THE WINE I AM DRINKING IS FROM: France. But not just any France— Burgundy, France. It is an expensive bottle, perhaps the most expensive I’ve ever drunk, definitely the most expensive I’ve ever bought—$45, bought in 1999 and carried with me through three different homes, three different cellars, until this moment. In my basement, there is a small room off the back (dirt floor, eerie single swinging light bulb), which used to be the root cellar. I kept this bottle in there with the other 10 or so I’ve deemed special enough (i.e., expensive enough) to store, and now I am removing it. It is the oldest bottle I own; it is the most expensive ($45—did I mention that?); it is the most French. This is rich-man wine; this is Charlie’s yearly chocolate bar. I’ve kept this wine for eight years, longer than I’ve kept any other relationship save the ones made by my own blood. Why am I doing this now?
THE REASON I AM DOING THIS NOW IS: I finished a small Web-design project after eight months of what amounts to First-World toil—typing my fingers down to the bone for not nearly enough money. I wanted to mark the occasion somehow. It’s like the opening of Romancing the Stone, when Kathleen Turner finishes writing her romance novel, types “The End,” and, while crying, pours herself a glass of white wine (Chablis no doubt, this being the 1980s). She is happy she’s done, but mostly, we are meant to surmise, she is sad and lonely. She lives vicariously through her characters. She pets her cat. She does not know that she will soon meet Michael Douglas and have adventures that will make this glass of wine seem silly and sad.
This is me. I am petting my cat, I am happy to be done, but I do not live a life of Michael Douglasian adventure. I live vicariously through everything except myself. I am celebrating with a bottle of wine older than my cat.
BUT LET ME SAY A LITTLE BIT MORE ABOUT BURGUNDY: What is Burgundy? Burgundy is so prestigious in the wine world, so famous, that American wine makers in the 1970s took to calling anything red “Burgundy,” hoping in their hopelessly misguided and optimistic American way that this would somehow work. This did not work, and many people—me even—cannot hear the word without thinking of a bad Italian restaurant with glass balls suspended from the ceiling by strange nautical netting.
Which is to say: I cannot help but think of my grandparents.
But of course this is not what Burgundy really means. The region we call Burgundy was originally land controlled by the Benedictine monks. Over 10 centuries, the Benedictines undertook an obsessive wine-land categorization project, dividing land into superspecific parcels based on the characteristics of the wine it produced. They worked backward, tasting the wines made from their land and recording their impressions, not just on paper, but on the land itself, using the wine to draw boundaries and bestow value. Each parcel now had an identity separate from other parcels, an identity based completely on wine. And the reverse was true as well: it was the land, not the owner or the winemaker, that ultimately defined the wine. The wine was the medium through which humans understood the land’s essence.
This concept, called terroir, is still central to Burgundy’s wine production. Burgundy has no wineries in the American sense—a large plot of land owned by a single person or family, in the middle of which is usually a large house with a killer patio. Instead, and this is still hard for me to figure out when looking at the insanely confusing label on a wine from Burgundy, there are only the Benedictine-determined terroir-defined land parcels. Some of these parcels are literally only a couple of vines, just like one row of vines. It gets that specific. When you buy a wine from Burgundy, you are not buying wine from a large estate or a winemaker. Instead, you are buying wine from the beautifully specific—e.g., two vines over from the left and three back—place it came from. Like, maybe, by way of analogy, you know that you like the New York bagels that come from 14th Street more than you do the ones that are sold on 21st Street.
AND SO, TO BE TRULY CORRECT, THE WINE I AM DRINKING IS REALLY FROM: a parcel called Les Bousselots, in the village of Nuits-St.-Georges, in the sub-subregion Côte de Nuits, which is in the subregion Côte d’Or, which is in the region of Burgundy. I think.
And although it’s made by the Domaine Robert Chevillon, and although it is of course important who made it, let’s not get into the concept of domaines, because, frankly, we don’t have the time or the space. Which is to say: This shit is confusing.
WHAT I AM DOING WHILE DRINKING THIS WINE IS: playing Airsoft with my stepson, Zane. Airsoft, for those of you who either (a) don’t have teenage kids in the house or (b) don’t live in Kentucky, is a game involving a kind of BB gun. The gun is plastic; the little yellow BBs, which now dot my yard with Georges Seurat–like density, are plastic; the mask that I am wearing to protect my eyes from the psycho teenager who will think nothing of shooting me in the face, this mask is also plastic.
I have brought my glass of very expensive wine out with me. Zane has set up some elaborate barricades and forts in our backyard, and tonight I have promised to join him out there. I set my wine on the porch table and pull my mask over my eyes. Later on, toward the end of our gunplay, I will be shot execution-style on my own porch.
“Do you want to attack or defend?” Zane asks me, plastic AK-47 slung way too comfortably over his right shoulder. I think for a moment that I should quickly lecture him about guns: about how, yes, we can have fun out here, but in real life guns are awful things, and shooting things has serious consequences; and, my God, please don’t grow up to be a mass murderer just because I played guns with you on this one occasion. I think about saying this to him even though I used to roll my eyes when my mom worried aloud about me playing Doom on the computer. Somehow, living with this teenager has given me Tipper Gore morality.
“I’ll defend,” I tell him. My wine is on the porch; I feel I should probably stay there and protect it.
“Cool,” he says, and runs up the small hill in our backyard to the farthest bunker.
WHAT KAREN MACNEIL, PROFESSIONAL WINE WRITER AND AUTHOR OF THE WINE BIBLE, HAS TO SAY ABOUT PRODUCING BURGUNDY: “In the end, making a great Burgundy—red or white—is an extremely difficult process fraught with anxiety.” (p. 198)
WHAT MACNEIL HAS TO SAY ABOUT BUYING BURGUNDY: “In the end, buying Burgundy is a matter of trial and error, luck, intuition, and you hope, good advice.” (p. 210)
I AM NOT SURE: that drinking this wine is any different than drinking any other wine. I think I enjoy it more, but, then again, I am trying to like it more because the thing was so damn expensive and I’ve waited so long. I am taking my time with this wine (even while I’m out getting pelted with little plastic BBs), and maybe that’s the point of expensive wine. Because I paid so much for it, I am allowing it, and probably needing it, to be more special. There is no way for me to be objective here. We are in the Emperor’s New Clothes territory.
I mean: It is still wine. What was I expecting? A genie in a bottle? Was this worth it?
IN BURGUNDY: all the wines are given a quality ranking. The highest quality, and most expensive, are called Grand Cru. This denotes that they are extraordinary wines that come from one single parcel of land. Then comes Premier Cru—these also come from one single parcel of land. (This is the level of wine I am now drinking, the Premier status wonderfully denoted as “1er cru” on the label.) Village Wine is next—wines that come from one village (like Nuits-St.-Georges), but not specifically one Benedictine-terroir-defined parcel. Lastly, Burgundy Red and White bring up the rear—wines that are blended from grapes grown all over Burgundy, a practice that muddies up their terroir considerably.
The Benedictine monks used a slightly different naming system for the classification of land and the wines it produced: wine for the monks, wine for the kings, and wine for the pope. I like to think that maybe they carried it one further: wine for God, wine made for no one.
And I also sort of wish that Indiana Jones went looking for this wine in an adventure that pitted him and his whip against the Nazis.
AND YET HERE IS WHAT HAPPENED: I finished the bottle the next day, after mowing the lawn with our non-gas-powered push mower. Wine-Allergic Girlfriend thought this mower was a great idea because our yard is so small. As it turns out, small yards laugh at push mowers and the clowns who push them. I can get no momentum, and because we are built into a hill, I am sort of awkwardly trying to push the thing and hold it back at the same time, so it doesn’t roll away from me and chop up some innocent kid roller-skating by.
But I completed my job, and over a lunch of bread, tomatoes, and basil from our garden, I emptied the bottle into my glass and sat on our front porch.
And here is the thing: When I’m out there on the porch, on a summer Sunday afternoon, listening to wind-rustled leaves and roller-skating kids, eating my bread and basil and feeling the effects of that large glass of wine, it does not matter how much I paid for the wine; it does not matter that it is gone now after eight years in my cellar. Right now, for this moment, I have never loved anything more.