Tuesday, April 20, 2010

True Story: Something Red From Somewhere

Rachel taught me how to be a wino.
            I had been accepted into the yearlong program at Western Culinary Institute some months earlier and my first order of business was to find a job, preferably in the food business.  But first I decided to celebrate by purchasing a case of wine.
            Rachel opened her shop more than a decade earlier after a career in academia.  Her style was like my father’s in that she was charming, opinionated and striking to look at.  Her wild mane of red hair, ruddy complexion and one - eyed stare could be unnerving to the uninitiated.  I recognized a kindred spirit when I stepped into the dimly lit interior of her wine shop.  I had been tracking the same cobweb in my bathroom for years.  Being blind helps, but if you’re not going to dust, you might as well keep the lights down low.
            I liked her instantly.

            She was behind the counter fiddling with a piece paper when I entered, so I waited a moment before speaking.  I told her that I was looking for a wine that my husband and I had tried a few nights before.  It had been our anniversary and we had enjoyed the wine so much that we were determined to get our hands on it.

            “It’s a 1994 Merlot from Apex vineyards,” I explained.

            She sighed, then said, “Everyone wants Merlot.”

            “Is there something wrong with Merlot?”

            “No, it’s just that people buy it because they can pronounce it.  But it tends to be soft and not very interesting.”

            I felt defensive as I countered, “But this one’s got a lot of cab and enough tannin to give it real body.  It was kind of chocolatey.”

            She raised one eyebrow at me as she flipped over her paper and commenced to tape it to the front of her marble counter.  It was a sign reading, “Help Wanted.”

            After a little chat where I explained that I was looking for work now that I was on my way to cooking school she took the sign down and shook my hand.

            “Welcome aboard,” she said.  Not only did I have a new job, but I got an employee discount for the case of wine I ordered.

            Even though I had grown up drinking wine, I had a lot to learn about everything.  Grape varietals, growing regions, national and local styles, oak or steel casks, and miraculous vintages were a lot to absorb.  But I was determined to soak it all in and I loved my new job.

            Sometimes a customer would come in and ask me to pick out a dozen bottles for a mixed case.  It was fun to help the frugal, but wealthy people could be really exciting.  One man wasn’t interested in any bottle under $50 and I was able to put together a nice selection for him.

            Rachel didn’t want to help him and I figured it was because he was rich and not very knowledgeable about wine, but I was wrong.  As soon as he left, she pulled me aside.

            “He was nice.  He gave me a tip.”  I told her.

            She explained that he was a local, right - wing, radio talk show host.  I felt truly soiled.  Not as bad as the time I was super polite to OJ Simpson’s lawyer, but pretty darn filthy.  So I took the tip he gave me and spent it on lube.  Now, every time I see his hateful face on the side of a bus, I think with pleasure of all the gay sex he made possible.

           I do hope he enjoyed his wine.

            More than once Rachel refused to sell a bottle to a customer she deemed unworthy.  I was on the verge of ordering a case of Dom Perignon for a slick, meaty gentleman, who referred to it as “Dom P.” as in, “You got any Dom P.?”  Rachel bustled over to me, slammed the cash register shut and kicked the man out of the shop.
            “A guy like that doesn’t deserve Dom Perignon,” she said.
I pointed out that he was going to prepay in cash, and she just rolled her eye at me and clucked her tongue.  “Money has nothing to do with it.”
            I inadvertently put her theory to the test when she left me in charge one afternoon.  It was early in my tenure, so she gave me a few pointers.
            "The distributors will be stopping by today,” she advised as she raced out the door.  “So order what you think we need.  Just use your best judgment."
            Representatives from the various wholesalers started to arrive shortly after 10:00 AM and they were offering samples, so what could I do?  Even diligently spitting every mouthful into my little bucket as Rachel taught me, I was tipsy by noon.  Our shelves were so bare and so much of their wine was so good.

            By 3:00 PM I was drunk with power, but mostly just drunk.  By the end of the day I had ordered 85 cases of wine and changed Rachel's long distance phone carrier.
            The next day, my boss was rather excited.  "Why did you purchase $15,000 worth of wine yesterday?"  She was pulling on part of her hair and I was concerned that some of it might come out.
            "The salespeople said we needed it."

            She released a small huff of air before she shouted, "That's their job, to say that!"

            I winced.  "Could you lower your voice please?  I have a bit of a hangover."

            She rolled her eye again and continued.  "And how did you imagine I was going to pay for it?  Where did you think I was going to store it?  And what the hell happened to my phone service?"

            “The lady said you could save over $40 a month if you –“

            “Stop.  I need an aspirin.”

            I asked for one too and miraculously she gave it to me.

            Even my husband was surprised that I kept my job and as soon as my hangover wore off, I was surprised too.

            Rachel talked the distributors down from some of my more extravagant orders.  Then she called the phone company, explaining that a drunk, retarded customer had asked to use her phone that day and that he had not been authorized to make executive decisions.  But we received many compliments over the next few weeks about how well stocked we were.  So all in all, it worked out nicely.

            Rachel taught me that there was more to wine than California Cabernet.  She steered my palate toward Burgundy and the Rhone valley, opening me to the joys of Pinot Noir, Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault and Grenache.  I learned to love the subtle and not so subtle earthy notes in French reds and their crisp, mineral whites.  Wines I had never heard of began to find their way to my table, much to my husband’s delight.  As an added bonus, I was learning how to cook so we paired new wines with all sorts of new meals.
            Nebbiolo with spaghetti and meatballs.  Alsatian Pinot Blanc with poached Salmon and tender greens.  German Riesling with grilled sausages and potatoes.  Petit Syrah with braised pork shoulder, mushrooms and onions.  Gewurtztraminer with spicy Indian or Thai food.  Oaky, California Chardonnay with sea scallops in a shallot, butter sauce.  Dry sherry with nuts and cheese as a snack.
We always followed my parents’ advice and enjoyed ourselves, especially at mealtimes.  But here Brent and I were following this good advice so well that, between us, we gained thirty pounds before I graduated from cooking school.
            The afternoon she handed me a ticket to the industry tasting was the one in which she gave me her crash course in tasting like a pro.  She opened a bottle of Chateau neuf du pape and poured us each a glass as I followed her discourse.
            “First, you heft the glass in your hand and consider its contents.  Look at the color.  If it’s a white wine, is it pale yellow or deep golden?  If it’s red, is it light pink or dark as blood?  Swirl the glass to give yourself an idea of the texture of the wine.  Is it watery, or lush and full?”  She raised her glass and peered at it with her one good eye.  It was moments like these that I could imagine her previous profession as a college professor.  He tone full of authority and warmth.
           “Now stick your nose in and really smell it.  Is it bright and delicate or unctuous and heavy?  Take some into your mouth and roll it all around your tongue and to the back of your throat.”  We both did so and produced some truly comical noises.  She swallowed hers with a satisfied grin.  I took another mouthful and followed her instruction as she continued her lecture.
            “Pump your jaws up and down.  Zip tiny puffs of air through your teeth.  As the fragrance circulates into your nasal passages, you’ll feel the tannins bite the back of your tongue.  If you’re having dinner and you like the wine, go ahead and swallow it.  But when you go to the tasting next Saturday, you’ll have to spit it out into one of their buckets.”
            I was determined to represent the shop with honor and skill.  She had already forgiven me my disastrous solo flight some weeks before, but I was determined to give her no further cause to doubt me.  She watched me huff and swirl the wine in my mouth a few more times and smiled approvingly.  Then she looked down at the ticket in my hand.
            "I think you'll enjoy it and you won't be able to do any damage because you can't order anything."

            What could be more fun than free food and wine?  I had learned to say knowledgeable things like, “It has a complex palate with subtle, oaky undertones,” and “I would pair this with a nice Chevre.”  Now that I'd learned the proper way to drink and taste, I was ready to leap in with the big shots.
The real professionals can taste more than a hundred wines in a day, all the while keeping track of things like grape, vintage and winery.  I knew that if I was going to taste that much wine, I would have to do a lot of spitting.

Rachel explained, "the spit bucket is your best friend."

            The tasting was held in a newly remodeled hotel downtown.  The hundred–year–old lobby was spacious with a wide staircase and suggested the proper balance between opulence and charm.  It was elegant without being cold, but I still felt like I was in the wrong tax bracket to stay there.
I arrived with my little notebook and found my way to the banquet hall where all the industry representatives has set up enormous buffets.  Dozens of long tables were covered with breads, cheeses, cold – cuts, roasted and fresh vegetables, fruit, olives, dips, spreads and dressings.  It was all carefully choreographed, along with the wine, to suggest the kind of opulence you find in a bank.  “We’re so rich, we don’t need your money.”  I was in heaven.
As I started to sample the wines I carefully kept track of what I was doing.  Writing things like:
            "Jammy Australian Shiraz, with enough tannin to balance the fruit forward palate.  $11.37 wholesale."
            "Excellent Rhone varietal blend with notes of cherries and plums.  Should pair well with roasted chicken or pork.  $14.71."
            But even after diligently spitting out every mouthful, by the time I got to my fortieth glass my lips were tingling and I couldn’t feel my nose.  I was getting a bit jolly and scribbled things like:
            "California white.  Probably from some sort of white grape.  $8, or maybe $80 a bottle."

            “Something red from somewhere.  Possibly yummy.”

            By the sixtieth glass, I could no longer read my handwriting, so I stopped taking notes.  My mouth felt rubbery which made spitting a rather indelicate chore.  I was like a grizzled old prospector with tobacco juice on my chin.
            “To hell with ya and yer fancy pants spittoon!  That’s why God invented mops.”

            Since I couldn’t taste anything any way, I decided to find the handsomest man there and see if I could get him to pour me a glass of anything at all.

            I forced my eyes to focus and did my best to steady my legs as I crossed the room.  I took a deep breath as I approached the hunky young man with the perfect teeth, who offered me a glass of Tempranillo.
            Intent on impressing him with my professionalism, I swirled my glass under my nose and took a long, thoughtful sniff.  Even through the goggles of drunkenness, the man before me in his crisp, white shirt was stunning.  So I took a moment to admire him as I raised the glass and took in a mouthful of wine.  He stood there smiling like a Greek god as I swirled and huffed and drew air through my teeth.  But when I made the mistake of returning his smile while my mouth was still full, a small quantity of wine went down the wrong pipe.
            Quickly bending over his bucket, I let out a mighty, gasping:
            Someone offered me a glass of water and I straightened up to take a sip, trying not to cough again and waiting for my eyes to stop watering.  Once my vision cleared, I noticed the handsome man’s shirt that, until that moment, had been crisp and white.

            He now had a dreadful spray of pink across his shoulder and down his chest where I had coughed a mighty blast of something red, from somewhere.
            Possibly yummy.

(Original art "Do Not Fall Down" by Jason Zenobia.)

(UPDATE 4/23/10:  This article has been updated in the interests of protecting the identity of people and establishments mentioned herein. My apologies for not thinking of this before - and to anyone who was offended, hurt or annoyed.)


  1. You should be kissing Lars ass for spending money in the shop and keeping you on a payroll. What are you thinkin here kid?

  2. I'm trying to figure out if Anonymous is being jerky or not.
    One of the hugest blessings of running your own business is refusing to deal with freaking boneheads. Any kind of bonehead. Pick your favorite.
    I want to be Rachel when I grow up. Except for the eye thing.
    Fun story, Jason. It was a good way to start my day.

  3. Anything crisp, sassy and cheap in pink? Needn't be fizzy but it wouldn't hurt. Has to go well with chicharrones. ;-)


Comments welcome, but if you're going to be a jerk, I'll delete your ass.