's a lesser demon, the red-headed stepchild of the Legion family--those Volvo-driving Rotarians who live in the loud mauve McMansion between the Molochs and the Pazuzus on Tartarus Lane.  

Point being, I know many happy and functional, even successful, people who drink as much as I do or more.  Looking around me, it's just one of several cluttered life-areas where it would behoove me to get my s**t together.  

And yet.  If this modest habit is distending my gut, scuttling my evening productivity, planting bombs in my organs, seeding concern in my loved ones, and lacerating my memory with moments of indelible shame (ask me about some of the things that didn't make the bullet list), confronting it would seem to be a do-it-now-or-pay-with-compound-interest later proposition.

Not to mention my excuses--avoid most spirits, eat blood-fortifying vegetables, jog 3x/week--fit a profile of deflection and delusion that probably applies to the real alcoholics.  The iron fact is that it's not healthy.  "Drinking", in all its intransitive vainglory, is not healthy. Letting it get Park Place and Boardwalk in my brain like I have is not healthy.  So this all bottlenecks at: what price health?

I don't think you can make a strong case for not wanting to die if it means ignoring the way you want to live.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Alcohol, Part 3B: GABA GABA Hey!

People who say they sleep well or--get this--better, after getting loaded are just messing with me, right? They're savoring that moment when my brow furrows and I'm actually considering that something so batshit absurd might be true.

That's all I can conclude when I go to bed drunk, then snap out of the three-hour oblivion that is my booby prize each time trembling, short of breath, delirious with thirst, heart beating Keith Moon fills.

In darkness it dawns on me that the party is over, more over than any party has ever been. My headache emerges, fearsomely brandishing its chitinous, venom-filled pincers before skewering my unprotected brain.

I groan to the bathroom (hopefully this is a familiar place where the route is memorized) and spit into the toilet. On good nights it's a copper-flavored loogie or two fresh from my sinuses. On bad nights it's the opening salvo of bile in a puking blitzkrieg. How impressive that the urge to do this supersedes my primal, cellular craving for WATER.

Drinking from a Dixie cup is every kind of inadequate in these situations, so I duck beneath the tap and slurp in all I can. The head rush as I come up is staggering. Face dripping, I go back to bed but certainly not back to sleep--my blood, organs, skin still tingle and thump with a screeching intensity somewhere between the effects of amphetamines and Lucky Charms.

Then the sonovabitch who lives between my ears starts his audit of the embarrassing stuff I said and did hours earlier and will never live down. To ensure I have enough wakey time to think about them over and over and over, he proceeds to belt out a spirited, off-key rendition of "Party in the USA" or "She Bangs" on infinite loop.

An hour or two later, maybe, I can shut the system back down until the alarm goes off and the process repeats when the sun is out.

What's that? Deal with your hangovers like a man? Take four aspirin with a big glass of STFU? Fair enough--a hangover probably never killed anyone, and if they rendered you legitimately infirm the economy of World #1 Alcohol Consumer Moldova would be doneski from the perpetual sick days taken by the work force.

But each one is a galaxy of pain, you will not take that from me. The five-alarm ones hurt worse--shorter, maybe, but worse--than anything up to and sometimes including the flu. So when I hear that you snooze like a thousand year-old glacier after drinking eleven glasses of whatever and wake up spry and ready for your employee of the month award, forgive me for being incredulous and/or punching a wall.

(Standard internet "I'm Not A Doctor" disclaimer goes here.)

Drinking enough to get drunk is certainly doing some curious things to the brain, and drinking enough to get hangover-sick is certainly doing some nasty things to the body. And--save that one guy who woke up hungover, said "I will never drink again" and actually meant it--the worst morning of your life since the last worst morning of your life never squelches the thirst for more of the euphoria that got you there.

Because it's a very persuasive euphoria, this. Due respect to Wordsworth, it's a more essential joy than contemplating all the silent lakes and elfin pinnaces in Europe. To specify, this is about the bliss that sets in after your second or third drink; the infant intoxication, when the stressful or bad or just effing normal day you were having gets smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror, you roll the top down, crank up the anthem that just came on the radio, and claim the highway as yours.

By the fifth or sixth drink and maybe the first or second cigarette, it's not the same. Chances are you still feel "good", but that fresh, ripe apple you bit into before is starting to brown a little. So knock back a few more to try to get back to where you were, or at least freeze-frame where you are now, and keep going until you realize you're just chasing your losses. Which will probably happen around the time you're holding a Heineken 22 in your mysteriously scraped hand and berating the intercom at the White Castle drive-thru about how pedestrians have the same right to 3 AM Crave Cases as drivers do, elitist pricks. The apple is pockmarked with rot and swarming with ants.

I'm intrigued by the chemical game of chicken occurring in the nervous system as this snafu unfolds. If I've got it half-right or better (source), alcohol causes the release of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which makes you feel good and act stupid. Your brain knows this and responds by sending out the stimulant glutamate which partly counteracts the stumbling effects of the GABA and makes you less likely to remove yourself from the gene pool. When both chemicals are pumping at the same time, even though they're working against each other you feel groovy.

But the GABA flow always (?) tapers off and stops before the glutamate does, and without GABA (whose molecules I imagine look like smiley faces under a microscope), glutamate (molecules I imagine look like Gunnery Sgt. Hartman) makes you feel bad. Like, "I need another drink now to make this stop" bad. So you either a) close your tab and grit through the discomfort until the glutamate fades, or b) convince yourself it isn't a vicious cycle, that in fifteen minutes the laws of science go home for the evening, and have "one more" drink. Some have little or no trouble going with a), which is cool. Lots do.


Doctor, why are we wired to have these reactions to things like GABA? The evolutionary logic for glutamate is clear enough, but how does the capacity for getting buzzed perpetuate the species? Perhaps science can't explain everything and there's a higher power working here. You know that famous Ben Franklin quote "Sippin' on Coke and rum, I'm like 'So what, I'm drunk'"? Wait, it's "Beer is proof God loves us and wants us to be happy". Probably another misquote like that "penny saved" nonsense, and regardless, it doesn't bring us to understanding. It brings us to church.

And if the pleasure of drinking does come from above, wouldn't you agree that the Man Upstairs played one hell of a mean joke on us with hangovers? But hangovers end, usually in hours, and that's the key to why we can laugh about them and do the whole thing over again and again until one day we own up--by choice or by diagnosis--to our mortality vis-a-vis getting wasted.

Imagine if every hangover lasted for a week. Maybe then it would seem like less than the perfect seasoning on your brunch omelet and more like a foreshadowing of worse things to come if you don't cut back on the euphoria. Give me the flu over that any day, with a side of home fries and a Bloody Mary, extra bloody.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Alcohol, Part 3A: Irrelevant Personal Anecdotes

I became hooked on coffee at thirteen, at an ur-Starbucks called Ozzie's four addresses down the street from my high school. It was convenient and cheap and seemed cool. My kid dislike of bitter-tasting things was steadily worn down by 8 oz. slugs of milky, sugary hazelnut three or four or five times a week.

In time the coffee became blacker and stronger, the paper cups became taller, and breaks in the routine caused a strange new discomfort--like being too hot and too cold at the same time, or being ravenously hungry but still on the edge of vomiting. Until I had coffee each morning, two extremes I couldn't define and never knew I contained played unwinnable tug-of-war with my inner peace. Suddenly, nothing before noon was more important than making this go away.

I quit once, senior year of college. On the ground floor of the high-rise across from the identical high-rise where I lived was a Wawa (a marginally classier 7-Eleven, if you've never lived or had the 2AM munchies in the lower Northeast Corridor). There was never a good reason not to get coffee at Wawa. After four years in Pennsylvania, 20 oz. Dark Roasts were the pillars supporting my every day.

One Sunday morning, late morning, I staggered towards my fix, out the front door and into a pastel dream of April. The obligation to study or exercise or do anything but play Civilization III until it was time to call Papa John's in ten hours blew away with the cherry blossom petals. Climbing the concrete, gum-studded Wawa steps felt like floating on marshmallows, and the just-hung poster on the shop's front door may as well have had golden rays shooting from it in every direction:


The only thing that filled me with more joy than the fact of four more ounces was the implication that maybe one day there would be a quart.

I scurried back to my room with my giant coffee like the rat who scored the once-bitten soft pretzel off the sidewalk. After excitedly setting it and the Sunday New York Times on my desk, I took two steps towards the kitchen with vague ideas about pancakes.

The hollow *thunk* followed by pizzicato drizzling noises behind me froze my hand as it began to reach for the cupboard. I knew what had happened--there was only one possibility--but I didn't want to look. It's easy to underestimate the surface area 24 oz. of liquid can have when holding it in a narrow paper cup. Suffice it to say that it can cover the average desk with mayhem to spare.

The fat newspaper got the worst of it, perhaps saving it from its probable fate of getting tossed Monday morning with only two sections opened. The rest of the slick wended around my computer keyboard and six stacks of books, mostly paperbacks. Months later I would contritely hide the coffee-mottled ones at the bottom of a library donation box. Cascades of Dark Roast fell to the floor, one via the sides of my computer tower.

Three minutes, panic and paper towels, and it was under control. I had ruined books, a $5 periodical, and probably my computer keyboard (a laptop would have been fuuuuuucked). Also, I STILL NEEDED COFFEE. In search of pity I sank to the rug, against the bony metal frame of my dormitory cot-bed and rubbed my eyes.

This was a time in my young adulthood when I was desperate to find symbolism if not synecdoche in everything, whether or not I really understood either. Everything in sight melted away except that 24 oz. cup. If it had been shorter, with a stronger center of gravity, it wouldn't have tipped over... even if I had carelessly placed it down with one edge on the Sunday paper. The monster-sized cup was the coffee addiction that had grown unchecked, as I had watched like a parent thrilled that my 6'7" 15 year-old is a basketball miracle, but quietly hoping he stops sprouting while still someone's definition of "normal".

Wawa had staged a proper intervention. If this didn't end here and now, the next spill would be much worse. There, on the floor, I quit coffee.

I went back out and bought a box of green tea, with its eastern promises of immortality and clean teeth. For lack of a kettle, I boiled water in my supermarket-issue saucepan and tentatively poured it over the round teabag. The steaming infusion became pale yellow, yellow, stopping just short of pea-colored. I waited for it to become darker and more electric like strong coffee, stirring and pressing the bag with a spoon as it became more apparent that this is how green tea looks.

The flavor was bizarre: mild, smoky, gamey, inconclusive. Nothing like the Ceylon and Earl Grey I sipped every few months and were my only yardsticks for tea. According to the box it contained a trace of caffeine, but my body was going to have to take my eyes' word for it--as usual, it didn't.

I was miserable. Breakfast seemed pointless, and out the window I saw clouds bum-rushing the sun. "While you're at it," I thought as I took a second palate-scalding of the strange brew, "quit drinking alcohol too."

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Alcohol, Part 2: How Many Pears Can You Eat In Two Hours?

"There are people who write me off as an idiot, because how could I know what I'm talking about if I don't taste?"

-Tim Hanni MW, recovered alcoholic

Do you think anybody who strictly follows the medical establishment's guideline for healthy alcohol consumption--"up to one drink a day for women or two drinks a day for men"-- is a recognized expert in any part of the wine, beer, or spirits industries (accountants and other interchangeables excluded)? I don't. I don't think there's anyone who even comes close. The motives for deciding to spend your working life creating or promoting intoxicants are scarce in temperate souls.

Typically there's more to this than spreading the crunk gospel. Some amount of affection for the poison you peddle, and by "affection for" I mean "fascination with", and by "fascination" I mean "infatuation", is not really optional in this game. And when all that stands between you and the object of your infatuation is a screwcap, the next scene kinda writes itself.

If you sell wine, you need to be able to describe it at length. If you make beer, you need to know the styles you craft so intimately that you can accurately imagine your saliva tastes like any of them. If you write about single malt whisky for a living, your credibility is up peat creek if anyone ever out-nerds you in public. Book-learning is essential in all instances, but only as a compliment to tasting, endless tasting. If the nectar isn't coursing through your veins, you're wilted.

So you taste as much as possible. It's not a chore since you love it deeply. And you're in the business, so the next opportunity is probably in a few hours. And then there's that voice telling you that if you skip the tasting tonight, your colleagues and competitors will still go and have an edge, however small, over you tomorrow.

When your lofty desire for expertise, your animal desire for your next drink, and your professional survival instinct are singing in mellifluous harmony, you're getting drunk. Formal tastings aren't the only place where this happens. The same weakness is exploited at dinner parties where all nine of your oenophile friends bring at least one bottle, at craft brew meccas where the beer menus resemble phone books (remember phone books?) and everywhere else hangover fuel can pass itself off as a database that's both necessary and fun to assimilate.

Of course, everyone knows the solution to this dilemma: You spit. Just like you return all your library books a day early, and volunteer your weekends to clean the Steel Reserve cans and Coney Island whitefish from under the highway overpass. Yeah, some pros actually do spit everything at tastings and other feeding frenzies (and they're probably near the top of their field), but ask them if they've never left one and been nervous about driving home or glad they didn't have to. While you're at it, ask them for an itemized list of what they drank yesterday. Remember, one for women, two for men!

Spitting may or may not exclude something important from the tasting experience. To this wild guesser, it does. A quality common to every "great" wine I've had is a boom of intensity that only detonates at the back of my mouth, at the event horizon, the point where the swallow reflex is just beginning to kick in. Obviously I'm swallowing anyway, but if the crazy idea to spit Chambertin ever did hit me, I'm sure this goosebump-inducing crescendo would never leave the orchestra pit. Jancis Robinson would say I'm wrong, but come on, which one of us are you gonna believe???

Speaking of pretty English ladies, I wish it were easier to find Alice King's book High Sobriety here in the colonies because, if the blurbs and reviews are fair, it covers most of this ground with a lot more authority.

Ms. King was plumbing the pipedream, getting paid a lot of money to drink exquisite wines and write about them. The ego-inflation alone could make one lightheaded, but that wasn't cutting it for AK-47 (not her real nickname as far as I know, just what I would call her if she were my friend). For her it was wine, more wine, lots more wine, lots more vodka.

The seeds of all-out alcoholism were of course sown in her from birth, but backstage access to the finest wines and the ever-present escape pod of "don't worry it's my job!" were effective fertilizer. Then, impressively (though I suppose there's nothing inherently impressive about doing what you have to do to stay alive), she called a cab and left the party.

As did Tim Hanni, one of the first two Americans to get the #1 recognition of wine omniscience, the Master of Wine. Here's a really interesting guy--a trained chef who fattened a goose pheasant in his college dorm closet so he could roast it in his toaster oven. He got into wine, got really good at it, got even better at being drunk. Finally he fell down the same fetid well Alice King did, and similarly clawed his way out.

The cool thing is: Not only is he still in the racket, he's one of the few people attacking the orthodoxy of what quality is in wine. And I don't mean he's part of the "CRUCIFYPARKERONACROSSOFNEWFRENCHOAK" rabble (who I can't believe anyone still takes seriously--where's the counter-backlash?). Instead, Mr. Hanni has compiled serious analysis of how our tasting organs work, and more importantly how they vary.

This has led to some nonconformist conclusions (maybe every wine can pair with asparagus, and maybe white zinfandel isn't the devil's magenta urine after all), that would be really hard to believe if they weren't asserted by someone who could recite more facts about wine in an hour than you or I could memorize in a year, and could probably eat a tube of toothpaste and still ace any blind tasting.


There's no way around the fact that a drop of wine on Tim Hanni's tongue could ruin his life. So perhaps he has forgotten the intricate details of how wine tastes--I don't know for sure that his detractors (opening quote) are wrong. But they almost certainly are if they think his ability to spew some cliches about minerality and Bosc pears has any bearing on the unique work he's doing.

Those of us less motivated to think outside the box can continue to chase some version of the mastery Mr. Hanni won and then threw away. We will keep tasting. What other option is there?

A couple of years ago I would flip to a random Wine Spectator tasting note every Sunday and try to taste each named component in its actual form over the course of the week. This regimen had some happy results--the spike in fruit consumption helped my digestion, and I smoked a couple of great cigars. It also had some ignominious ones, the low point being when my landlord stopped by and caught me licking a cast-iron skillet (thanks Molesworth). What it didn't do was make me a much better taster. As this became clearer I desperately increased the volume of apples, lavender, rocks, etc. I shoveled across my sensory transom.

Protip: Eating forty figs in one afternoon is not the fast track to an MW.

The takeaway was that reference points are good to have, but only tasting wine can make you better at tasting wine. And I've accepted that tasting at every opportunity is compatible with doing right by your body in theory, but usually not in practice.

At some point on this blog I may have said something about the negative health effects of being a boozy glutton not mattering to me, but since this is the summer of backpedaling and reversals, throw that stick on the pile.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Alcohol, Part 1: A Tiger Is Cuddly Once You Punch His Teeth Out

Here are some tasting notes:

  • Fre Alcohol Removed Brut: Yellow-green with seltzery bubbles. Interesting green tea aromas turn into reductive burnt match after a few sniffs. Big yellow apple hit on the midpalate (this is all midpalate). Very low acid. Don't take "Brut" literally--this would probably be demi-sec if labeling rules applied.
  • Fre Alcohol Removed Chardonnay: Peach-heavy nose. Watery and off-dry, evokes the apple juice served at snack time in first grade.
  • Fre Alcohol Removed Merlot: Sweet-smelling with a little unfortunate vinyl. Juicy and a little sugary like the others. Decent acid balance. Mellow structure, not much in the way of tannins.
  • Inglenook "St. Regis" Alcohol Removed White Zinfandel: Hate to join the White Zin gang-tackle, but there isn't much to recommend this. If wine is bottled poetry like the famous Napa welcome sign says, this pink stuff is "There Once Was A Man From Nantucket..."

The contempt these products elicit from everyone who doesn't already drink them is thicker than trockenbeerenauslese.

To prestige hounds, it's for the peasants like every other wine available at Safeway. To would-be critics and somms, it's excruciating to acknowledge they even exist. Drink water, soda, methanol, anything else--just please stop pretending you're drinking wine. To pregaming woogirls who don't like carbs, what's the point, bitch?

Per my little bench trial, they are in fact not much fun to drink. But hey, at the $6-$7 price point nothing is kicking their tail too hard in measures of aroma and taste. Cheaply-fermented grape juice is cheaply-fermented grape juice, not much variance in any direction you wander.

The collateral damage would obviously be severe dragging finished La Tache through a reverse osmosis torture chamber until its alcohol is scourged away (doesn't that thought just ruin your day?). Fre, to understate the crap out of things, doesn't have as much to lose.

About the only thing it does have to lose is the portkey to drunk. And here's a black fly for ya, Alanis, to lose it is its reason for existing. It may or may not be fair to assume that non-alcoholic wines were born of an attempt to chisel an odd niche into the adult beverage market. Like, something for people who want to keep alcohol out of their bloodstream but are happy with anything that has the essential sweet/sour/bitter balance of wine. Or for whatever reason wish to be observed holding a goblet containing translucent red, yellow, or pink liquid.

Evidently the gambit worked since these are not new products and there has been plenty of time for them to join Crystal Pepsi and (real) Four Loko in the great recycling plant in the sky. The profit margin is intuitive enough: Schwag grapes bought at high volume, probably not chauffeured around the winery by sparkling new Waukesha pumps, very probably not punched down by hand 4x/day, certainly not luxuriating in fresh-off-the-boat Seguin-Moreau barriques for two years before finally cannonballing into the punch bowl.

Also, the cost of an RO or vacuum distillation or spinning cone setup has to be largely offset by the feel-good PR the makers can claim by having a gentle pony in their stable. Drug pushers? Us? And all that really matters is that people are buying them, though aside from myself twenty-four hours before breaking ground on this post, I'm not sure who they are. I do know a handful of disciplined folks who "don't drink", and they "don't drink" this stuff either.

Once again, the silent majority sticks it to the smartasses and gets their representation.

The contempt for non-alcoholic wines will continue to sizzle. And like most contempt, it accomplishes little except making the people spewing it look like dickheads. If there is an error sloshing around inside all these bottles, it's the attempt to bisect the pleasure of drinking wine into

Pleasure from aroma/flavor | Pleasure from alcohol

and then snap the wishbone. You can't pull these two things apart and not expect to taste the trauma. They're not the same, but in the fabric of wine their fibers are tangled together somewhere. Tugging until they separate leaves a ragged mess.

I don't blame producers like Ariel for trying to create NA wines that can run with the Clydesdales (because in winemaking anything is worth a try if you can afford it), but there's a point--that has probably already been reached--where they can't get any better. Seriously intending to take the alcohol out of wine and still have it taste amazing is like trying to rewrite DNA code with a fat crayon.

Texture, the underappreciated lug, is toothless and predictable without alcohol's oily velvet. And a little post-swallow heat on your breath does a lot to bind otherwise disjointed flavor elements in to the mystery we call "finish". On the molecular level, I'll bet the Barolo under my sink that at least a few other essential compounds get the Brundlefly treatment when their alcohol is yanked out.

And let's pretend for a second none of the above is true at all. Let's pretend Latour and Montrachet and Grange would taste exactly the same without alcohol. Or let's pretend there was the same profound enjoyment to be had and the same lifetime of curiosity to indulge drinking the different varieties of Snapple. Would wine occupy the place it does in our minds, in our mouths, in our economies, in our lives?


Tuesday, July 5, 2011

All You Can Do Is Do What You Must


If he hasn't yet already, your friend who's really into wine is waiting for his chance to cudgel you with the story of his Aha! moment starring the Aha! bottle or glass or sip that made him realize what shite he'd been drinking until fate intervened. Maybe? Probably? Circulate in wine-land long enough and you can count on hearing enough of these big bang theories to fill a Melchizedek.

So I'll spare you mine, also because telling it would require inventing some portions of history, which I don't feel qualified to do yet. Best I can do is recall the Philadelphia winter/spring of '05-'06 when, underemployed and relentlessly drunk, I found my semi-daily stops at the Pennsylvania Wine & Spirits Superstore on 12th and Chestnut becoming more about the hunt and less about the kill. Bypassing Carlo and the Captain to proceed down the pomp and circumstance of the baroquely lit wine bottle aisles were suddenly, inexplicably, the clearest part of my bleary days.

It was handy to have a new way of parrying accusations that I was, gasp, "drinking alone". No, I was pledging the noble frat of wine aficionadi, not to mention it complimented my early cooking efforts, generally Rube Goldberg interpretations of the Bisquick cookbook eaten alone in front of the sometimes-functional TV. Also on some level it was a last-ditch effort to distinguish myself. No other recent grads, as far as I knew, gave a toss about wine with any seriousness. If I was going to eat their dust in the race to success, why not drink something that would help me savor it?

Some bottles from this time linger in memory--a St. Francis Zinfandel that turned my brain to fire and then ash with its 16.5% ABV, a Le Strette Barbera D'Alba that was my first $20 lucky guess, a Felton Road Pinot Noir obscenely discounted by the PA Wine & Spirits monopoly.


It doesn't matter, my specific reactions, recollections, "tasting notes" concerning these, and as I bob rudderlessly into this summer I draw blanker and blanker blanks when questioning why my opinions on wines and Wine should matter to anyone, especially myself. To be offered blind trust from a friend seeking wine guidance, and then to actually earn it with some off-the-cuff wisdom is gratifying, satisfying, and every vanity in between. But it's getting hard to see how these little victories can support a ziggurat of hedonist values that demands you climb forever towards that endless spasm of pleasure at the top.

Eighteen months and two vocational false starts after deciding wine was IT, I was a sales grunt in a fancy NYC shop. I had the privilege of handling bottles worth $3K and up, handling the cold black AmEx cards used to purchase them, handling the first-growth egos of the cardholders. Tough work, with the true compensation being the 20-30 wines I got to taste and memorize weekly.

It wasn't enough. I craved absolute knowledge. I wanted to get closer and closer to wine itself until it clotted my pores and purpled my skin. Continuing to curate facts was well and good, but it was clear I'd never rest until I transcended the trivia and became it, a winemaker.


I recently finished working my fifth vintage in four countries in two and a half years. In the vineyard with shears, in the cellar with pumps, on the crushpad with bees and blood. I accomplished phase 1 of my mission, winning craftsmanship, intimacy with the juice, and chest-puffing war stories, all swaddled in the achy pride of manual labor.

Why, then, are my gumbooted feet again kicking pebbles at a crossroads? Other than the field's dismal $ prospects and the creeping realization that an enology degree--always a keynote of my "professional goals" spiel--is not likely to pay off for me at this point, there's no good reason not to continue this, right? I also swore to myself, the morning after accepting my first winery gig, that the twentysomething English Major waffling was over. Time to dig this and dig it deep. I would report to the cellar every day for the rest of forever, and love this work no matter how much I hated it.

This is now a meaningless memory. Which is not to say I hate or ever hated or could ever hate slugging it out in wineries--there's still nothing else I'd rather do, other than sit on my ass and hope my MacBook's chrome shell can deflect the reality of adulthood. But if this should all fall apart (or if it has already), it won't feel like a broken oath, just an earnest pep talk sparked and then immolated in an internet-scrambled head.


The real worm in this apple is how empty the "foodie" approach to life is beginning to seem. There's no harm in preferring what tastes good--way back when it was how you avoided swallowing things that would kill you. There's probably no harm in disposing of your disposable income at a quality-driven wine shop or restaurant. Something, though, is rotten in fetishizing bacon-wrapped everything and artisan whatever until you've out-gourmanded every other smug epicure in the greenmarket.

I'm disturbed by the possibility that this is the quiche in the sky I was grasping at when I traded a desk--er, salesman apron--for a forklift. No civilian would ever say their sensory skill or understanding of wine and its sister indulgences is superior to a winemaker's and expect to be taken seriously.

This was not completely lost on me at any point over the last three years. But no torture exists that would make me confess it was ever my objective. Wine was the intersection of my intellectual curiosity, my warmest, fuzziest feelings, and my desire to get really good at something. All I knew was that I wanted to shoot this magic bullet into the deepest wrinkles of my brain. If the worst case is true, if I was really motivated by arugula egotism when I junked my prior work experience and officially made college worthless by becoming a cellarhand, then the bastard snuck up on me quickly and quietly--a surgical strike worthy of SEAL Team Six.

Either way, this Jerry Maguire moment is what I get for staking my sense of purpose on the mirage of the good life, or at least a better one than yours. Whether or not it was my reason for anything, all the "lifestyle" twaddle in the glossy mags and cable food porn had me at hamachi. What would happen if I stopped caring about what I drank, or just stopped drinking? Not gonna happen at this point, but I struggle to name anything truly bad that would come from it.

I guess the ones who got it right are the men and women who do their productive jobs and attend to their families and only then seek pleasure where they may. And the great winemakers, the ones who shut out all the noise and let nature take its course.