Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Cabernet of Asthma Medication

So it’s less than 24 hours till we get a guy who reads modern poetry in the White House, and I could write about past inauguration poems or the flap over Obama’s choice, but instead, I find myself wanting to write about my drinking problem.

The subject came up for me after I re-read a poem in Tony Hoagland’s 2003 collection, What Narcissism Means to Me. Funny title, often hilarious book, and the poem “When Dean Young Talks About Wine” (below) is classic Hoagland. It’s very funny—blatantly, over-the-top funny; at times I can imagine Hoagland doing stand-up—but also moving and intelligent in ways that creep up on you. His poems have a way of making direct statements that wouldn’t be as successful in work that didn’t have this comic sensibility; if you can make people laugh, they will follow you anywhere.

My drinking problem is not that I drink too much—though I do love the Dogfish Head Brewery only a few blocks from work. My drinking problem is different: I'm married to a lovely man who writes about food for a living, which means that we're occasionally at press dinners where people say things like, "I don't think the holy basil successfully elevates the buttery tones of the fish" and "The miso provides a perfect counterpoint to the acid" and "This chef needs to learn that salt is his friend, not some embarassing redneck cousin he needs to hide in the basement." And while I do, at these events, occasionally harbor thoughts like, There are people starving in Darfur—hell, there are people starving two BLOCKS from here—and we're bitching about the lack of elevating qualities in the holy basil?, I understand what they're talking about. I love food. I think cooking is a true art, and 95 percent of the time when someone says something that would sound incredibly pretentious to non-foodies, I totally get what they mean. (Really, probably 20 percent of the time, the person saying something like that is me, and I'm completely sincere about it.)

Where I get lost is with wine. Good food and good wine usually go together, and people who know a lot about food often know a lot about wine as well. But while I can hold my own in banter about the flavors of a dish, I am a complete baboon when it comes to wine—an oenofool. Even now my approach when the subject comes up is to shut my mouth and try not to say anything that might embarrass my husband (or my friend Angela, who's been known to be able to tell an Oregon from a Washington pinot at one sip. This may be no big deal among wine people, but it impressed the hell out of me). It's taken me years to even begin to be able to tell a Cab from a Pinot, and I would probably still make plenty of mistakes if blind-tested. I could almost certainly discern a red from a white, but I might try to peek to be sure.

It's not that I don't like it—I'm very fond of many wines, but to quote Dave Barry, "my policy with wine is very similar to my policy with beer, which is pretty much drink it and look around for more." Terroir, tannins, vintage, crus—the effects of all these things continue to mystify me. Part of this is certainly due to how my sister and I grew up: Our parents liked a glass of wine with dinner, but we never saw a bottle more expensive or unusual than a Kendall-Jackson Chard or a Gallo—not ever. Sensible, down-to-earth people, my folks, who still drink rotgut gin in their G & Ts, even though they could afford something better. My folks' version of talking about wine would have been some high-falutin' banter like, "Nice wine." "Yep, it was on special at Giant."

For years when I heard people talk about tasting steel or blackberries or old saddle leather in their wine, I thought they were either crazy or making it up to sound sophisticated. Or actually sophisticated in ways that must make me a total rube. Recently I was reading Marion Winik's lovely new collection, The Glen Rock Book of the Dead, and was gratified to find an anecdote where someone swishes their wine and tells the others tasting it, "Grapes. I'm getting ... grapes." It was a wonderful line, but my sense was he said it to be funny. I would have said it in earnest.

About five years ago, though, I had a breakthrough: I'd stopped at a wine bar to wait for my husband one evening, and ordered a glass of something. It should help indicate what a complete wine idiot I am that I have no idea what the something was, though I do recall it was a Red Something. I lifted it to my face to sip and was almost wacked in the face with an incredibly powerful waft of pure butterscotch. The wine reeked of it.

I'd never experienced anything like it. I won't say it was spiritual, exactly, but it was close: I'd experienced something that had always been invisible, that I'd always believed fictional or at least beyond my capacity to experience. I would never have expected to have my own personal little oeno-Lourdes at a strip mall in Gaithersburg, but there you have it. It was everyone else's illusion until it became mine, too, and I suddenly understood it was real.

That said, the most I would have ventured about that wine was what I said above: It reeked of butterscotch. The oenophile in Hoagland's poem talks about wine on a whole other level—an expertise that seems, by the end of the poem, to be about dodging more painful subjects.


When Dean Young Talks About Wine

The worm thrashes when it enters the tequila.
The grape cries out in the wine vat crusher.

But when Dean Young talks about wine, his voice is strangely calm.
Yet it seems that wine is rarely mentioned.

He says, Great first chapter but no plot.
He says, Long runway, short flight.
He says, This one never had a secret.
He says, You can’t wear stripes with that.

He squints as if recalling his childhood in France.
He purses his lips and shakes his head at the glass.

Eighty-four was a naughty year, he says,
and for a second I worry that California has turned him
into a sushi-eater in a cravat.

Then he says,
XXXXXXXXThis one makes clear the difference
between a thoughtless remark
and an unwarranted intrusion.

Then he says, In this one the pacific last light of afternoon
Stains the wings of the seagull pink
XXXXXXXXat the very edge of the postcard.

But where is the Cabernet of rent checks and asthma medication?
Where is the Burgundy of orthopedic shoes?
Where is the Chablis of skinned knees and jelly sandwiches?
with the aftertaste of cruel Little League coaches?
and the undertone of rusty stationwagon?
His mouth is purple as if from his own ventricle
he had drunk.
He sways like a fishing rod.

When a beast is hurt it roars in incomprehension.
When a bird is hurt it huddles in its nest.

But when a man is hurt,
XXXXXXXXhe makes himself an expert.
Then he stands there with a glass in his hand
staring into nothing
XXXXXXXXXXas if he was forming an opinion.


Marion W. said...

Hey Carrie, thanks for mentioning the book. Actually, I think Phil was serious. He meant ... grapes. I love this entry, and am so glad to have found your blog.

Sandra said...

This is a great post! I'm sympathetic in regards to wine...after some years of twice-weekly tastings (bless the fact that there is a Best Cellars on my walk home) I have decided it is enough to know type of grape/best region for it. I know I don't like pinot noir, and I don't like mineral-ish whites.

That's it. None of this nonsense about years or seasons or who planted what at the edge of the vineyard.

Gina said...

Beautifully put. And I am also sympathetic. I must admit to being very nervous around your dear hubbie and wine for a while, but feeling perfectly at ease talking chow. Of course, I was more than happy to partake of his expertise via indulging in a glass or three! About all I really know about wine is this funny little fact I came across while researching the origins of the lovely poetic image of a row of roses in full bloom banking a deep purple vineyard:

In the south of France it is traditional to grow a rose bush at the end of every row of grape vines. As I understand it, the roses were grown as a way of monitoring the health of the vines. The roses are apparently susceptible to the same pests and diseases as the grapes, and show symptoms before the grapes do. This practice predates the use of any chemical pesticides or insecticides, and continues to this day.

Flowers and Wine and poetry. Yum.

These days I just haul my 8 year old to the weekly wine tasting a mile away so he can be distracted by nibbling on the free cheese while I down a quick free happy hour. Usually someone's dog is there, too. Now there's a poem.

M. C. Allan said...

Marion! (Trying for Grace Paley-esque inflection you did at your reading, but it's hard to convey via text) Thanks for stopping by. Your book is beautiful. And I like Phil even more knowing he was serious! Mmm ... grapes. I can't count the number of times I've wanted to say that, so I whooped out loud when I hit it in the book. Also whooped over your version of Sonny & Cher.

M. C. Allan said...

Hey Sandra: Thanks! I've decided I can only know a limited number of drinks in the world, and I've decided to specialize in beer. It sounds like you have a good grasp of scotch, which far fewer people know much about and is a cool niche market :) I'm trying to learn more about wine all the time, and sometimes I get it now (though I've yet to have a wine as powerfully persuasive as that Butterscotch Thing), but a lot of the time my reaction is still just "Yummy."

Hope you're staying warm and out of the madness! We were planning to be downtown today but are both sick as dogs and very annoyed about it.

M. C. Allan said...

Gina: I think you should go ahead and get the boy started on vino early. It's good for him!

Tim's very patient about my wine idiocy and manages not to smirk at all when I order random things. He's the only reason I really know ANYTHING about wine -- well, he and Angela, who kindly took me along to a wine class a few years back, but the main thing I learned there was not to give my contact info to skeevy wine instructors. But that's another story entirely!

I do think "Noble Rot" would be a great band name.

Angela said...

What a terrific blog post, Carrie! I feel compelled to point out that despite your 'drinking problem' (he he) you are freakishly talented at tasting and picking out aromas and flavors. Remember that time when we went to the French wine tasting at the embassy? Every wine we tasted, you proclaimed, "Melon! Pineapple! Blackberry!" and you were dead-right every time even after tasting -- and gulping down -- some 30+ wines! It was incredible. It's not surprising that your wine epiphany came in a waft of butterscotch. By the way, if you haven't yet discovered the aroma wheel, you would love this thing:


M. C. Allan said...

Ang: Even the world's worst dart-player probably hits a bull's eye now and then :)

And of course I remember the embassy thing! That was so much fun. The night I discovered Gigondas (you'd probably known about it for years) and we discovered that yummy, yummy Bucheron.

JeFF Stumpo said...

Carrie - as someone whose poor sense of smell renders all wines the same (I once tasted something that had turned partly to vinegar and didn't realize it), thanks for a post that makes me finally (finally) get it regarding the world of vino :-)

Verification word: murequi, adjective, the condition of water that is difficult to see through, as pronounced by a Louisiana four-year-old being taught Castillian

james said...

I love the Hoagland poem, and I love, Love, LOVE this post. (Sorry for the belated comment, but I've been keeeping up with ecstaticdoggerel on my BlackBerry, with which it is apparently impossible to post comments.) I'd just like to add that Red Wine Headache is one of the best things to have ever happened to me. Now I can say, with perfect honesty, "I'm sorry, red wine gives me a headache, and besides, it tastes like the smell of stinky feet. I'll just have a bottle of Champagne, thank you, or even a 33-flavors-of-California Chardonnay."