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 Ch√Ęteauneuf-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.


Goddess of Wine said...

Thank you, Ron, for having the words.

Don Clemens said...

After yesterday, I was numb. Not even outraged, just numb. Ron, I always get some enjoyment from your writing. Today, I got peace. Thank you so much for taking the time to so eloquently demonstrate that healing is possible.

Eric V. Orange said...

Wow. Thanks.

Paul in St. Augustine said...

I was in New York for the Marvin Show in October of 2003, when the lowly Marlins won the World Series on the home field of the Most Obnoxious Sports Team Anywhere. During the show, I made a bet with the Krug Champagne rep, 3 bottles of Justin Isosceles for her, and a bottle of Grand Cuvee for me, based on who won the Series.
A month later, I received the bottle owed and a pleasant surprise, a bottle of 1988 Krug.
Now its 2005, aka Hurricane Hell. Wilma’s eye passed over me on October 24, knocking out power and causing the additional attendant damage. In the quiet calm after the storm, I sat on my balcony, with candles lit and a small charcuterie board. That bottle of `88 Krug brought comfort to me that night.
Ron, I hope you enjoyed your Wednesday night bottle as much as I enjoyed my Krug.

Anonymous said...

Love this.

Charlie Olken said...

Wine rarely bring me solace so I have a bit of a hard time relating to this column in a literal sense. But, the whole question of looking for emotional peace when things like this happen is one that will have engaged us all.

No matter what we learn about the way this tragedy unfolded, no matter what the explanation, no matter how many ways we look for and find solace, we are again stained by gun violence against the very people who look to help others be they Planned Parenthood or workers on behalf of challenged children.

We will all find our "peace". But, it is going to be an uneasy peace, a disquieted peace. Life goes on. I have a tasting this afternoon and dinner with a winemaker tonight, but peace will come slowly and will be incomplete. How can it be otherwise?

Nigel said...

Very well put, Ron. Great writing. The gentleness of your words combined with the story of your own personal encounter with grief, married to a wonderful description of the big-picture experience of "wine" results in a very comforting piece to read at this time.

Samantha Dugan said...

Ron My Love,

I sat in front of my computer last night with a powerful urge to write, for the first time in a very long time. My heart just bruised to shit and mind completely twisted with sadness and confusion. I couldn't find the words or scrape enough of myself together to write anything. So thank you My Gentle Man, for sharing your words with those of us at a loss for them, and for having the gift to make me feel like I got a much needed hug.
This was lovely
You are lovely
I love you.

Avvinare said...

I really appreciated this post. You were able to capture exactly what I am feeling looking around at this crazy world of ours. Thank you for sharing your story and your grief. Very touched.

Unknown said...

Thank you. I needed this post.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Hey Gang,
This is the sort of piece that I'd be ruthlessly lampooning if I hadn't written it myself. But, like My Gorgeous Samantha, I got home last night and felt an urge to sit and write. I've learned not to ignore that urge, and to just let it fly, see where it all leads.

I've had a lot of kind responses privately to the piece as well. I try to make people laugh almost all the time. Now and then, the HoseMaster just doesn't belong here, and I get to exorcize my demons, instead of his large menagerie of them. Thanks to everyone for the kind responses.

Doug Frost said...

Thanks, Ron. That's all I can say. Some stuff is beyond words. Like you said...

Unknown said...

Very well said......and Very much agree about the Chateauneuf! thanks for writing this

Anonymous said...

The power of words, and wine, to connect and comfort. Thank you. Cate Conniff

Anonymous said...

One of the best wine-related essays I've read in a good long time. Thank you for these good words.

Divine Miss M said...

Thank you, Ron.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Again, many thanks. It's a challenge to try to connect emotions with wine, but that's what ends up mattering to people who love wine--not the numbers, not the endlessly boring and repetitive descriptions, not even the alcohol. To any extent that I succeeded in expressing wine's emotional power, well, it was mostly luck.

I received quite a few personal emails about this post, too. People sharing their own stories, which was quite moving for me. Thanks to all of them, too.

I prefer to write scathing, raucous, nasty, scatological, merciless satire. But there are times that having a blog can be cathartic. Thanks to everyone who made this an interesting experience for me.

And the post on SOMM got at least four times the hits. People bitch about my being harsh, but they also share it a lot more. What that says, I'm not sure.

Bill D. said...

Great writing comes from the heart.