Every summer for the past few years, my small town has put on a block party—a street festival with food from local restaurants and music from local bands. The main street is shut down and bunches of people come from the surrounding area to hang out. The fire dept. opens a hydrant.

I am right off the main drag taking a break from that block party with Wine Allergic Girlfriend and some other friends. We sit outside at the local watering hole watching people in costume walk by. The costumes are for a later event I presume.

I order the wine special—an Italian red wine called Cantina del Taburno IGT Campania Torlicoso—and the bartender pulls it from the fridge. The menu had warned me about the fridge: “Bright and energetic red berry, sour red cherry and plum flavors are sweet but buoyant thanks to harmonious acidity. Finishes clean and highly refreshing. We serve it chilled.”

“Why is that red wine in the fridge?” Wine Allergic Girlfriend asks me.

“Because it’s chilled,” I say, having no other answer at the moment. Serving red wine at room temperature is like serving white wine with fish; it’s one of those little rules you learn about wine even if you have no interest in wine whatsoever. Every hobby or pursuit has these little rules—things you should and should not do in order to appreciate the pursuit—but with wine, these rules collect together to form the solid core of what we know as wine-snobbery. When you drink wine, you confront the expectations of what it means to drink wine: you should swirl the glass; you should smell the cork; you should not chill the red wine; you should not drink wine from a mug. The wine world is full of these little expectations, and this is why a lot of people disclaim wine before drinking it. “Oh, I don’t know anything about wine,” they say, worried they will screw up and somebody with a monocle will judge them.

The reason you don’t normally chill red wine, according to The Wine Bible author Karen MacNeill, is that at colder temperatures the tannins become more pronounced, adding an uncomfortable astringency to the taste. Similarly, if you warm a white wine up to room temperature you accentuate the alcohol, making the wine come off like your drunk brother-in-law: thick and slow with booze-breath. As MacNeill writes:

The perception of alcohol, acidity, fruitiness, and balance are all influenced by a wine’s temperature. Temperature, in fact, can make the difference between enthusiasm and apathy for the same wine.

This is a fact of chemistry: temperature affects taste. Add to this a common observation about wine: tannin-rich full body red wines taste better at room temperature. These two things lead to a rule of wine drinking: most red wines should not be chilled. This is fine. Like we said before, all pursuits have their little rules.

The problem, as I see it, is that in the case of wine the rules turn into an expectation. Expectations are weird things. They can be totally value free—a neutral belief that something will happen based on an observation of the past: I expect that the sun will rise tomorrow. But they can also be subjective containers of judgment totally divorced from reason or experience—a belief that something should happen based solely on the belief itself: I expect you to dress nicely and swirl the glass of wine before drinking from it. It’s not so much that I expect red wine to be room temperature because it has been room temperature in the past or I have a working knowledge of chemistry; I expect red wine to be room temperature because that’s how it should be.

As it turns out, however, certain red wines taste better when chilled. Not all red wines are the same, of course, and “[e]xtremely fruity, low-tannin red wines … should be cooled almost as much as white wines so that their fruitiness is magnified” (MacNeill again). Until I read that, though, I had no idea why you would want to chill a red wine. Instead, I had an expectation about how red wine should be served; and I order the chilled red wine at the bar because it defies those expectations.

I bring the red wine out to my table on the deck. The orange awning has been retracted and the sun is still high enough to require some quality eye protection.

- - -

Earlier that day I had ridden my bike down into town. Wine Allergic Girlfriend, Stepson and I live about three blocks up the hill from the center of our small town. I had told Stepson that I would take him to the bank before the block party to help him deposit money in the ATM.

Stepson is fifteen and I found him walking up a side street with a group of teenagers. Doesn’t matter that I know most of them; a pack of teenagers always looks scary and I waited for Stepson to notice me rather than approaching them. My main parental duty I’ve realized is simply not to embarrass him around others. Not embarrassing him is the job on which all my other parenting jobs depend—guidance, moral development, life management. If I embarrass him, all my other jobs become nearly impossible to do; he simply won’t listen anymore. So I waited until he noticed me.

“You want to go the bank?” I asked him when he’s made his way over to me. To his credit Stepson is not a sulker. He approached me with minimal moroseness.

“Sure,” he replied.

“Cool. I’ll meet you there,” and I took off toward the bank.

I don’t have many opportunities to play father to Stepson. This is partly because he’s a got a father; and partly because our relatively minor age difference makes fatherly behavior from me seem a little awkward. W.A.G had Stepson when she was young and so now, while most of our friends are just starting to have children, we’re staring down an empty nest.

There was a group of kids around Stepson’s age using the ATM when we approached. They acknowledged Stepson and he returned the nod. These are the kinds of kids I wish Stepson didn’t know existed. They wore aggressive t-shirts and askew baseball caps. They carried skateboards, which OK no problem, but they also shouted at the ATM. It’s hard to know if their macho stand-offishness against the poor ATM was for our benefit (teenagers are extremely susceptible to Quantum Mechanics—observation of them changes everything); but regardless, it’s classic teenage boy victimized aggressiveness of the type I’m always worried will seduce Stepson.

“C’mon, fucker!” a kid with straight black hair hanging over one side of his face shouted at the ATM’s little screen. They were trying to get money out using one of the kid’s cards.

“Insufficient funds,” the kid with the card said softly. “It’s not letting me get any money.” The straight black hair kid hit the wall as if trying to intimidate the ATM.

“These machines are all so dumb,” he said with another shove. I tried to catch Stepson’s eye, hoping he thought they were as ridiculous as I did. I’ve found that making fun of stuff is probably the best tool in the old belt when trying to educate a teenager.

The kids cleared out toward the curb, and I brought Stepson towards the ATM. We grabbed an envelope and I showed him how to fill it out; where to sign his name on the check. He asked whether he needed to put his phone number on the envelope.

“Oh, I never fill out that part,” I told him.

As Stepson retrieved his card and we get ready to leave, the kid with the straight black hair moved off the curb back towards us. His shirt read, “What happened to my life?” I literally got ready to teach my Stepson about what to do in a robbery when the kid reached us and asked, “Hey, either of you guys want to buy some sweet ganja.”

I froze—not physically, but mentally. Sweet ganja? With a teenager in the house, I am constantly running possible crisis scenarios in my head in order to be ready for whatever gets thrown our way. “I crashed the car” or “I got a girl pregnant” or “I hacked into the military computers and almost started a nuclear war.” I have run all these scenes in my head and I at least have an idea of how I will deal with them. To live with a teenager is to live with a curveball, and I try to be ready. Never, in all my lying awake at night preparation, have I ever thought how I would handle a situation where someone tries to sell Stepson drugs while I am there. And so I froze.

Luckily, Stepson (who probably has to fend off more drug deals every week than I ever had to) took the reins. “No,” he said simply and started to walk back towards the block party. Taking his lead, I repeated, “No.” And then, for whatever awkward I-don’t-want-to-embarrass-Stepson reason, I added, “We’re cool.” We’re cool? Am I worried that this kid will think I’m not cool? Why am I not tackling this kid to the ground and putting some Pavlovian fear in him about ever trying to sell my stepson drugs? I considered for a moment whether I should tackle the kid. Is that what I’m supposed to do here? I decided that that would embarrass Stepson even more and so I just turned to follow him back to the block party.

- - -

“What should I have done?” I ask my friends out on the deck of the bar, chilled red wine in hand. Most of them find the story funny and start telling their own parents v. drug stories. Of course, with my friends—folks in their early 30s—these stories are all about their parents; not about themselves as parents. We’re on the semi-theoretical parenting ground that W.A.G. and I often find ourselves, the only one of our peers with a teenager.

“I think you did the right thing,” Former Housemate Extraordinaire Casey tells me. “It’s probably less important what you did in that moment, and much more important what your expectations are of him more generally. I knew what my parents expected of me, or like what they thought was right and wrong; so even when I did bad stuff, I at least had their voice in my head. It kept me from doing the really bad stuff some of my other friends did.”

This makes sense to me. I read a book in the past couple years called Uncommon Sense for the Parents of Teenagers —given to me by my own mom who said, “This really helped me with you”—that says the same thing about teenagers and sex:

It is not a value-free topic, nor should it ever be. Teenagers need to know where you stand on this subject. The most obvious reason for this is that they need a clear opinion (structure) to ground them and guide them in their internal decision-making process (124-25).

As obvious as it reads now, this was revelatory when I read it. At the time, W.A.G. and I struggled mightily when telling Stepson what to do—he simply fought everything. To have expectations of him was to invite disappointment. Telling him we expected him to have his homework done did not result in finished homework. The relationship between expectation and reality was not one to one.

But what Former Housemate Extraordinaire explained was that while clear expectations didn’t necessarily predict reality—"I expect you to not buy weed from kids at the ATM" is not like “I expect the sun to rise tomorrow”—they still help define reality. In the case of teenagers and red wine, we have expectations about what should happen—value judgments about what is right and what should be done. I guess the important thing though is how you deal with it when something defies your expectations.

W.A.G. thinks the weed story is funny. We try to be prepared; we are never prepared. She asks for a sip of my wine (the sum total of her wine drinking now being single sips off mine). “Tastes like chilled red wine,” she says.