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.