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Sunday, June 23, 2013

Wine Under Twenty Bucks - Apothic Red

My latest find, Apothic Red, was discovered by accident when I was called upon to grab some wine at the last minute.

My daughter had just completed the final performance of her school's production of "Annie" in which she played Grace Farrell,  Oliver Warbucks' sophisticated executive assistant. As per tradition, after the show the cast and their families gathered at a local restaurant.

The restaurant is a BYOB, and as we sat down -- newly minted theater folk at one table, parents at another -- someone said "wouldn't it be great if we had brought some wine". Knowing that there was a liquor store three doors away, I impulsively said "I'm on it", not knowing what the hell to get for the group of forty-somethings eating diner food.

As I entered the liquor store, that distinctive cardboard and sharp stale beer smell of all liquor stores took me back to my high school days. My senior year of high school, I gave up my three year career as a busboy to start working as a clerk at a liquor store.

It was a great job, and a great "coming of age" education for me.  Always having been kind of a geek and a late bloomer, the people I met and worked with opened up a new world for me. The hilariously profane owner, his earthy wife, and the rotating cast of coworkers (Most of whom were adults for whom the liquor store was a second job -- a DMV clerk, my high school's custodian, a receptionist, a nurse, a few students from nearby Muhlenburg College) were the first people to peel back the wrapper on my impending adulthood.

One of the on-and-off again employees was a "woman" (she was probably 20 years old). She was crude. She swore like a truck driver. She smoked like a chimney. She had terrible grammar. She apparently had never read a book. She chewed gum with her mouth open. She freely talked, in full detail,  about her many sexual exploits with the various police officers she dated.  She dressed so scantily that even the ex-hippies she worked for had to ask her to cover up. She smelled the whiff of inexperience with women coming off of me and teased me mercilessly about it.

My natural reaction - being clean cut, honor roll student, well-read, the apple of many a teacher's eye, and college bound - was, of course, to be secretly, mindlessly in love with her.

Now it can be told - we all drank on the job.

It was here among these wondrous,  colorful explosions of individuality that I first learned about alcohol as something other that purely a drug, whether stolen from your parents, or purchased by an older conspirator, purely for the purpose of getting drunk.

But none of this educated me about wine. This was the 1980s, and wine was something most working people I knew bought in a big jug.

My introduction to wine, though, came at the same time, from my high school English teacher, Mr. B.

Like all teachers, Mr. B had a mythic back story that had been passed along among students for years. I had heard that in his youth he had been in seminary training to be a Roman Catholic priest, and his wife had been studying to be a nun, and that they met, fell in love and decided to give up the clergy to get married.

I never knew whether this story was actually true. I knew he was Italian and a deacon in his church. In his gentle and humane manner, and his passion for teaching and compassion for his students, he was a man of spiritual depth.

As for wine, one day we were studying "A Tale of Two Cities". As was the manner back in the day, the students were taking turns reading aloud passages from the book, and then animated discussion would follow.

But when we came to Chapter One, Part Five, "The Wine Shop", Mr. B took up the reading himself as follows:

"A large cask of wine had been dropped and broken, in the street. The accident had happened in getting it out of a cart; the cask had tumbled out with a run, the hoops had burst, and it lay on the stones just outside the door of the wine-shop, shattered like a walnut-shell.
All the people within reach had suspended their business, or their idleness, to run to the spot and drink the wine. The rough, irregular stones of the street, pointing every way, and designed, one might have thought, expressly to lame all living creatures that approached them, had dammed it into little pools; these were surrounded, each by its own jostling group or crowd, according to its size. Some men kneeled down, made scoops of their two hands joined, and sipped, or tried to help women, who bent over their shoulders, to sip, before the wine had all run out between their fingers. Others, men and women, dipped in the puddles with little mugs of mutilated earthenware, or even with handkerchiefs from women's heads, which were squeezed dry into infants' mouths; others made small mud-embankments, to stem the wine as it ran; others, directed by lookers-on up at high windows, darted here and there, to cut off little streams of wine that started away in new directions; others devoted themselves to the sodden and lee-dyed pieces of the cask, licking, and even champing the moister wine-rotted fragments with eager relish. There was no drainage to carry off the wine, and not only did it all get taken up, but so much mud got taken up along with it, that there might have been a scavenger in the street, if anybody acquainted with it could have believed in such a miraculous presence.
A shrill sound of laughter and of amused voices--voices of men, women, and children--resounded in the street while this wine game lasted. There was little roughness in the sport, and much playfulness. There was a special companionship in it, an observable inclination on the part of every one to join some other one, which led, especially among the luckier or lighter-hearted, to frolicsome embraces, drinking of healths, shaking of hands, and even joining of hands and dancing, a dozen together. When the wine was gone, and the places where it had been most abundant were raked into a gridiron-pattern by fingers, these demonstrations ceased, as suddenly as they had broken out. The man who had left his saw sticking in the firewood he was cutting, set it in motion again; the women who had left on a door-step the little pot of hot ashes, at which she had been trying to soften the pain in her own starved fingers and toes, or in those of her child, returned to it; men with bare arms, matted locks, and cadaverous faces, who had emerged into the winter light from cellars, moved away, to descend again; and a gloom gathered on the scene that appeared more natural to it than sunshine."

Mr. B looked up at us. And he said, best as I can remember, something like this:

"Why were these people so excited? Because wine is good for you. Wine is food. Wine brings people together in joy, and that's why each drop of it for these people was like a renewal of body and spirit, because wine is food for both body and spirit".

I had forgotten about this story until I saw the bottle of Apothic Red in the liquor store. At that moment I realized Mr. B was passing along to us some wisdom about wine, and its importance to him, and perhaps why it should be important to us.

I knew nothing about Apothic Red. Its a California mutt -- a Zinfandel, Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet blend --- It had a cool label, and a cool name, and, of course, was the right price.  I grabbed three bottles and scurried back to the restaurant.

The wine was uncorked and everyone had a glass and we all started talking. The Apothic Red was dark and fruity and rich. It went well with a hamburger, rare, with Bermuda onions and tomato.

By an eerie bit of synchronicity, one cast-mate's father said the advertising company he worked for had designed the Apothic Red label.

Another father, born in Italy, sampled the wine and declared it delicious. This meant a lot to me. Like most WASPs, I grew up believing the stereotype that Italians, like all cultures that ring the Mediterranean, are imbued with unparalleled ancient wisdom on the good things in life, like food, drink, love, art and pure unabashed enjoyment of life . As I have grown older, I have learned that this stereotype is, of course, largely true.

So we all got to know each other better, had a lot of laughs, and, in celebrating out kids foray into musical theater, and perhaps their step or two more toward adulthood, drank in moments of renewal of body and spirit.

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