In Other Words / The arrogant cork
My friend, Harold has fallen in love again. Last year it was a smooth Merlot, than a sultry Cabernet. A few months later he flipped over Hearty Burgundy from a region of France he had just visited. He extolled its virtues to anyone within earshot. He invited me to lunch at a fancy Manhattan restaurant and ordered a bottle of Beaujolais. He swooshed some around, took a sip, then paused.
“It’s bold, yet refined,” he said. “It has backbone that defies imagination, a bouquet that teases the nostrils, a taste that trips lightly over the palate.”
He lowered his nose deeply inside the glass, took a sniff, followed by a leisurely mouthful. Then he threw his head back and gargled. I watched in amazement.
“Raw,” Harold said, “definitely raw.”
Was “raw” part of the wine vernacular? I had never heard wine described thusly.
“Raw as in a piece of sushi, Harold?” I asked.
“Raw as in harsh on my taste buds. Raw as in abrasive to my nasal passages, raw as in bitter to my tongue,” he said.
It was at that precise moment I understood that when it comes to wine, Harold doesn’t mince words. He means business, and it doesn’t stop there. He wanted to share his expertise and I, being a grape enthusiast, agreed to be a willing subject.
At dinner with Harold a few months later, I surveyed the wine list, eager to begin my first lesson.
“We’ll commence with a glass of Chardonnay,” he said, “and move on from there.”
I could hardly wait to “gargle” as I lifted the glass and took a hearty slug.
“Hold it right there,” Harold admonished, “one doesn’t slurp their wine, one drizzles it along the rear of the palate.”
Uncertain of my palate’s geography, I swallowed a few drops, then began to cough furiously as the wine bypassed my palate altogether, and I aspirated it into my windpipe. Finally, after catching my breath and sucking on a cough drop, I regained my composure.
“Easy does it,” Harold said. “No need to get excited.”
Then, he closed his eyes, inhaled the aroma, sipped cautiously, and emitted a barrage of affectations, which made me feel inferior by comparison.
“Oaky yet buttery, tart but not sour, innocent yet worldly,” he said, looking at me as I sat there thinking: is this guy for real?
To further add to the confusion, Harold decided to educate me on the subject of corks.
“The cork is the master of the bottle,” he said. “A bad cork, and the wine is destroyed. Before you drink a bottle of wine, you must inspect the cork carefully. A damp cardboard aroma indicates trouble. What you want is a cork with attitude, but not an arrogant cork. You want a cork that is moist, but not moldy, wet, but not drowned…a cork that is supple, but also easy to remove.”
“I prefer screw caps, myself,” I said, while Harold grew as pale as a dry Riesling, and ordered a Pinot Noir.
“Before we sample this grape,” he said, we must be on the lookout for tannins, indigenous to red wine. Too much tannin will leave your mouth as dry as a Republican politician.”
He went on to explain that one can actually feel tannin buildup on the back of the tongue and the inside the cheeks. “Tannins can make you feel as hot as a tamale,” he said.
I sipped the wine, periodically checking my cheeks, which felt as cool as a chilled Rose’.
As the evening progressed and the wine flowed, I learned about bouquet, wine finish, ripeness and wine jargon. Instead of saying, “it’s awesome,” after sipping a Sauvignon Blanc, Harold encouraged me to wax wine eloquent.
While I swirled the elixir around my mouth, and with a rapturous look on my face, I began to emote. Harold hung on my every word.
“Startling, but not pretentious, reliable, without being boring, wholesome, but surprisingly sensuous,” I said.
Harold applauded and told me I was a fast learner. For the rest of the meal, we discussed appropriate stemware, thermostatically-controlled wine cellars, types of corkscrews, and the language of wine labels. For dessert, he ordered two glasses of champagne, so expensive that I winced.
As I sat there watching the tiny bubbles rise and tickle my nose, we punctuated each swallow with accolades. “Fruity, but not brash,” I said, “delicate, but not distinct,” followed by “golden, but not glitzy.” I was getting into the swing of things and could navigate through any wine list. Harold beamed. After all, it wasn’t the wine itself. It was the ability to bluff one’s way through a meal that mattered most.
A few weeks later, Harold drove up to Connecticut for lunch. We went to a country inn in Southbury and ordered glasses of mineral water with slices of lemon. Harold took a sip.
“Pallid, but not dull,” he said.
“Watery, yet refreshing,” I chimed in. “Even, but not tedious,” as we lifted our glasses in a toast.
But last week, I carried things too far. I ordered a diet Coke at the diner.
“Flat and disturbingly bland,” I told the waitress. “The color is off, and the fizz is flagrantly absent.”
“You’ve got to let it breathe, honey,” she said.
Harold would have been impressed.
Westporter Judith Marks-White shares her humorous views monthly in the Westport News. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or at judithmarks-white.com.