Thursday, December 3, 2015
Wine, Memory and Massacres
Around noon today, Wednesday, a coworker told me that there was another mass shooting unfolding at that moment in San Bernadino, CA. It just barely registered. Your first response is to wonder how many people were murdered—it’s almost like you want to know the gunman’s score. He received a 20 from Twitter, a 14 from NPR, and all scores were done blind. Not bad, but not in the Exceptional range. Maybe in the Shooting range.
Aside from disgust and anger, I felt a little hopeless at the news. These sorts of massacres are not going to stop any time soon, any more than climate change is going to suddenly reverse. But I’m not here to discuss politics (who am I? STEVE!?), I’m here to write about wine. Trivial, ordinary, meaningless wine. It’s what we do on wine blogs.
Thinking about ordinary folks whose lives are suddenly destroyed by angry human garbage with a gun, I took comfort in wine, that I work, and have always worked, in the wine business. And I realized that all of my life I have turned to wine for comfort, reassurance, and solace. Solace not in the alcohol in wine, though that obviously matters, but in wine itself, and what wine represents. Maybe it’s that I see wine as being one of the things that is best about our Western culture. Literature, art, baseball, wine, jazz, those beautiful creations. Can they compensate for random death (that is, if all death isn’t random to those who haven’t died), or for all the evil that’s in our world? No, perhaps not. But it’s what I have.
Many years ago, I think I was 27 at the time, my girlfriend Josie and I arrived home after working our shifts in the restaurant where we met to find my cockatiel Buster flying crazily around the living room. Buster was often out of his cage, but not after I had left for work. I was confused. I knew he couldn’t get out of his cage. None of us can. My confusion abruptly ended when I realized my television was gone. And my stereo, and my camera, and a lot of other valuable stuff. Our apartment had been burglarized. We called the police, and they dutifully came and filled out a report. I asked the cop why burglars would take my sleeping bag. “Oh, they use it to lug the heavy stuff out. They probably rifled through your panty drawer, too.” A little too quickly, I said, “Yeah.” But that’s another story.
After the police left, Josie and I were not the least bit sleepy. After a burglary, your apartment feels creepy, and your bedroom feels dirty, and sleep is not an option. So I went to the wine rack and opened a bottle of wine. I’ll never forget that wine. I’ve never consumed another bottle of that wine, I refused to buy it for my wine list when I was later a sommelier, and I wouldn’t carry it in my wine shop. It was a Grgich Hills Zinfandel. I cannot even see a bottle of Grgich Zin without recalling the feeling of fear and disgust and anger and violation that I felt when I realized our apartment had been burgled. I thought drinking a nice bottle of wine would help, and it did, it helped, but I wish I had been wise enough to choose a wine that was cheap, or lousy, or Pinot Grigio. The lesson, friends, is that when something miserable happens to you, drink something shitty, not something you like. Maybe keep a bottle of Pinot Grigio in your fridge, just in case.
That burglary was my first lesson in wine’s power over memory. And, therefore, us. For what are we but memories? And bodily fluids. And a side of meat. The Grgich Hills brought me some solace in that moment; it was something civilized to counteract something sad about the human race. But that’s not the kind of example I’m trying to get to. It was my first lesson about wine, and its hold over me, about its connection to memory. More lessons, many more, were to come.
Nine years later, Josie died. Just typing that was hard. I was working as a sommelier, and, eventually, after some weeks away from the job trying to find a way back to my life, back to any sort of goddam life, I returned to the restaurant. I had stopped drinking. Hell, I’d stopped eating and sleeping, what did I need wine for? I discovered death is a great weight loss plan. But I had to continue to buy wine for the restaurant, to do my job. Several nights a week, I would sit with salespeople and have to smell and taste wines, as I always had. And those were the only moments in my miserable life when I was OK. Putting a wine up to my nose and sensing its energy, thinking about its components, about where it was from, just making sense of it, brought me comfort and security. But it was much more than that. Wine smells of the earth, smells of human endeavor, smells of community. Great wine awakens in us a powerful gladness to be alive. Even during the darkest hours of my life, the aroma of a first-rate Châteauneuf-du-Pape made me happy when nothing, and I mean nothing, else could.
The wines I smelled and tasted during my grief reminded me that I had once known how to be happy. I didn’t think I’d ever be happy again, but at least I knew happiness lived in me. The wines triggered memories of happier times, of all the joy my love of wine had brought me, of the people I loved with whom I’d shared great wine. And, as all great wines do, the wines I tasted promised a future. Earth, love, memory, community…wine began to heal my broken life by forcing me to remember them. I was slowly, and this may sound melodramatic and maudlin, but it’s also true, healed by wine, and by its connection to memory, which brought me back into the world, into the possibility of love, into the community of, first, wine, and then the living. Wine’s pull was, for me, irresistible.
The older I get, the more I notice that when I taste wine, I think more about my feelings about wine, my accumulated memories, than I think about aromatics and alcohol level and descriptors. I smell a California Cabernet, and I’m home. I put a glass of Hermitage to my nose and I’m that kid who “discovered” Hermitage 35 years ago and was astonished that anything could be that wonderful. I open a Chablis and I remember all the Raveneau I used to drink and how now I can’t fucking afford it. Wine is memory. And maybe memory is wine. Put the most dramatic ones away for a couple of decades, and when you finally examine them again they’ve transformed into something completely different. Something that makes you deeply grateful, as I am grateful for Josie; or something that makes you buy an automatic weapon and kill people. Like wine, how you store memory is what matters in the long run.
When terrible things happen, from the mundane to the horrifying, from burglaries to death, from 9/11 to civilians killed by drones, from domestic massacres to suicide bombers, there isn’t any real solace, no “closure.” But life beckons us, in all its Sisyphean glory. We open a bottle after a miserable experience, perhaps catastrophic experience, and we begin, again, to try and make sense of it all.
Tonight, I’ll open a bottle of something interesting, not a fucking Grgich Hills Zin, and it won’t take long before the wine will stir memories, will fill my head with all sorts of unpredictable and unforeseeable thoughts. I’ll be struggling with the memories of what it’s like to lose a loved one in the blink of an eye, as many people in San Bernadino are doing today. One day they’re here, next day they’re gone. And I’ll remember Josie, and so many others I’ve lost. And, after that, as the wine embraces and commandeers my memories, I’ll remember this great community I’m a part of, and I’ll remember all that I’ve been given, all the people who have touched me, and loved me and helped me. I’ll remember that it’s the simplest things in life that can bring the most joy. Rather than surrender to anger and grief, I'll try to make some sense of it all.
I turn to wine in tough times to bring me solace, but it doesn’t. It brings me Grace.