This piece was originally published in May of 2014. I have a fondness for it that defies explanation. So I thought I would trot it out again as a Boxing Day treat. I'm still waiting for the Hasbro My Little Wine Snob™ to appear under the Christmas tree. Maybe next year...
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.
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
“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.
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.
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.
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
“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.
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.
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
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
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.