Thursday, January 7, 2016

A Strange Experience


I had a strange experience, an experience that moved me in a way I’m still trying to digest.

My wife and I ordered a Marzemino at our favorite local Italian restaurant. It was lovely, in that captivating way the red wines of Trentino have, so delicate and yet so powerful. My wife was unfamiliar with the variety, but it’s one I’ve long adored when I’ve encountered it. When we arrived home after lunch, I searched Marzemino to get a little more information about it. After all these years, I still love to immerse myself in wine’s almost incomprehensible variety.

One of the first listings in my Google search was for a post about Marzemino on a wine blog I’d encountered before, but not in a very long time—Fringe Wine. I clicked on the link, and read the brief article about Marzemino (a grape that always makes me think of a prize fighter—Rocky Marzemino—but that’s a different story). I noticed that the author of the blog, a Rob Tebeau, hadn’t published since 2014, and that was a single post. Prior to that, he’d written in July of 2013. Now, it’s certainly not odd to find abandoned wine blogs. The Internet is littered with them, like cigarette butts on the information highway. But, bored and rather sleepy from my long Marzemino-fueled lunch, I clicked on Mr. Tebeau’s last post. It’s here, if you want to read it: Fringe Wine.

That last post is about Mr. Tebeau’s struggles with depression. It completely disarmed me. It speaks of his experiences with ECT, electro convulsive therapy. It’s candid, and it is filled with a desperation in its voice that is distilled down to something powerful and pure, Depression Grappa. I swear I felt my heart pounding.

So I read the “last” post from a year earlier, July 2013. In that post, Mr. Tibeau writes hauntingly of his struggle with depression. I’ve never read anything like it on a wine blog. Of his depression he writes:

“It takes away the things you love and your drive by removing your capacity to love and your capacity for action.  It's a grief with no cause and a pain with no source or location.  Nothing makes it better.  Nothing makes it go away.  You wake up in the morning and it's waiting for you at the foot of your bed.  And somehow it's gotten bigger in the night, and it grabs you a little harder every day.”

It’s painful to read that. But it’s also beautifully expressed.

I only read those three posts, the one on Marzemino, and the two final posts, written a year apart. The very last post, about ECT, had zero comments.

Something about this ate at me. I decided to search for Mr. Tebeau to see what had become of him. I quickly learned that he had died, quite suddenly (the obits read) only a few weeks after that last post. He was 33. The last word he wrote on that final post of Fringe Wine was, “Goodbye.”

I don’t need to know any more of Mr. Tibeau’s struggles, or about how he died. That’s a kind of voyeurism I’m not comfortable around. I didn’t know him, I didn’t regularly read his wine blog, and I never mentioned it, or insulted him, on HoseMaster of Wine™. I’m grateful for that. And, honestly, I nosed around in his life more than I probably should have, driven by something that I can’t quite put my finger on—it was more than idle curiosity. When I discovered he had died shortly after that last piece, I was dumbstruck. And I didn’t even know him. Yet I felt a profound sadness having learned of his death, having read his last words.

And then there is the eternal life that is the Internet. We think of the Internet as a place of immediacy, where we go for instant gratification and connection. But reading Mr. Tebeau’s last posts was like reading his diary—not a violation of his privacy, of course, but intimate and terrible. I don’t think I’ve ever realized the sort of immortality publishing on the web brings to all of us here, I didn't really comprehend its implications, how our deaths will change the way our words are read and perceived. It makes me want to delete HoseMaster of Wine™ the minute I retire. Problem is, I retire so often, even I don’t know when it’s for real.

As much variety as there is to wine, there is an equal variety to the reasons people are drawn into it. For some it’s about insobriety, for some it’s about wine’s inexplicable prestige, for some it’s simply a path they stumbled across and thought they’d be good at. Reading Mr. Tebeau’s words, “I started this project a few years ago in an attempt to occupy myself during another particularly nasty time in my life.  It was interesting and it engaged me and I learned a lot of really cool things in the process.  Those wines and this site helped me get back on balance at a time when I was in danger of losing control.  Wine has helped stabilize me at several different times in my life.” made me wonder about my own motivations, my own desires and needs, that fueled me to make wine my life’s work, as trivial as that has been.

I’ve written previously about how I stumbled into my sommelier career, and about how this stupid blog came to be. I won’t bore you with rehashing all of that. I loved wine from the very first. It wasn’t my first career, but it was my life. I have no regrets about that, but, now, I wonder about that choice.

The role of wine that we rarely discuss is how it makes us feel better about ourselves. It begins with the alcohol, of course. I’ve been an angry person my entire life, impatient and short-tempered, intolerant and unkind. Wine, somehow, takes me to a better person in myself. Not when I’m alone. If I’m alone and angry, wine makes it that much worse. But among others, wine seems to make me more collegial, less angry. When I discovered that, as I did in my 20’s, I began to need wine. Not in an addictive way, I’m far from an alcoholic. I swear. Really. Ask any bartender in town. No, I think I needed wine to find that better person in myself. Anger drives my sense of humor, as it drives most senses of humor, but wine made me enjoy the company of other human beings, and even like the man I was. I’d never believed that possible.

But the other way wine makes us feel better about ourselves is the way it allows us to claim some sort of superiority, some measure of status and class. I was proud to be a sommelier, not because I was good at it, or because one should be proud of knowing a lot about wine, in the big picture wine is laughably unimportant, but I was proud because most other people in our Western culture assign admiration to folks who are very wine knowledgeable. It’s prestigious to know a lot about wine. It may be fun to know endless baseball trivia, it may be interesting to collect stamps, but one is almost ashamed to admit those hobbies knowing the vacant stares the admission will earn. Being employed as a sommelier made me somebody. Not in my own eyes, but in the eyes of others. And that’s what I needed, that’s what kept me in wine, the admiration, the being somebody. I managed to hide from my own self-loathing for those hours I was in the wine business. I wonder how many of my peers feel the same way. I'm certain it's many.

There’s something tragic about all this. Or comic. I sense it every time I watch a show like “Uncorked,” or sense the desperation of a wine blogger yearning for more and more attention, or read about a wealthy individual ardently filling a wine cellar with hundreds of cases of prestigious wines. It’s only wine. That’s what I always think. It’s only wine. Pursue it, write about it, collect it, make it, sell it, above all drink it, but always remember, it’s only wine. I’ve felt the anger of others who've forgotten it’s only wine—from Georg Riedel to The Hair. There is anger everywhere in the wine business, an almost territorial sort of aggression. And I often forget myself that it's only wine, and then my anger goes flying around the Internet. But, I comfort myself, at least my anger is funny.

On the Internet, we create new selves. On FaceBook, on Twitter, on Snapchat, on every dating site, people spend hours and hours creating a new, better, smarter, prettier face to present to the world. For his last two posts, Rob Tebeau didn’t. I won’t be able to meet another person seriously involved in wine without thinking about him. Maybe I am him. Maybe it’s death that’s sitting at the foot of my bed every morning when I wake up. And maybe it’s wine that keeps thoughts of my own death, my own shortcomings, my own fears and sadness, at bay. Maybe it’s wine that allows me to continue to live with the illusion that my life is important. And maybe that’s why I love wine.

I’m haunted by that last piece of Mr. Tebeau. The fear that pervades it. The honesty. The No Comments. The Goodbye.

48 comments:

JaneK said...

Thank you, Ron, for this thoughtful, moving piece. Of all the beverages and foods there are, wine alone has the capacity to evoke wide-ranging thoughts, emotions, reactions and stories that go far beyond the product itself.

Bryan Scott said...

Damn you, HoseMaster! Another great piece of writing.

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee."
---John Donne

Carl LaFong said...

Desperation Grappa from Pomace. The grape is crushed, then the solids are removed from the press or De-pressed. The final product needs to breathe but instead gets bottled up. Yep, sounds about right

ECT was the downfall of Hemingway. Took away his worries but took away his drive, too.

Laurie Jervis said...

Thank you for writing from your heart (as always). Wine is beauty, and in my experience, learning more and more about winemaking gave me a new focus in my life, which, similar to yours, is full of words.

BFJ said...

Despite being in my early 30's, I'm pretty sure I've never left a comment anywhere on the internet before but this blog is so rewarding every week and I just wanted to say thank you for continuing. I've been in wine for almost 9 years, and all the detritus of this industry has bothered me from the start: the egos, the obscure knowledge dick measuring, the unicorns, cult-cabernet mailing-list bragging contests, scores, and etc... it's really great to have one place where I know I can go read something funny, honest, and jesus so meaningful sometimes. A comment has been waiting at the tip of my fingers for a long time, but you went one excellent post over the line and I couldn't keep it in anymore. Nice work, please keep it up. And even if you delete it all when you retire, I think it will remain, fondly remembered, with those who read along. Like anything worth reading, drinking, or doing.

Goddess of Wine said...

Thank you, Ron. We're right there with you, staring down the specter at the end of the bed.

Vin de Terre said...

I can't speak for others, but when I read Tebeau's last post I emailed him rather than comment publicly, so maybe the post wasn't greeted with total silence:

Hey Rob [Tebeau],

I used to hit this site on the rare occasion when the world of wine got boring or tiresome, to reboot my curiosity. Guess I haven't been bored in a while—I was just testing the links on a webliography I put together to help train my staff when I came across your most recent posts.

I can only wish you the best. I expect every time I taste a new varietal or some brilliant brut gamay like Lavernette's, you'll come to mind.

thanks, Alex

Carole Meredith said...

You're so thoughtful and self-aware, Ron. A sobering piece, to say the least. (pun intended)

Unknown said...

Mr Washam, this is going way beyond wine blogging. If you keep this up you are going to be moving into the New Yorker territory. I am a practicing psychiatrist for the past 27 years and your thoughts are expressed most eloquently. Depression is a quite terrible state and it is sad to read some of the last thoughts of individuals with this condition. Yes, it is good to keep our hobbies, and even paid professions in perspective. Bravo...

The Primlani Kitchen said...

Profound and contemplative. TY for sharing Ron.

Charlie Olken said...

I am a bit at a loss for words. It's either a long story or none at all. So I will simply say "thank you" for reminding us that it is only wine--except when it is our humanity.

Don Clemens said...

I can only echo Charlie Olken's comment. Thanks, Ron. And, I suspect that your words will resonate for a very long time.

Don Carter said...

You always strike a familiar chord when you write from the heart. I often relate to your feelings and I've occasionally spotted myself in your descriptions of those of us who surround ourselves with wine. Not always a flattering portrait - but so brutally honest and eye opening that I find myself reevaluating my motivations. That's a powerful talent Mr. Washam.

Samantha Dugan said...

Ron My Love,
I shared with privately how much this moved me and how amazing, inspiring and talented you are, I just wanted to be seen here with all your other admirers, our voice lacking the words big enough but giving you thanks. Thank You, for all you do but most of all for continuing to share that You with us.
You took my breath away....
I love you

Batmang said...

Thank you for your well written, considered words Ron...it is a moving and sad tribute to someone who was suffering terribly with the depression that afflicts many. Your ability to share your own shock and grief resonates deeply and reminds me that every day I wake up is a good day. It also reminds me to open up some of those pricey bottles of wine that I have been saving for a special occasion that may never come...and to make sure I share those bottles with people I love. After all, it's only a beverage.
Thanks again,

Nathan Z.

Kbell said...

Thank you Ron. This post is a gift; wine and gratitude are sometimes all we have to keep us going some days.

Steve Pinzon said...

Ron, I laugh and cringe and occasionally guffaw at your satire and find it entertaining. But when you write from the heart, I remember those pieces the most. Whether it's wine reviews or insightful pieces like this, you have an aspect of writing that may be under-utilized. Certainly not under-appreciated! Great work, I look forward to your next post. Steve Pinzon

David Pierson said...

Ah don't delete your stuff Ron.. that's the great thing about the internet.. maybe a 100 years from now some newbie to wine will find your site and get some laughs and realize not to take wine so damn seriously like these other idiots.. what better legacy is there than that.. as much as I loathe and try to avoid humorless people I genuinely feel sorry for them.. I mean if you can't laugh at yourself, others and the wine biz.. what's the point of existing in this veil of tears..

VinoNovato said...

Ron, you truly are a mensch.
Thank you for sharing your heartfelt thoughts and feelings so beautifully.
There is a universality to your messages emanating from a simple product that occurred simply and naturally at one point which has evolved into a complex universe you slice through so effectively, bringing it and us back to the basics with your insights, humour and bite.

TonyA said...

Wow, I really cannot think of an appropriate comment to make other than I had to use a tissue after reading this.
Thanks for sharing.

Fabio said...

I'm so sad to learn of Rob Tebeau's death. I corresponded with him a few years back on some of the obsure varieties I work with here in Spain (Airen, Malvar, Chelva, etc). I wrote him a few emails after he stopped posting, but I never thought that he had died. Such is life, so sad and tragic sometimes.
As to "it's only wine", I couldn't agree more. If only more people would remember that it's only wine, the wine world would be even more fun than it already is, even with those all those angry and/or pretentious ass****s out there :)
Cheers! or more appropriately today: "Here's tae us. Wha's like us. Damn few, And they're a' deid."

Angelica Sbai said...

Regrettably, I have never commented on your posts. But, this one is special. This one toes the line that those of us in the wine business face at some point in our careers, that line of over-reliance. And as you point out, not reliance on insobriety but, reliance on the life that comes with wine. I am abstaining from wine for the month of January to reset my brain, my palate, my liver and after reading this, I suppose my soul, too. I always appreciate your candor in your writing and hope that you continue for years to come.

Rocky Volcanics said...

I am humbled and speechless.

Fenton said...

Damn you Ron for your eco-unfriendly threat to delete your posts someday. Do you realize how many of us are now planning to print every last word you have written out of fear of losing it? Forests of pulp trees are quaking like aspens. Beautiful post by the way. Just as touching and amazing as the common taters have said above.

Marcia Macomber said...

An unusual post, to say the least. But thank you for sharing Mr. Tebeau's comments about depression. It's hard for those of us who don't suffer from the awful disease to fully comprehend it. And Mr. Tebeau's eloquence goes a long way to making it more understandable.

Thomas said...

Like Fabio, I had corresponded with Rob a number of years ago. Until his death, I did not know how young he was.

Ron, with this particular piece of writing you did Rob, wine, and the Internet well.

It has often crossed my mind that the vacuous words I've posted across the internet will outlive me. Not a pleasant thought.

imkarenp said...

I wish you had a "like" button on your blog!

The Wine Mule said...

YIkes. A little too close for comfort.
Yes, wine helps me when I'm trying to present my best self.

Daniel said...

wonderfully expressed, Ron.
thanks for this.
I agree there is a lot of anger out there, especially on the internet. and yes, thank god for humor or we would only have the anger.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Hey Gang,
Where to start?

Thank you to everyone for the kind words and thoughtful reactions. I'm especially indebted to those who commented here for the first time--the anonymous psychiatrist, BFJ, and Angelica. That you took the time has meaning for me.

As Samantha noted, I was debating whether I should publish this piece. I was uncomfortable with using the death of a man I didn't know as a jumping off point. But there was something about that strange moment of reading Mr. Tebeau's last post, followed by learning of his premature death, that kept nagging at me. It took writing this piece for me to understand my own feelings. Which is why I write.

I'm also struck by the different things that all of you took away from the piece. That has been enlightening for me.

Far too much of the wine world is obsessed with status and ego, with letters after a name, and who knows more about what makes a wine great, or natural, or authentic. The old saw in wine marketing, and wine blogging, is that stories sell wine. There's truth in that. And yet everywhere I turn in the wine writing biz, or on blogs, there's very little storytelling. The dimbulbs who say this is a Golden Age of wine writing are clearly undiscerning readers. So much of what I read is dull opinion, and the writing is more like ejaculate than anything else. And I'm speaking of the "top-rated" blogs, most of them anyway. The cream may rise to the top, but so do turds.

I may be alone in this opinion, which I've just ejaculated, but I wish the standards for wine writing were as exalted as the standards so many "writers" demand for wines. I wish there were more authentic, natural, honest wine writers. Yet here was a man writing a humble little blog about fringe wines who seems to have had some talent. I'll long remember his eloquence about his depression and his ECT. And his words about how wine truly and honestly defined him are also powerful. Not the inane and ubiquitous shit like, "I hope you'll join me on my journey to discover wine."

I don't have any idea what I'll write next. I write for the pleasure and for the self-discovery and to make folks laugh. I have no idea how long I'll keep at it. Until I start boring the crap out of myself, I suppose. Or I die.

Cathrine Todd said...

Thank you for this incredible post!

Ned Goodwin said...

Thanks, mate. I have read this piece over and over...empathy is all we can ever ask for and you have shown it in spades.

David Pears said...

Wow Ron! Normally i giggle in coffee, when I read your post. Today I felt more like looking deep into the mug - trying to get all the aspects of this well-written piece to sink in.

Just as Ned said, I've read it over and over. This is absolutely the most thoughtful piece I have read here. I've experienced depression in my closest family, and reading this brought a tear to my eye. But at the same time, I think I was relieved and rather soothed by your contemplation on wine and why we get into it.
I'm very happy that you chose to publish the piece. Thank You.

David

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Thanks Ned, David, and Cathrine,

If we'd ordered the Barbera, none of this would have happened.

fabien castel said...

My dying father in law shared shortly before leaving us that all there is is love. Your empathy and curiosity allowed you to share this strange encounter and how it resonated with your own fears. This is the love my father in law was talking about. Listening and sharing to hopefully help the rest of us.
I'll leave you with the words of the ever inspired Omar Khayyam:
“Today is the time of my youth
I drink wine because it is my solace;
Do not blame me, although it is bitter it is pleasant,
It is bitter because it is my life.”

Alexandra O' Gorman said...

This piece was so well written Ron and so touching. I echo the voices above - thank you for sharing it.
xoxo

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Fabien,
Thank you. Those are lovely sentiments.

Alexandra,
I miss you, Gorgeous! Thanks for stopping by. Let's have lunch soon. I'll bring the Marzemino.

Smooch.

Jesús Barquín said...

I take my hat off to you, Mr Washam. Truly. This moving and beautifully written piece gives even more depth to your often screamingly hilarious satirical writings.

Very best wishes from the south of Spain.

Jesús Barquín

Gillywine said...

Wow.

Thanks Ron for this honest and haunting piece of writing. There's too much gloss in the biz; we SO need more beautiful writing like this, pieces that are jarringly real, and hang their figurative asses (whether they're satirical, introspective or poetic) in the wind.

When gloss is stripped away, we connect. When we connect, we're moved. When we're moved, it makes us feel alive...and just as importantly, we don't feel alone.

XO, G.

John Agle said...

Thank you for taking the time to write this raw piece, and thanks for risking the feelings and vulnerability necessary to get it from brain onto screen.

Seems to me we often go to the movies or read a book (or a blog) to forget whatever is troubling our minds at the moment. Rarely do we start out with the objective to feel something. We self-medicate with entertainment, bandaging our psyches.

This piece caught me off guard. I'm not sure I'd like to regularly spend my Fifteen Minutes with the Hosemaster on such deep and personal musings because, well, all things considered, I'd rather laugh. But this sure was a thought-provoking diversion.

PS to all the wise posters, your comments enhanced the experience.

Jamie Goode said...

Lovely piece. Look forward to meeting you in napa next month, HMW

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Jesus,
Thank you, and thank you for reading and being a common tater. I'm honored to have such an interesting community hanging around HoseMaster.

Gillian,
Thanks, Love. What would the wine business be without gloss? We sell lifestyle most of the time. We sell romance and prestige. All of those have eager buyers. Without the gloss, we're just selling sexy Gatorade.

John,
I spend most of my time attempting to make people laugh. Writing comedy to the sounds of silence is hard work, and strange work. In order to keep myself engaged in this stupid blog, I promised myself I would write to assuage my own demons, not try to "build an audience." Giving my mind permission to go anywhere is richly satisfying. Most of us feel trapped in society's little boxes. Wine blogs are horribly redundant and dull for that reason. I'll do comedy on Monday, and just see what happens when I feel like publishing Thursdays.

But, truly, I'm here to be wine's annoying court jester.

Thanks for being a common tater.

Jamie,
Thank you. And likewise.

Eryn said...

Sir Ron of mastering hoses,
This is an amazing, humbling, well-written, and thoughtful piece I stumbled upon (thanks to the daily email of Wine Industry Insight). I am haunted by this gentleman Rob's last post. I am torn with an obsession to know more about his struggle and not wanting to unearth too much regarding the post-post.
I am a constant battler of depression, as well as a person in the beverage industry. Sometimes, it's the little lights that shine in your head, making a connection with a wine, a person, or an understanding, that keep you from complete collapse. The small things that make you shimmer and refuse to let the fog in your head and heart overtake you. I thank you for shining a light through the fog of what can be such a detrimental, stigmatized pat of life working in the beverage industry...and in life in general.
Quips and Sips,
Eryn

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Dear Eryn,
I understand your small desire to probe into what happened to Mr. Tebeau. I felt something of the same. But what stopped me was thinking that learning the "truth" of what happened wouldn't really be the story. It would simply be the end of the story, and that amounts to lots of nothing. And, as I wrote, I'm very uncomfortable with that kind of voyeurism.

I might be an angry and taciturn person by nature, but I'm certainly nowhere near clinically depressed. The piece wasn't about that, though it was the jumping off point. Why do we find wine as a passion? What does that say about us? Mr. Tebeau's self-awareness triggered my attempt to be as insightful as he was.

I feel great empathy for you, and others who struggle with depression. I don't think we talk about it enough in the wine biz, yet I'd venture to say it's relatively common. We rant nonstop about the big egos in the biz, and that's a valid complaint. But we spend almost no time or energy talking about the great number of very fragile, even desperate folks who find solace in wine. Mr. Tebeau made me see that.

I'm glad if I shone a light that had some meaning for you, Eryn. An unintended consequence, but one I'm proud of. Thank you so much for taking the time to be a common tater. Please do so on a regular basis. It would be nice to hear your, and all the other newbies', thoughts on all my usual nonsense.

Elaine Chukan Brown said...

Hi Ron,

Thank you for writing this. Rob and I had emailed back and forth a bit in 2012. In his emails he was thoughtful, engaging, and kind, as well as passionate about wine and education both - something I could relate to. He studied education formally at the Masters level taking an interest in ideas of how the brain works as well as psychology, and had also studied philosophy at the undergraduate level.

At the time he was working for a University in the Boston area on the administrative side and channeling his intellectual and creative interests through his blog. Being part of the university system gave him the advantage of research resources to help inform his fascination with odd ball varieties.

It's a strange world this online community. With all my moving around access to others via the Internet has often been the boon I needed. At the same time, I've always been cautious about claiming friendship from people I just know online. Even so, I do still value the simple sharing that can occur across the distances. Sharing is a gift. It also promises eventual loss.

In his emails at least Rob was utterly sincere. I am very sorry to hear of his passing, and sorry too it had been so long. Our last email exchange was late 2012.

Elaine

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Hi Elaine,

Thank you for reading about my strange experience. Strange only to me, of course.

As you point out, the online "community" is, in many important ways, illusory. I find that people I've never met think they know me from HoseMaster, which may or may not be flattering. And I was very grateful for the spiritual and monetary support when Riedel threatened to sue me. Yet I also have come to realize that I only imagine others who blog are like me, that folks who love wine love it for the same reasons I do. And that the connections I make here, with common taters and readers, serve only a very small purpose in my emotional well-being.

I never met Rob, or communicated with him, and have no idea what motivated me to followup on his blog absence. I have heard from several folks that they'd been penpals with him, but no one seemed to know he had died.

Something strange about the whole deal. It's still lingering in my mind. Haunting, really. I'll never figure it out, I don't tnink.

Diane - Southport Wines said...

Ron - nearly 5 months since you posted this and I just stumbled on it today. I had been a fan of Rob's blog - always original, insightful and useful. I read his last post with profound sadness when it was posted in 2014, both for his horrific condition and, selfishly, because there would be no more Fringe Wine posts. I looked for any news of him today and found your post. He finally got some peace and the wine world truly suffered a loss.

Thanks for your own very raw self examination too - it made me realize that I am derelict in this regard and need to spend a little time reflecting on my own wine motivation.

Diane

Matt Hulland said...

Hey Ron, got caught up in the same loop only I was researching Rufete. Lovely piece. Matt