"One of the disadvantages of wine is that it makes a man mistake words for thoughts."--Samuel Johnson
Thursday, May 8, 2014
My Little Wine Snob™
When we were children, around eight or nine years old, most of my friends liked to play Cowboys and Indians, or Cops and Robbers, or Priests and Don’t Tell Anybody. But there was a group of us who spent a lot of our free time playing Wine Steward and Customer. Man, that was so much fun. We couldn’t wait to get home from school and set up the tables to play, and then we’d play until our mothers called us for dinner, or until one of the stupider kids ordered Chardonnay to go with his loogie. Everyone knows Riesling always goes with loogie.
I think all kids idolize wine stewards. (We couldn’t pronounce “sommelier” very well, and it seemed like a dirty word, so we wanted to. Once, in a fit of childhood rage, I called my sister a “slutelier, and my mother washed my mouth out with Blue Nun.) We’d see a wine steward on the bus on his way to work, maybe, and we’d steal glances at him, admiring his shiny shoes, and being amazed at his ability to tell the homeless guys apart just from the way their urine smelled. I never had the courage to go up to a wine steward and talk to him (in those days, only men were wine stewards—women weren’t allowed to wear a tastevin in public and were thought to be queer if they did), but my friend Frankie did one time. He walked right up to a wine steward who was waiting at the bus stop and nervously asked, “Are you a sombullyay?” When the wine steward looked at Frankie, I think he peed a little. Not Frankie, the sombullyay.
“Yeah, Kid,” he said, “I’m a wine steward. Pretty cool, huh?”
“Are you a MS or a MW?” Frankie asked. I was tongue-tied with fear at Frankie’s audacity.
“MS” the wine steward said.
“Oh,” said Frankie, “that’s too bad. My dad says an MS is basically the Learner’s Permit of wine.” And then Frankie took off running, the wine steward chasing him until he stepped on his own self-importance and fell down. That Frankie, man, was he fearless.
I was the oldest of the kids who played Wine Steward and Customers, so I mostly got to be the Wine Steward. Plus, I had the toys to be one. I’d relentlessly begged my parents to buy me Hasbro’s “My Little Wine Snob™” kit. I can still remember how badly I wanted it from the first time I saw it. Other kids wanted cowboy outfits or Army uniforms or their own Wham-O Asbestos to play with, but I had to have “My Little Wine Snob.” It had everything—a shiny little tastevin you could wear around your neck (which was also part of Hasbro’s “My Little Sammy Davis, Jr” kit, complete with glass eye), a little corkscrew, a wine list with imaginary prices (just like real ones!), a little lapel pin with the words, “Sommelier in Training” on it, and, best of all, a sweet little three inch marble tube you could shove up your butt, which really made the Wine Steward illusion complete. I begged and begged my parents to buy it for me, and, finally, my dad let me earn it by spying on my mom when all my uncles came to visit and writing down their license plate numbers. When I had ten, he’d buy it for me. The next day, it was mine.
I’d never been to a restaurant with a wine steward, so I had to make up what a wine steward would do. My parents didn’t take us kids to nice restaurants. In those days, parents just didn’t take their kids to nice restaurants unless it was to put us in a wheelchair in front of the restaurant and panhandle. I wasn’t very good at this, but my brother could make ten bucks in no time by tying his chair to a customer’s car bumper and asking for a pull home. One time a drunk said OK instead of giving him money to go away, and we didn’t find my brother for a couple of days because going 60 miles per hour in a wheelchair, he’d missed the offramp. My dad was pretty pissed at how messed up the chair was though. Anyway, I had a good imagination, and I acted like I thought a real sommelier would act.
Frankie was the best at playing customer because he was such a jackass. So he’d sit at the table with one of the neighborhood girls, usually Ellen because he had a crush on Ellen and was always playfully banging her head into a fire hydrant, as boys like to do, and act like he was reading my play wine list. I’d improved the Hasbro “My Little Wine Snob™” wine list by adding my own selections. I added my own categories of wines to drink, like “Cat Pee,” and “Girl Parts” and “Orange Wines.” I had so many wines on my list that I gave myself a Wine Spectator Grand Award, and just like the real restaurant winners, I also didn’t really have most of the wines! Frankie would pretend to read the wine list, and then ask Ellen what she wanted. Ellen, however, didn’t speak much any more.
Then I’d approach the table and say, in my most serious voice, “Good evening, sir, may I help you select a wine to go with your dinner tonight?” Frankie was supposed to say Yes, but sometimes he would just throw food at me to make me go away. I later learned to do this as an adult when I was at an industry wine tasting and a lot of sommeliers were around.
“Yes,” Frankie would say on cue, “I’d like you to choose a wine to go with my steak. What do you suggest? I was thinking maybe Silver Oak.”
“Silver Oak?” I’d say, simply aghast, “I’m out of that.” I wasn’t, but I’d pretend I was because I knew wine stewards hate to open Silver Oak because it’s popular and not hard to get. “But how about this wine?” And I’d point to a cult wine I’d put on my wine list for Eleventy Hundred Dollars, which, really, was a bargain since I’d seen the same wine at an auction price of way over a Gazillion.
“OK,” Frankie would say, and I’d go into the wine cellar, which was this old refrigerator box we had in the backyard, and bring out my one bottle of wine that I used no matter what one of my friends ordered. It was empty, and it had a screw top because I couldn’t really work the “My Little Wine Snob™” corkscrew, but I’d unscrew it and pretend to pour Frankie a little taste. Ellen was usually asleep by then and had her head in the food.
One time, Frankie yelled, “A fucking screwtop! Eleventy hundred bucks and I get a goddam screwtop?! Stupid wine steward, I hate you.” Apparently, Frankie had been to dinner with his grandfather and that’s what his grandfather had said. We laughed so hard. Even we knew that screwtops are for crappy wine. Even now Stelvins give me the giggles. Which is embarrassing when I’m peeping into my neighbor’s windows.
Frankie would swirl the empty glass (we used Hasbro’s “My Little Pretentious Asswipe” Riedel stemware), and then say, “I don’t know, I think it’s corked.”
I’d grab the glass from his hand, swirl it very dramatically, take a deep, snot-filled whiff, and exclaim, “It’s not corked, you poophead, it’s got terroir! You’ll drink it and pay for it.”
And before he could object, I’d hear my mother screaming in her happy voice and I’d have to run home to write down another uncle’s license plate.
After 19 years as a Sommelier in Los Angeles, twice named Sommelier of the Year by the Southern California Restaurant Writers' Association, I moved to Sonoma County to explore the other aspects of the wine business. I've spent, OK wasted, 35 years learning about and teaching about and swallowing wine. I am also a judge at the Sonoma Harvest Fair, San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and the San Francisco International Wine Competition--so I can spit like a rabid llama. I know more about wine than David Sedaris and I'm funnier than James Laube. Stay tuned for an informed but jaded view of everything wine and everything else.
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