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.


MFH said...

Bravo, clapclapclap. Lots of brain-food (or libation) no matter what the career field or stage of life.

JBH said...

thanks Molly