It is not often that I drive into Gill Center. Gill is a small town amid small towns, something New England seems to specialize in. It is close enough to slightly larger towns to not need its own commercial center, but far enough away that even folks who live within 10 minutes of it will say that, yes, they have heard of Gill but they don’t know how to get there. The only reason to pass through Gill is to visit Gill.
Which is why: Wine-Allergic Girlfriend and I were driving up the windy, streetlightless road—past expansive fields, past long dairy barns, past the perhaps incongruous school-bus depot—into Gill. We were going to a Valentine’s Day wine tasting there.
Our laundromat-owning friends Janke and Emily joined us. Emily drove. From the back seat, W.A.G. and I grilled them about the bar they are opening in our town. Along with two other partners, Janke and Emily recently purchased an old building that has been a bar for as long as the town’s been around. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the building is requiring an almost total renovation. We had spent an earlier weekend helping the partners with the demolition work. I am still coughing up black dust.
“How’s the transfer of the liquor license going?” W.A.G. was asking them.
“I’m not allowed to talk about that,” Janke answered immediately.
“I’m not allowed to talk about that, either.”
As is the case in many much larger cities, liquor licenses are hot property in our small town. And while the reason remains the same—money—the context is different. In Boston, for instance, or New York City, you will hear about new restaurants paying tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, as much as they might be paying for their equipment, for a liquor license. Liquor licenses in our state are restricted in number, and after a town has given out its allotted number, you either have to wait or purchase one from someone who already owns one. This can be very expensive, but serious restaurants will pay almost whatever it takes to ensure that they can offer a fancy bar and wine list.
In our town, the liquor licenses have all been given out, but looking down Main Street, you will see only one restaurant with a wine list, and a whole string of bars that all have essentially the same drink menu: Bud, Bud Light, and Jim Beam. It’s a typical depressed-mill-town setup. The culture of drinking is different in small towns because the culture of eating out is so different. Much of what we understand as wine culture—the big glasses and the swirling and the jargon and the tastings—lives in cities with an active restaurant culture. Wine tastings in small towns like ours often seem to me like a little brother impersonating his big brother.
There are no restaurants in Gill Center, but there is the Gill Store—a general store and deli with a wine rack in the back room. Also in the back room: videos for rent (VHS and DVD) and local crafts, including T-shirts with images of farm tools hand-printed on them. The building is old and wooden and has been a general store for as long as it’s stood. The original built-in shelves and drawers still make up the entire left wall, each drawer labeled with something like “Price gun” or “Nails.” W.A.G almost lost her mind the first time we drove up here and saw the attention to detail: light fixtures, paint, woodwork. It feels like some platonic ideal of New England. And every month, the co-owner Lissa holds a wine tasting.
We arrived and opened the front door. Aside from the door being unlocked, the place seemed closed. All but one of the overhead lights were off, and the slanting fluorescent light from the large produce display cooler on the right gave the room a midnight-snack sort of feel. Saran Wrap covered every plate in the rear deli case.
Around to the right, in the much-better-lit back room, about nine people stood in groups of two or three. If it weren’t for the specialty wine-pouring spouts on the four open wine bottles, I wouldn’t have guessed it was a wine tasting. The way people held their glasses—waist-high, loose—resembled the classic party stance rather than the more focused nose-in-glass stance I usually see at tastings. Janke joked to me as we went in that this fit nicely with the Boston Wine Expo tasting (see Column Two) in that “this might actually be the smallest wine tasting in the world.”
W.A.G. made her way to one of the tables on the side of the room, all empty except for an older man sitting alone. The rest of us approached Lissa at the middle table.
“What is the first wine?” Emily asked.
“Can I give you my spiel first?” Lissa asked her in reply.
“Oh, can I record your spiel?” I asked her, tugging at the tangled microphone cords in my bag. I explained that I write a wine column for a website and like to include short audio bits.
“I don’t know,” Lissa said, hesitating. “I actually don’t know that much about wine.”
“Oh, you’ll fit perfectly into his column then,” Janke told her. I continued to work on my cords. They were seriously tangled. When I finally succeeded in freeing them from my bag, my headphones, microphone, and recorder were all knotted together.
“Can I use this table?” I asked her, plopping the tangled ball of cords down, alternately tugging and shaking them. I worked quickly, not wanting to interrupt the evening. But I could feel an awkward silence roll over the room. The others in the room were turning toward the middle table.
“Just another minute here,” I said under my breath.
“I don’t want people to hear this and hear me say all the wrong things,” Lissa was saying. I freed my large headphones and placed them over my ears.
“My column’s not like that,” I told her, plugging in the microphone and looking at the recording levels. W.A.G. watched all of this from her table off to the side, meditatively wrapping strands of hair around her finger. She often looks like this at wine events: like a mother watching her child at the park—sort of proud, sort of worried that I’m going to kill myself on the slide.
“OK, I’m ready,” I said and crouched down a little. I tried to be discreet, but trying to be discreet with a microphone is like trying to be quiet with a drum kit. I realized, too, that Lissa was genuinely nervous, and being recorded was only part of it. This was snob nervousness, or nervousness from being around a snob. Sadly, this happens often when I drink wine with people: a pause after the first sip, a sideways glance my way, a tentative “This tastes pretty good.”
And I realized recently that no matter how much I stress that I am not one of those wine people, I am linked with wine, and this taints me with snobbery. It is not just wine people; wine itself carries haughtiness. People don’t believe in their opinions about wine. They will even actively undermine their opinions, saying something to the effect of “Well, I like it, but then I don’t know anything and have the taste buds of a monkey.”
I was finally ready to record Lissa’s spiel. She introduced the four wines, all variations on the Syrah grape, and though I’ve been focusing on her nervousness, I really liked her spiel. She talked about agriculture and where the grapes come from, details that I think are the most interesting about any wine I try. Besides co-owning the Gill Store, Lissa is also a farmer. Her husband, Alden, owns a successful area brew pub, and together they grow much of the restaurant’s produce. They are honorable, socially conscious folks who compost and drive biodiesel trucks. In our area of western Massachusetts, which has a strong campaign for local food and local commerce, Alden and Lissa are kind of like the example students.
I was interested to ask her about local wine. I always wish I drank wine from around where I live, from New England. But though I value local wine cultures over the global wine business, I have never visited one of the wineries near to me in New York or Connecticut. I am not even sure if there are any wineries in Massachusetts. My sense of local wine culture, I realize, comes almost directly from a magazine ad: a scene in which Italian village folk make wine for their own consumption and eat at long tables together in a field in orange-yellow sunlight with old men in suspenders and young women in sundresses. And even though you can find all these things around where we live, the idea of wine doesn’t mix in my head well with the idea of New England. My idea of wine and thus of a local wine culture is wrapped up tightly with far-off places.
“No, I don’t really drink any local wine,” Lissa told me. “I should. I really get excited to try wine from all over the world, though.”
After speaking with Lissa for a while, and after spending a little time trying the wines, I went over to where W.A.G. sat. We watched the room. Someone had just broken a glass; amid smiles and teases, Lissa swept it up. She is one of those people who squint when they smile, as if her smile is so big it needs more room than her face has to offer.
An older man was looking at the wines again, and helped himself to a taste of wine number three. Lissa turned from her conversation and slapped his hand as he returned the bottle.
“I’m supposed to do that.”
“You were talking,” he shrugged.
When I had asked Lissa earlier if there were regulars at her tasting, she told me that regulars were really all that ever came.
“Are any of them here tonight?” I asked.
“Oh, they’re all here tonight.”
Next to W.A.G. and me, I noticed again the man sitting alone, another squinter-smiler. He had not moved from this chair since we arrived, and he didn’t speak to anyone, either. I got out my recorder again, approached, and asked him how often he came to the tastings.
“Oh, we come every month.”
“You must really like wine.”
“No, I don’t drink wine,” he told me. “I just come here with my wife.” He pointed over to a woman near the video rack. I thought about asking him if he and his wife ever wanted to double-date with W.A.G. and me.
It struck me that maybe this was a local wine culture. They didn’t make their own wine, but these same people got together every month around wine. This is what wine does well. It’s what remains when you get beyond the snobby aspects of wine culture. It’s not a sun-dappled hill in Italy. It’s a guy who doesn’t drink wine coming every month to the wine tasting in his town.