This is the second part of a two-part article. Part one began with me in a wine bar and store called Terroir in San Francisco; a self-described “Natural Wine Merchant.” “Natural” refers to how the wine is made. As defined by Terroir’s owner, natural wine production means organic and dry farming, indigenous yeast fermentation and no use of chemicals. This definition is loose—or at least not standardized—but the important part is that the definition is about the wine-making process more than about the end-result.
This led me to think about whether one could taste and consume wine in a similarly process-oriented way. Most wine tasting and talking focuses on the wine as a product: it tastes like this other thing, it has these qualities, it goes well with these other things. That is fine, but it doesn’t really make wine any better for me. I have always been a horrid wine taster. My palate is garbage and my desire to improve it inactive. With respect to pinpointing flavors, I’m like Mr. Magoo staring at a George Suerat painting.
As I understand it, the natural wine maker is driven to dry farm and ferment with natural yeasts and chart out moon phase because they want to produce wine in a way that more accurately represents who they are. At least one presumes; that dry farming ain’t easy.
In a way, that drive is similar (although a hundred times harder) to what I have been trying to do here in Stained Teeth. Can I write about wine, this thing that I really love, in a way that doesn’t completely annoy me; and/or in a way that more accurately represents what I love about it?
THINGS I DO NOT LOVE ABOUT WINE:
- The ceremony—swirling, sniffing, slurping (which is weird, because I love ceremony around other things).
- The tasting notes. I like how wine tastes, sure, but I am not ultimately consumed with pinning those tastes down (again: Mr. Magoo, Seurat).
THINGS I DO LOVE ABOUT WINE:
- Conversations. In many ways, conversing is my favorite activity. AND: I seem to have great conversations when wine is present.
- Thinking/Reading. Is there anything better than reading a book with a glass of wine? Maybe coffee? REGARDLESS: wine actually encourages engagement in what I’m reading. It creates a mental space for the book.
- Feeling slightly drunk. The best.
None of the above are dependent on wine, of course, and I’ve often wondered about the arbitrariness of what I’m doing in this column. I could write about the stories and thoughts that occur while drinking coffee or watching baseball or commuting to work. And you can get drunk off lots of booze. What makes this a wine column?
There is a long history of using wine for stuff not necessarily dependent on wine. Thomas Jefferson famously used it as a political tool, inviting political or national foes over to the Presidential house and opening a few bottles to help bring them closer together. (Obama attempted to do this with his Beer Summit. It’s a sign of the times that he didn’t bring the professor and the cop together to drink wine.)
In Plato’s Symposium, a philosophical discussion about love takes place because everyone involved is drinking wine. Symposium itself—now mostly referring to an academic conference—comes from the Greek for “drinking party.” As Fritz Allhoff writes in Philosophy and Wine, symposia “were effectively wine parties that gave rise to profound philosophical dialogue.”
All of which is to say: Wine is something to be used as much as admired. Jefferson used it for politics; Plato used it for philosophy. I’ve struggled to use it for this column. And now, sitting alone in this Natural Wine Merchant and Bar in San Francisco, I am using the wine this way: I have a glass of Houillon/Overnoy (the winemakers) Poulsard (the grape) as recommended by the bearded bar owner, and I am using it to recall memories from my middle school years.
Bear with me.
NOT ABOUT WINE,
A WINE TASTING
I had this idea for a wine tasting with a theme; but a theme unrelated to the wine. In a traditional wine tasting, you evaluate a wine’s color, smell (or nose), taste, body (how the wine feels in your mouth); and finish (the experience of the wine after you swallow). You compare each of those elements to something similar within that context; what it smells like, what it tastes like, etc.
While at Terroir, I decided to combine that traditional structure of color, smell, taste, body and finish with the explanation Ira Glass gives each week for his radio show This American Life —"Each week we choose a theme, bring you a variety of stories on that theme. This week’s theme…" Instead of comparing the wine’s flavors to other flavors, I was going to try and compare them to a non-wine theme. This week’s theme: Memories from Middle School.
One of my favorite quotes about wine is that it causes “a poetic involvement” in people (Baudelaire said this—albeit he was both French and a poet). Proust (another Frenchman I’ll grant you) created an entire book out of the memory sparked by the flavor of one tea cookie. Surely I can pull off one column?
NOT ABOUT WINE
WINE: Houillon/Overnoy Poulsard
THEME: Memories from Middle School
LOCATION: Terroir, a wine bar in San Francisco, CA with a seating area resembling a living room from the 1974.
PARTICIPANTS: Just me
BACKGROUND: I attended Spring Forest Middle School in suburban Houston, TX. Our school colors were Yellow and Blue; our mascot was a bobcat.
The first thing that comes to mind is pee (Poulsard is a white wine); and the first thing that pee reminds me of—in terms of middle school at least—is drug-testing.
I attended middle school in the height of the War on Drugs, Just Say No stuff coming down from Nancy Reagan. As a result, my school had a Just Say No club called, no joke, the Chicken Club. Chicken was an acronym (c.h.i.c.k.e.n), though for what I cannot remember (not surprisingly—that is one complicated acronym). The whole calling it “Chicken” thing was that we were embracing any potential namecalling we would encounter upon declining the drugs offered to us.
We wore blue shirts with cartoon chickens printed on them. In order to be in the club you had to go through a pee in the cup drug test. This seems super extreme to me now, but I took it as a matter of course then. The whole thing with Just Say No and Chicken (and later Dare) was that I became very aware of drugs, even though I was not officially offered any until my junior year of high school (alcohol not withstanding, which the Chicken Club was not interested in discussing).
It seems weird to me now that admittance to the Chicken Club required a drug test. If you took drugs, wouldn’t you then just not choose to be a member of the club, thereby avoiding any drug test as well as any messaging about Just Saying No? Which avoidance would then maybe decrease your chances of Just Saying No and make you more susceptible to any Chicken-related taunts your druggie friends slung your way? Seems sort of like a bad policy.
Could be the pee thing, but smelling the Poulsard I am thinking now of my middle school gym locker; the sweet smell special to confined spaces in which sweaty things are locked away. We were required to purchase gym clothes—blue polyester shorts and a grey t-shirt with a space on the front to write our names—and to keep them at school so that we had something to change into each P.E. period. I don’t remember ever taking these clothes home, though I must have right?
In the seventh grade I started swimming year-round for a non-school swim team. Because I had swim practice for something like two hours everyday after school, I was allowed to skip P.E. and leave school one period early. The idea was that I could use that time to keep up with my schoolwork. In actuality, though, I spent most of that skipped period over at the local grocery store playing Street Fighter 2 with my friend Matt K. Matt K. played highly competitive tennis and so also got out of P.E.
To this day, Street Fighter 2 is the only stand-up arcade game I have ever beaten. I ate M. Bison’s lunch.
First thing that comes to mind: the netting from the inside of a wig. The middle school drama teacher—Mrs. Keyser—wore wigs frequently. Huge, Dolly Parton style wigs. Sometimes she had red hair, sometimes brown, never blonde. When I think of Mrs. Keyser now I think of red hair, though I am pretty sure her natural hair—cut short and matted down the very, very few times I ever saw it—was brown.
I do not think Mrs. Keyser had cancer or any other disease that caused her hair to fall out. As I said, I saw her real hair a few times. She simply wore wigs. We did not make fun of her for this because it has always been that way.
Later, I would wear a wig to play Fagin in Mrs. Keyser’s production of Oliver! This is how I know the netting so well. I never saw the netting of her wigs.
A phrase we used a lot in Houston, Texas but which I have never heard elsewhere is “T-shack”. T-shacks were these trailers that we used for temporary classrooms in both middle and elementary school. Every school I knew had them and they were far from temporary. They looked like the office trailer a property manager or a construction foreman might occupy in a movie set in West Texas.
Anyway, the feel of this wine triggered a T-Shack. The T-shacks were lined just outside the door to the gym and the locker rooms. I had social studies in one of these T-Shacks. I have one horribly embarrassing memory of some early masturbation discovery going on in that temporary classroom; of being called on while staring blankly out the window, very much not paying attention.
The lingering taste of the wine in my mouth brings me back to Mrs. Keyser. I directed a short play for her drama class, I’m remembering. She divided the class into four groups and each group performed a short play, with one member of the group taking on the directorial duties. My play had something to do with God I think. We held rehearsals for a week or two and then put it on in the auditorium for the whole school.
I had grand ambitions and blocked out what I thought were some meaningful and powerful stage directions, including one piece where everyone in the play simultaneously turned their backs on God.
It was a disaster. No one remembered their lines or their stage direction. Only a couple of them turned their backs at the correct time. I walked out of the auditorium halfway through simply because I couldn’t stand not being able to control what was happening. What I assumed would be a triumph for me turned out to be anything but.
Mrs. Keyser told me afterward that the lesson here was to always balance ambition with what was possible. “You only had a week,” she said. “You made it too complicated for that.”
Four years later I would mount a production of Death and the Maiden at my high school (in protest of and in opposition to the Kaufmann and Hart screwball comedy the drama department was putting on). Two other students and I directed, acted, and designed the entire production, including building the sets out of bamboo. Watching a videotape of the production later, it was clear I had not learned Mrs. Keyser’s lesson.
With that, I finished my theme-based wine-tasting alone at Terroir. My glass stood empty on the coffee table. Usually at the end of a wine tasting, the taster feels that they know a little something about the wine. They make declarative statements about its dryness or tannic quality.
In my case, my middle school memories don’t explain the Poulsard really, but I do feel sort of more intertwined with it. Memory hides in tastes and smells, all the more so when those tastes and smells are alcoholic. It goes the other way as well – you can tuck stories into tastes and smells. If you ever happen to come across the Houillon/Overnoy Poulsard, or even make it to Terroir, I hope you’ll slip your own thoughts or memories into it, overlapping them with mine; expanding the wine’s flavors into a bizarre tapestry or bathroom wall covered in “I was here” pronouncements.
And there you have it, I suppose. A way of tasting wine that is not about the wine at all. The wine is there to get us somewhere else. It’s a gimmick, but a gimmick that is more fun for me than the other way of doing this.
I will continue to use that gimmick, but not here, at least for now. With this, my 20th column, I bring good old Stained Teeth to a close. In its place, I have been working on an audio show to be distributed over the internet in the form they refer to as a Podcast. It is a wine show called Not About Wine and its format is what is explained here: a wine tasting with a theme; a theme that is Not Wine. Please consider searching for and subscribing to this audio program through iTunes; or at it’s web home: http://www.youwillnotbelieve.us/not-about-wine.
Thank you for your attention. I feel wistful about my time writing this most strange of wine columns. Goodbye in print; hopefully Hello in audio. Again, thank you.
And as I used to say much more when I started this column four years ago: Persevere!