Can a Wine Love?

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A few weeks ago, I ran into an acquaintance who mentioned he’d been reading my blog. To which, I quickly demurred, “It’s just a little thing I’m doing.”

“The stories show you’re looking for connection,” he replied, and my cheeks began to burn.

It’s true. I’m a writer, after all; my job is to look for connections and to connect. What else is metaphor but a line drawn from one thing to another? But, I’m writing more publically now—about myself—which can be a little scary. And having myself reflected back at me by someone I only sort of know—I felt like a found-out child.

So, yes, I confess to looking for connection—between myself and readers, a would-be partner, the planet, the community, etc. And like all great characters in books and in life, through connection, I want to be loved, supported, understood, and know that my life on this planet matters.

One way I’ve been working with this idea is through sharing stories where food and wine intersect with my daily life in complementary and productive ways and where eating and drinking act as connective tissue. I’ve always been interested in fresh, nutritious food and in wine and spirits, but now, for whatever reason, I feel compelled to take my interest beyond the recreational and into the sincere.

And then, this summer, as if the connection gods were speaking to me, I had a radical experience with a bottle of wine. Seriously. A few sips in, and I became aware of something I had never considered: a wine can love the person who is drinking it.

Here. Two years ago, I was diagnosed with MS. It was a blow, but not a total shock. My body had been telling me something was wrong for most of my adult life. In my late twenties, I became one of those young mothers—frazzled, ill-prepared, worried—who never felt good. I walked around in constant pain from a series of seemingly random symptoms and saw doctors of all feathers to no avail. I was told I was “highly sensitive” and what other people could “shake off,” I felt to the extreme. The cure? “Keep yourself busy.” So, on top of working, mothering, and wife-ing my way through my thirties and forties, I also became my own private investigator, watching and listening to my body with obsessive focus—taking notes, keeping records, and testing theories. I learned a lot. But I also lived like a school marm hid inside me, slapping my own knuckles every time I reached for a piece of bread, a hunk of cheese, or a glass of wine. It was exhausting and anxiety-producing.

Who knows? Maybe the fasting helped me get as far as I did without a major MS episode. But around the time my dad died, the ingredients for that first attack arranged themselves like water molecules before the boil. In one year, I left my husband and became a full-time single mom of two kids; my father, suffering from long-term dementia, was put into a home; my mother, in her own grief about my father’s illness, lost touch with reality and railed against me in horrific explosions of hatred; I lost a good friend; my kids suffered desperately the loss of their intact family and threw their pain at me like snowballs at the kid with glasses; and I met a guy who broke my heart. I could barely see straight. And then—intense, halting pain in my head. It wasn’t until the right side of my body went numb—I could literally draw a line from the top of my head to my mid chest—and my father died, that a sports medicine doctor found several lesions at the base of my skull on my spinal cord. It was an unconventional place for MS, but not unheard of, and the reason why it was so difficult to diagnose.

Luckily, the prognosis was good. This was a slowly progressive form; the numbness would ease, and with the right medication, I should be ok. I joked that I was half the person I used to be, that the metaphor of going numb was not lost on me, the poet. But humor nor poetry could mask the truth. I was devastated.

An ever-welling grief filled me and would spill over without provocation in the small moments I had with myself throughout the days: in the car, the shower, sometimes right before I called down the kids for dinner. Usually able to negotiate life’s stuck-out foot with some reserve, this was more than I could temper.

By some kindness, both kids were going to overnight camp for three weeks that summer, so I quickly got in touch with my friend Midge Guerrera and her husband Jack, who live in a small village in the Italian countryside half the year. “I’m thinking of going to Italy,” I told them, “got any good tips?” “Of course!” Midge said, “Stay with us!” A few weeks later, I landed in Milan.

Midge and Jack were excellent hosts, and their small hometown in the Benevento region was a dream. They didn’t ask me many questions about my dad, the boyfriend, or my MS and allowed me to stare out over the quilted hills from the balcony of their home for as long as I liked. They cooked peppers, tomatoes, and zucchini from the large garden adjacent to their place, drove me through colorful villages tucked into craggy hill sides, and took me to al fresco theater and music in the town square with the enthusiasm and pride of perfect guides. There was no shortage of wine either. The two got theirs from the village next door, whose winery had what Midge called a “gas pump wine dispenser” where they’d drive the car up, pay the meter, and wine would come rushing out, filling large jugs for the week.

It was perfect there, but after two weeks, I left and traveled to Rome to spend some time alone and see the sights. Rome is a city of giants. The Vatican, the coliseum, the sculptures, and the theaters were more arresting than I could have imagined. I stood in awe before them, humbled, amazed. But instead of feeling insignificant, I felt as if those skyward characters looked down on me with a kindness I hadn’t known in a long time. Let me be okay, I’d whisper to them at every street corner. Let me make it through this.

In response, Rome gave me every freedom I craved. I woke up when I wanted to, ate when I wanted, read in café’s, walked for hours lost in neighborhoods and parks, went to operas, galleries, sat in a plaza while music played, and ate pasta like it was the last food on earth. I cried freely too. I’d arrive at some extraordinary cobblestone courtyard, the crowds buzzing around me, an ancient church covered in murals beckoning me in, and before I took another step, I’d be weeping.

A week later, I traveled to Florence and immediately rented a Fiat Mini to drive through the Tuscan countryside, visiting wineries and tasting rooms for three days. Having a car was equal to having wings. I drove with the windows wide and leaned out over the sea of vineyards as if I was a bird. The Tuscan countryside is a cognizant creature, communicative and kind with its sewn dress of red soil, grape vines, and olive trees, a light mist lazing between its thighs. Like with the gods of Rome, I felt cared for and watched over by that landscape. I’d stop the car at one of the many vistas, step out on the edge overlooking the hills, and almost hear the words Lay your heart over these fields in the wind.

The wines fueled me too, but never in a desperate or drunken way. In fact, they grounded me. And from small patios overlooking the hills to cafés in medieval villages, I let myself drink and sink into a comfort my body had forgotten—no one and nothing tugged at my sleeve or nagged my mind, and my body felt just fine, giving me space to come to terms with the MS, the loss of my parents, and the new life ahead.

A week later, I went back home to the kids, to my mourning mother, to a series of MS treatments. But I was much more relaxed than when I left, which helped me to stand in the still-ruddy surf more steadily. I eased up on all the food restrictions, drank more wine, and let life to take its course. Some people attributed my feeling better to being out of a bad marriage, others to the relief that my dad had passed on. I felt the change was my Tuscan wings still intact. Life was still tough, but the waves of grief had subsided, replaced by a cautious optimism, curiosity, and eventual, yet still precarious, happiness.

Exactly two years later, the sommelier at my favorite wine shop invited me to a Tuscan wine class. Tuscany, I thought, when the teacher brought out the sampling wines for the evening, how I’ve missed you.

Part of my earlier investigation revealed that I am sensitive to red grapes, so I have become a white wine connoisseur. But in Tuscany, I can drink both reds and whites without fear because most wines are produced naturally by small producers more interested in letting nature speak for itself than applying chemicals and techniques that burden the drinker.

One of those producers is Elisabetta Faguilo, a veteran winemaker behind Montenidoli, the mountain of the little nests, 24 hectares of vineyards and 200 hectares of woods just outside the ancient village of San Gimignano, where I had heard groups of old men singing deep into the night.  She and her husband Sergio, a philosopher and teacher, purchased Montenidoli in 1969 with the vision of starting a vineyard, which she ran with a reverence and respect akin to a spiritual practice. Fifty years and nine children later, Elisabetta is a well-known producer with a reputation as a fierce proponent of not just natural winemaking but of human connection. This quote from her website says as much:

We all feel a strong need of unity and comprehension.
We want to break our solitude, opening to a wider vision of friendship and common feelings. Seeking for the same sensibility towards the concrete and mystical world of our human condition.
(click here to watch a video of this amazing woman as she speaks about her work, her philosphies, and her land)
(here too)

And now that Sergio has passed and Elisabetta is well into her seventies, she has started a foundation in his honor that invites elderly and young people in need of help to come stay at the winery and reap the benefits of the land. First farmed by the Eutruscans, followed by the Romans and the Knights of Templar, in Elisabetta’s eyes, Montenidoli is a sacred place where history and the calcium-rich soil left by the Ligurian Seacan can heal those who walk upon it in addition to creating perfect grapes.

But I didn’t know all this when I walked into the wine class. When the instructor poured a taste of the Montenidoli Fiore, a white wine made with vernaccia grapes, I thought, yay, white. But as soon as I tasted it, I had to stop and recalculate. The wine was delicious, but it was more than that. Lightly imbued with gold, it has the distinct smell of marijuana, pineapple, mango and green grass. Robust, complex, and more full-bodied than an average white, it held layers of earthy and fruity depth that—well, there is no other way to describe it—as I sipped, it was as if someone was reaching out to me from the other side of the glass. You are part of the earth, it said, and from the earth, you shall blossom. After the third taste, I got up, went to the ladies’ room, and wept.

All the difficulty of the past few years spilled out of me again, but not because I was overwhelmed by the pain but because I was overcome by my own strength to have moved through it alone. I know it sounds crazy, but Elisabetta and her determined, kind spirit mixed with the ancient and profound energy of the Tuscan soil held me like one might need their mother to hold them. From inside the glass, they whispered to me like the wind had whispered to me during my trip and like I had wanted the statues of Rome to respond. It was a profound and eye-opening moment. Connection exists. Food and wine is connective tissue when created in harmony with nature, with the love and determination of the farmer, and the reverence and deft hand of the winemaker, the chef.

Let me wax philosophical. If we believe the earth has the power and the selfless desire to feed those creatures who live upon it (and who, essentially, are part of it), and we believe that a soil in balance with nature will produce a fruit embedded with the same power and desire, and we agree that a master winemaker who cherishes the earth and what it offers can transform that fruit, with her own sense of love and understanding, into a beautiful wine, then we must believe that the wine itself is imbued with the same capacity to love those who drink it.

So, there is Elisabetta. There is her land, the Eutruscans, the Ligurion Sea, her nine children raised on that land, her love, her Sergio, her desire for peace. And here is me, cautiously optimistic, becoming aware of my need for connection, opening up, letting go, listening, and raising children too. We are sisters on this planet. And between us, a glass of wine.

That’s a neat little bow isn’t it?

But that isn’t the complete story. After the class, I bought a bottle of the Fiore, excited to invite friends over for a dinner so I could share this wine and spread the word. But as life goes, no one was around, the kids didn’t want to have a bunch of adults over, and I was tired and busy. I ended up settling for a plate of homemade potato salad in the back yard with a glass on my own in the dead of summer. I could still feel the expression of Elisabetta’s love and work, but this time, after drinking a glass, I got a huge headache and felt like crap.

Which leads me to the problem of disconnection and a sense of powerlessness that comes with it. I have a chronic illness. Somewhere along the line, something in my system went off balance. Maybe I made connection with something unsavory. Maybe I was too busy too many times to meet the points of positive connection in my life. Maybe I fell off a swing and never truly recovered. Or maybe there is no reason. Regardless, the road back is nearly impossible, and sometimes I wonder why even try? Today, I heard on the radio, a young man in the deep south explaining why he didn’t vote—because it doesn’t matter, he said. I heard my daughter talk about how reading a book twice was a waste of time. I totally understand. It’s so easy to be stuck in places where we can’t imagine the benefits of reaching toward something or being open enough to reckon with a piece of art of any form.

Even though I try, I only sometimes get it right. I chase things that can’t connect, I stop short of true connections, I eat food that is made without care. Balance and harmony are so hard to come by, we have whole fields of science and mysticism devoted to them, and still I fail. But how else will we know that a story about how a grape in Tuscany meets a woman writing in Massachusetts means a line on page 70, read twice, wriggles its way deeper into your consciousness, means a single vote matters, and means a disease can be cured?

I don’t know how else. Yes, I am finding connection in a bottle of wine and in many other places as well. When I find it, the skies light up and suddenly I live in a place so much more magnificent. Being open, or as Elisabetta says, emptying ourselves, is all any of us can do.

Oh, and try the Montenidoli Fiore. I highly recommend it.

MontenidoliBrandL

 

 

 

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Feed the Birds

silhouette of woman sitting on window watching birds flying
Photo by Artem Mizyuk on Pexels.com

It’s July, 2018, and here in western Massachusetts we’re in the middle of a heatwave—98 degrees every day this week and the humidity is traumatic. Everyone is pasted with a gluey sweat. In my house, we have only one air conditioner, in the living room; the rest of the house is purgatory—you just have to sit there and wait it out while hot, dead air fills your lungs. It’s also the week the kids and I move out of the house we’ve lived in for the last 13 years, so we are weighed down, too, by impending loss. Boxes line most of the walls, we sit at makeshift chairs, the dining room table is gone, the couch, and I’ve packed all but four plates and four mugs for us to use in the coming days. Not to mention all the objects we’ve connected ourselves to over the years are sold or thrown away now: the stuffed animals, picture frames, blankets, trophies. Last week, we had a big party; friends and family came to say goodbye to the house and reminisced with us in ritual fashion—here is where we had the crib, here is where the hamster is buried. It was good, but over now. The kids and I are mostly quiet, as I imagine most souls are in purgatory, as we pad through these final days waiting for whatever comes.

Just 40 miles south is my brother’s house, a huge Victorian with plenty of room to share with me and the kids. While this is technically a lateral move, a part of me feels I failed. That dream I once had about cultivating a traditional kind of home and family seems to have been just a dream, the model itself misguided and nearly impossible to maintain. Their father is gone after the divorce, I can’t afford the house, or any house, on my own, and though there is no reason to feel ashamed—we have accomplished a lot in the last 13 years—we leave with our heads slightly bowed.

During this time, I find myself stopped in the heavy heat thinking about my father, specifically how I inherited his fascination with birds. Besides being a brilliant mathematician—one of those who hunches over a notebook scribbling equations far into the night—he was an avid bird lover, not the kind who knows all the names of all the species and subsets of birds or mimics their calls or travels any distance to spy them with binoculars. My dad appreciated birds as fellow beings, creatures who flew, sang, mated for life, and built nests. They’re not so different from us, he would say with his eyes towards the branches. Forever inquisitive, he’d ask What do you think they are thinking?

My father, for all his brains and accomplishments, was a gentle person, and as such, admired the tiny-ness of birds, their frailty, as if in frailty was tenderness and inside tenderness, a whole universe.

Growing up, there were several bird feeders nestled in the trees of our yard and one hanging in front of the large picture window in our living room so that all year long we had a bird-viewing station 24/7. I would lie on the couch and watch them feed for hours in the lazy eternity of my youth, no kids to play with in the neighborhood, done reading my books for the day. In winter, my dad, even when he was fully whited-out by dementia, would put on his moccasins and, without a coat or hat, go outside to fill all the feeders and scatter seed on the snow, in case the squirrels or the larger blackbirds needed some. That is my clearest image of him now, his silhouette against the gray sky ankle-deep in snow, throwing what seemed to me to be tiny care packages—like those thrown from planes during famine. As a scientist, he understood his membership in the great web that connects everything, and he knew this small act of feeding the birds could have rippling effects.

When he was about 53, my dad lost his job as an aerospace engineer. He came into my room when I was a distracted fifteen years old and told me the news. I think there had been a number of terminations for budget purposes, but I also knew my father was generally misunderstood. He was brilliant but lacked social acumen, which kept him an outsider in office politics and probably made him an easy target for a lay-off. Normally gregarious and proud of his work, that day, seated on my red beanbag chair, he was introspective and asked what I thought he should do. I told him this was an opportunity to do something new or to go back to teaching, a job he loved when he was younger. I remember my hopeful earnestness that day, how, from the perspective of youth, I believed the future was his if he wanted it. He agreed, but with less enthusiasm. After some time, he did manage to land a teaching job at the University of Connecticut, and I think he enjoyed it. But it didn’t last long, and within five years, he retired.

The loss of his job didn’t cause us to move, and my life didn’t change, really, other than I watched my father slump into a depression in retirement. Seated in the driveway of our wooded property for hours watching the birds, he openly lamented his lack of usefulness in the world. It was hard to witness. He was a man who had worked on space stations, studied acid rain, worked on the first computers. I’m going to die soon, he’d say, I can feel it. And when I die, I want to come back as a small bird.

Despite such predictions, my father lived there in that house, feeding the birds and reading books till he was 80. He wasn’t always depressed either. Over time, he became resigned to what he thought of as the most important time of his life being behind him, and he found happiness in small things: the birds, of course, but also nature of all kinds, the tiniest blade of grass to the awesomeness of the planets. Then came the slow onset of dementia, which he suffered with for nearly ten years.

I’m five years younger than my dad was when he lost his job, with much fewer achievements. And here I am in the backyard of my soon-to-be ex-home writing in my blog, which I aptly named “Why Are the Birds Here?” That question looms today. While birds begged scientific and wondrous musings from my father, for me, they arrive as various metaphors or as messengers with the sole purpose of guiding me, my father somewhere deep inside each and every one.

The ability to fly, clearly, is their most compelling feature. As humans, we try to imagine the sheer freedom flight brings and how that kind of freedom would change how we feel about the world and ourselves. We’ve created facsimiles, yes, but we all know it’s not the same. Yet birds, who need not be bound by anything because of flight, temper their freedom with nesting, mating for life, and traveling in community. These two ideas: the desire for freedom and the importance of home and family are what I am toggling between today. Am I creating more freedom in my life by letting go of old notions and by pulling myself away from relationships that don’t serve? Am I building a good nest and tying myself to community in a way that benefits my children and me as we grow older and change? I think I am. I hope I am.

The other question I have is did my dad do these things? And if he didn’t, did they lead to his depression and dementia? One can never know if one predetermined the other, of course, but if a bird stops flying, what happens to it? If a bird is alone, how does it change?

Studies of island birds show that once a bird is no longer in danger from predators or from lack of food, it slowly and naturally loses the ability to fly. Danger, it seems, encourages flight. Lack of danger brings birds to the ground, and the ground has enormous pull. The science also shows that take-off is the part of flying requiring the most energy and muscle, and when birds are not scared or in need, the intensity of take-off diminishes, therefore reducing muscle mass. Diminished wings and elongated legs follow.

I think it’s true that my situation is different from my dad’s. As a divorced mother who spent much of her married life earning less than a living wage so she could care for children while her partner earned their keep, the danger of poverty and homelessness is very real. I need to leave this house, I need to get to the next, better place or else something bad will happen. Mating for life didn’t work out in my case. But, my father had my mother who still worked and kept the home running, so his basic needs were always met, and he did not need to flap furiously to find alternate accommodations to keep us all well. Could this lack of danger have been the thing that stopped his forward motion? Could mating for life have hindered him instead of let him grow?

I’m sure the answer is not that reductive. Mating for life, in humans, has its positives and negatives. And one certainly can be in more danger inside a marriage that out of it. So, what are the birds telling me about marriage? It’s not clear.

But birds also require their flock. Being in a flock reduces threats of danger and provides community. In turn, community provides well-being. Many studies show that when birds are kept as pets alone in a cage, for example, they develop all sorts of mental disorders. Experts say the squawking and pecking intrinsic to pet birds are symptoms of loneliness, depression, and anxiety.

When I was married, my husband slowly alienated himself from our friends, blaming his work, which took up a significant amount of his time and energy. When we divorced, after a brief stint with his sister, he lived alone in a small apartment, opting only to see the kids for a few hours a week. Soon he complained of intense loneliness and became extremely agitated and angry. It’s clear now, three years later, that his mental capacity has severely diminished. He often doesn’t make cohesive sense when he speaks and his logic is crooked and turned around. This has caused him to make financially bad decisions, and he has taken up residence in a romantic relationship that is volatile and draining.

Although my father was not left alone by the loss of his job by any means, he did, like my ex, become detached from community when he became a family man. And with his work and colleagues gone, his world became a lot smaller. A scientist and intellectual, he spent most of his free time in his head, which I am sure was a brilliant, amazing place, but he was largely alone there. I hate to admit it now, but when he attempted to share that world with his family, pointing out the intricacies of the clouds or the potential of harnessing the speed of light, we were not fully able to appreciate it, having our own lives to lead. Not being as brilliant and creative as he was, we were also entrenched in a kind of linear thinking that mocked the wondrous notions he shared.

He didn’t become angry. My dad was not hard-wired for anger, but perhaps we could label it disappointment, and eventually, he lived as if on his own island alone. In this way, it’s easy to connect the dots from loss of job to an aloneness that brought on the depression and, ultimately, the dementia. It’s easy, too, to understand why he wanted to come back as a bird when he died.

Luckily, perhaps because he did have a loving family, my father never lost his desire to be a part of the connected universe. He fed the birds for as long as he could, and he died sitting outside underneath the trees.

For a while, a single cardinal called my backyard home. I’d watch it stand on the lawn a few feet away from a squirrel and think how lovely it was the two lived so harmoniously, the ratty, squabbly squirrel and the brilliant bird, and how lucky I was just to witness them. I’d watch the cardinal during winter too, its red feathers blazing against the snow, and think about the beauty in that juxtaposition and of how my father’s beautiful mind was blanketed with white in dementia but for the birds. Of course, I’d think maybe it was my dad come to watch over me, his wish come true, but I never stayed there long. In fact, it probably wasn’t a single bird at all but a family of birds all a part of a meaningful infrastructure dependent on all of us to survive.

Now, here at the edge of my own newly imagined future, I am so grateful to have been in danger and to be experiencing lift-off, as it were. I am grateful, too, for my brother and his fiancé who instinctually opened their nest because they too understand that inside tenderness is the whole universe, like a great net that holds everything together, and how one small act of tenderness has rippling effects.

 

Fived-Eyed Fox, the Perfect Remedy

Five-Eyed Fox

The day after my evening meal at Bistro Le Gras, I had a coffee sit-down with my friend Jamie Berger to talk tutoring for my daughter. (If anyone needs a writing or SAT tutor, he’s your man.) Jamie and I have a lot in common: we’re both writers, teachers, tutors, and freelancers on the hunt for new gigs in western MA and beyond (hint hint). We also often see each other at my very favorite local oasis, the Five-Eyed Fox in Turners Falls, MA, computers in hand.

I love the Five-Eyed Fox because, above all else, it’s light-filled and inviting; think big windows and cozy wooden tables where you can chase away the hours working on a project while drinking coffee or having an elegant, yet unpretentious meal, with a fine ale or cocktail. Perched above a tree-lined street, the space is a cross between a casual French bistro and your laid-back western MA coffee shop, wide open and not cluttered with tables, board games on the shelves, an old-style soda shop counter, good music, and exceedingly friendly service. One might accuse it of being hipster because the staff is young and fashion-forward, but it’s a neighborhood joint done right, with chefs who obviously know food, which includes everything from breakfast (on the weekends) and coffees to the before-mentioned gourmet dinners and drinks, everything locally sourced. Their menu easily ranks with the best in the area. And they use Jersey cow milk from a local creamery (can’t remember who) in their dishes and coffees. I am allergic to Holstein cow milk, so I indulge in dairy when I’m here. Different varieties of cows have different proteins in their milk, in case you were wondering.

Jamie and I met at 11 and sat by the large window overlooking the small deck, which overlooks a quiet side-street in downtown Turners. Sitting outside is another one of my favorite things, but it was still pretty sticky out, and inside felt perfect.

Because of my two glasses of white burgundy the night before, my temples were throbbing, and I wasn’t sure what to order. A full lunch would be too much, but a coffee not enough. I even considered one of their bloody Mary’s—no bottled mix here—but voted against it. Plus, I confessed to Jamie that right before falling into a tipsy sleep the night before, I had gotten online (oh no is right) and accidentally sent a big blue thumbs-up to a guy I have a major crush on but who doesn’t have the same crush on me. I realized my mistake a few minutes before heading to the Fox and was feeling dumb and embarrassed as well as hungover. The pit of my belly tightened every time I thought about it.

This particular crush had lasted way longer than it should. It is June now and in January, this guy and I decided together not to see each other anymore in the exact spot where Jamie and I sat. By candlelight and over drinks and dinner, we had admitted how much we liked each other but also talked about how much he wasn’t ready to get involved, which was true and smart for many reasons, and I knew it. But STILL. We left the restaurant and had one final passionate goodbye kiss in the car before he dropped me off. A couple of months later, I broke the silence and sent him an email. We’ve seen each other a couple of times since then, but nothing but a nice lunch chat and a big bear hug came of it. You’d think I’d be over it by now, but no, he’s there in the back of my mind all the time, no matter how hard I try to push him out. It’s a problem. And now, a big blue thumbs-up, and he hadn’t responded…shoot me now.

Our server, Kelsey, came over and recommended the cold sorrel soup, which sounded like a perfect remedy. Mind you, I barely know what sorrel is, but it didn’t matter; she had me with cold and lemony. Jamie had bacon and toast, which might sound boring, but here, the bacon is superior and the toast is basically the best thing you’ll ever eat, so…

I was expecting a puree (to match my ego), but this soup was a pudding—light green, creamy and lemony with a swirl of crème Fraiche on the top—served in a jar with their homemade baguette (the same as Jamie’s toast, which they bake in-house), a graceful dish served with rustic charm. I found myself digging in like a ravenous bird, tearing off pieces of the bread and dipping it into the pudding while trying to stay focused on the task at hand…talking about my non-existent love life and the chicken dance that is dating in your 40’s, and the tutoring thing too. I don’t eat bread usually, but when I break my fast, it is almost always for Five-eyed Fox baguette. I’ll nibble some bread here and there on my travels, but I only eat whole pieces here. Anyone who is gluten-free but for the occasional cheat, cheat with this bread. There is no other.

After the soup, I opted for an espresso and a big glass of fizzy water while Jamie pointed out that the issue with my crush was all just fun in the end, an adventure. It is nice to be in a place in my life where flirting, and liking someone, and making dating faux pas is possible, whether or not it turns into anything more or not. Jamie recommended I just enjoy it for what it was, a fond memory and a silly mishap. He was right. Despite the occasional stomach ache, dating has a playfulness I embrace, and I am sure I’ll continue to trip my way through it, without and without grace, for a while.

I felt better. The light through the window, the good company, sorrel and bread in my belly had me feeling myself again. It was 1 by the time we left. I went to tell my daughter she’d have a tutor all summer, and Jamie sent me blue thumbs-ups all day to ease my pain.

Chapter 2–The Pinks

the_river_ran_scarlet_by_rcorneliusphoto-d8dqt6u

The phone call was from Anna’s daughter, frantic and full of blame. Apparently, the realtor dead-bolted the door, and the girl had to climb through the window to get in. It was a travesty if we are to take the girl’s tone as any indication. And when was Anna getting home, she wanted to know. The girl was hungry.

Tucked in the corner of the meeting room, a wine glass in one hand, the phone in the other, Anna whispered that she would come home, but the girl would have to eat the leftover pizza in the fridge. Where are you? her daughter asked. At the wine shop taking a class. Oh.

Anna made her apologies to the small group gathered in the basement of the wine shop—an assemblage of academics, retirees, and college students on dates—and grabbed her things to go. It was too bad; she’d only been able to taste the whites before the girl’s call and had been half-way into a conversation with Tom, the environmental scientist who sat beside her, about the power of positive farming. He had been so enthusiastic, and she was having fun, which was rare these days.

“It was nice meeting you,” she whispered to Tom, hoping to sneak out as quickly as possible. But as she turned, he stood and, without ado, handed her his phone number.

“In case you want to talk again about the food community,” he smiled. He was taller than she expected, more like a tree than a man, and somehow more handsome now than that he was looking down at her with a warmth she hadn’t noticed before.

“Thanks.”

Outside the shop, it was night, and the streets were empty. Spring had just arrived—such a relief after the desperately long winter—but the air was still cool. Slightly tipsy and therefore dreamy, Anna walked the few blocks through town to the parking garage. A glowing womb, she thought, as she floated through it like a small cell in an all-knowing universe.

Her car was at the far end of the third level. From the stairs, she saw it alone under the florescents. On cue, she dug into her bag for the keys. No, not there. She dug some more, stopped, and peered in. Turns out the keys were in the car, on the seat, with the doors locked. Anna eyed them through the window. How could it be, Anna mused, that she and the keys were less than a foot away from each other and yet, there was no way to reach them. She called her daughter, who was still caustic even though she was watching television and munching her pizza, and said she was going to be late. The girl moaned. Then Anna called AAA, who said they’d be there in an hour.

Settled on the bumper, her legs thrust out in front of her, Anna realized she had to pee. Tempted to go back to the shop, she gauged her urgency. Maybe she could use the toilet and catch a taste of the reds before AAA came. Tom would still be there. Her phone rang. It was Anna’s mother complaining that her microwave was on the fritz and did Anna know of any handymen. Anna spent the next hour on the phone identifying the problem with the microwave and listening to the play by play of her mother’s day.

When she arrived home, the girl was laying on the couch tucked into herself and watching a show about salmon. She had missed her mother, so Anna sat beside her and rubbed her arm. An hour later, the two were asleep on the couch. Somewhere around 4 am, Anna woke up. The electricity was out, and she moved them both to their rooms, the two walking through a thin soup of dark, extending their arms in front and to the sides of them, Anna giving directions along the way: there’s a step here, watch out for the chair. The girl complained, so Anna tried to make a game of it. Close your eyes, she told the girl, and see with your ears and skin. The child moaned.

Anna awoke at 6:00. The problem with the electricity had been resolved. She woke her daughter with a light kiss on the forehead and by rubbing her back. The girl kicked at her sheets and rolled over. Then breakfast and driving the girl to school, which would undoubtedly entail a lot of eye-rolling and huffed hurrying on her daughter’s part. Anna was used to it.

The girl, in her twelve-year-old mind, had been extracted from a fairytale and plunged into a TV dinner was how Anna thought of it. Twelve is hard enough, but her parents had just gotten divorced, and now her teachers were after her for not doing her homework. Anna fielded emails and phone calls from exasperated faculty all week. The girl’s father was MIA, Anna explained, and she was selling the house. How much could they expect the girl to take?

Do you have a lot of homework, Anna would ask. Can I help? What would you like for dinner? She got no more than grunts and the girl flinging her limbs around as she flew through doorways and away from her mother.

Despite all this, Anna remained sure. The girl would be ok. Plus, Anna was writing. The wine project, suggested by her agent, was taking shape. In fact, she had written a whole chapter in the last few days. It had been such a surprise. She sat down at the computer and a few hours later, a nearly complete first draft emerged. It wasn’t just that she had written, it was how she had written, eyes nearly closed and as if a flock of birds had awakened inside her and bolted for the sky. That was how the week progressed: her steadfast mothering peppered with choking out birds with great speed.

Saturday was Rosé All Day at the wine shop, and her daughter had been invited to a friend’s house overnight. Anna was excited. This wine thing allowed her to be someone else for a short time. Maybe she’d treat herself to dinner out after. Maybe Tom would be there.

Unfortunately, it was raining and 45 degrees outside. So much for spring. And as she drove, Anna’s throat began to hurt and her nose clogged. The shop was jammed with eager tasters, all crowding around several small tasting tables situated about the shop. It was an elbows and excuse-me kind of busy—pink wines in every glass and rows of pinks on the tables. The rosés were not what she wanted. She could tell that from the beginning. The grapefruit and peppery ones were too bitter and spicy for her throat, and the more buttery of them didn’t quite meet the day. Anna wanted comfort. A disappointment welled inside her. That happened sometimes, but she knew to suck in her belly and hold herself as upright as possible so as not to give in.

She edged her way to the tables and tasted the wines in order. She commented, made jokes, and grinned her way through. Once the pinks blossomed inside her, a feeling—wiry and buzzy—forced her shoulders to rise toward her ears and her smile to widen. She found herself both at one with the swirl of the store, moving gracefully amongst the crowd, glass in hand, and outside of it, peering in. The sadness wasn’t gone, just dulled, which was fine. Anna needed to feel good. Men and women leaned into her, made random chitchat, and she responded with finesse.

Halfway through the tasting—Anna was at the third table, beaming now—she noticed one of her daughter’s teachers across the shop. He was in his mid 40’s wearing an oversized suit jacket and faded jeans and was accompanied by his wife, a less than noticeable woman who, if Anna remembered correctly, had just had a baby. When the teacher saw Anna, he raised his glass—the stuff about her daughter could stay in school. His wife, however, stood behind him and stared blankly in Anna’s direction with the look of someone who knows there is no way out.

Then it was as if the shop became a river, and all the tasters, except Anna and the wife, flowed merrily as part of the rapids. The woman, young, plain, stood amidst the revelry fixed in silent memorial. Anna felt a sharp pang in her throat, and as if a fight were about to break out in her belly.

Her phone buzzed in her bag. It was her daughter.

 

artwork by RCornelius

 

Cultivating Happiness at Bistro Le Gras

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It was Friday, hot and humid, and I had my new wide-legged flare pants on and a date with my friend David to get food and hang out in Northampton, MA. Feeling kinda snazzy in my new duds and platforms—yes, I am a 48-year-old woman still wearing platforms (and still using the word snazzy)—I redirected his suggestion of sushi at the local okay place and lured him into the oft-praised Bistro Le Gras for something a little more special.

Since I’ve started this blog, I’ve decided I don’t want to eat just anything anymore, I want to eat something good. Write one food review, and I’m a total snob. But it’s not about snobbery, is it?

I’m a divorced single mom with a chronic illness in her late forties (yikes, I know), which means my willingness to compromise my own happiness is limited. I am especially no longer willing to feel eh about experiences I cultivate myself. Eating is one experience I can control, and I want food grown with integrity, lovingly prepared and attended to, eaten with reverence, and enjoyed with friends. Eating this way promotes an overall wellness, in my opinion. Sure, hunger alone could drive me to a McDonalds or a family gathering might land me in an Applebees, but guaranteed I’ll feel like shit afterward. And I’m done feeling shitty.

I hadn’t been to Bistro Le Gras in several years, but they have a good reputation in the farm to fork community in western MA. The menu, a solid offering of relatively conventional fair, changes weekly, and they make everything in-house, applying their modern French approach to every dish, even when the dish is not typically French. I remembered an ambiance-rich little place with well-dressed servers, bottles of nice wine waltzing by, and people at the bar clad in casual but stylish clothes talking intimately with their friends over appetizers and glistening glasses, which totally appeals to me. Plus, I wanted a decent wine badly, and there are not that many restaurants in town with a good list, so this was one of my only choices.

David was game, and even though it was a little above our budgets and we were not out for a full-stop four-course meal, we sauntered over in the heat looking for some respite. Despite no reservations and the full bar at 7:30, we were quickly led to a small table in the corner, dark and close. No blast of air-conditioned air here, by the way. We were comfortable but still warm until we adjusted.

Since friends are an important part of the cultivated dining experience, let me introduce you to David, a friend I made post-divorce. He’s a seriously smart artist and writer turned coffee roaster with an odd wit and a sweet soul. We like each other a lot and even dated for about a week over a year ago. But what’s great about David and I is we are dedicated to building a strong friendship, so when we get together, it is always a pleasurable give and take whether we are wining and dining or out on an errand. While I was married, friends were hard to come by. My ex was an introvert who preferred his free time in front of the TV watching Hoarders and eating rolls of chocolate chip cookies. Unhappy wife that I was, I desperately longed for nights out on the town with good company. Sometimes when the kids were asleep, I’d sneak out and get a glass at the local bar just to remember what it was like. But it’s hard to sidle up to a stranger, and the wine was never great. All this to say, being here with David felt like a miracle if I used my old self as a gauge. Plus, he knows everything about wine and is officially my new tutor. He’s worked at vineyards in Oregon for years, and although his new thing is coffee (he’s about to launch Oddfellow Coffee), he’s like a walking wine encyclopedia.

Surprisingly, David rarely drinks, but he will sample mine, slurping and swishing with gusto, which always makes me laugh. I ordered a simple white burgundy from the Macon Villages in the southern Burgundy region of France: the Pascal and Mureille Renaud. Basically, it’s a chardonnay, and I’m not always a fan, but from that region, chardonnays are lovely. This was full-bodied, complex and bright. Normally about $17 a bottle, I enjoyed it as David and I swirled and slurped like pros. I ended up drinking two glasses.

Otherwise, we decided to keep things simple. David ordered the hamburger and pommes frites and I a basic salad and steamed mussels.

It seems to me if you’re going to order a burger and take in all those fats and calories, let them make you drop to your knees. This burger, made from dry-aged River Rock Farm beef from Westport, MA, was as close as I’ve had in a long time. With nothing to cover its nakedness but a little gruyere and a hint of Dijon, the meat, perfectly seasoned and medium rare,  became the star. That first bite, Oh My God!! I’m sure I groaned. I’m a true believer in the soft-bunned burger over a towering hard roll so many places use for the ooohs and ahhs. Those buns are almost always dry, too chewy, and way too big. Our mouths are not that wide, people! This brioche bun was so soft and doughy, it sank into the meat. The frites, unfortunately, not so good–more like potato sticks than fries. I like the feel of soft potato in my mouth.

My salad consisted of a plate of lush greens (I’m sure from a local garden. This time of year, local salad greens throb with freshness) dressed in a white wine vinaigrette. I think this was a typical French vinaigrette because it’s the same I had in restaurants in France—made with white wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, and sometimes shallots. The combo of Dijon with white wine vinegar gives the dressing a pop, almost like a sharp cheese has been shaved into it. With such basic ingredients, you’d think everyone would make this vinaigrette all the time, but no. We’re a nation of ranch dressing lovers, and it must stop.

And the mussels—each open shell revealed a decadently plump, if not shy, inner self. Shy because it was like they had been talked into coming out of their shells wearing nothing but their birthday suits. Steamed in a light white wine and butter broth, it’s shellfish like this we crave, buttery and a little squishy. David and I go out for mussels quite a bit and were lamenting all the mediocre mussels we’ve eaten after trying these.

And then–the homemade coffee ice cream. I think coffee and ice cream are David’s two favorite things, so how could we not? Truthfully, I dreamed about this ice cream that night. Dark with coffee and smooth with cream, it made you just want to give everything up. What’s the point of making anything when this coffee ice cream exists in the world?

Our food was pricier than what you’d normally pay in a lesser restaurant but worth it. Bistro Le Gras matched our back-to-basics order with elegant simplicity that let the high-quality ingredients speak for themselves. And they treated us well. We walked away with a bill of about $80, though $22 of them were for my wine, which doesn’t count in my book. (My solution to spending that much in one go is filling the rest of the week with salad greens and French vinaigrette, locally grown tomatoes in season and other lovely and cheap things from the farm stand.)

By the time we left, Northampton was draped in night, and it had cooled. We walked through town slowly and silently reveled under the lights. My pants and platforms still lit me up, but I felt less sassy than earlier, more contained, grounded. The company, the food, and the wine made me long for nothing else.

 

bNapoli

Two noteworthy things happened to me on my birthday. 1) I decided to become a wine writer and 2) I received a lovely and surprising fleeting kiss from a stranger. It was lovely exactly because it was surprising and fleeting. The next morning, I woke up a new person with a fully composed vision in my head: I would immerse myself in the world of food and wine for a new writing project. As a poet who had long been writing spare and depressing poems about her father’s battle with dementia, this decision could not have come too soon. I was ready to have some fun! The kiss from the stranger sealed the deal by reminding me to seize the moment. A few days later, my friend D’arcy came over.  After laughing about the kiss, we hatched a plan to visit a new restaurant every month for my new blog.

DSC_7540On Saturday, May 25th, a month after D’arcy’s visit, we, and our friend Carolyn, were on our way to West Springfield, MA for a meal at bNapoli, a high-end yet casual Italian restaurant touting the use of locally sourced ingredients Google-able under “Best Italian Restaurants in western MA.” They have a slick website, which promises a fun and foodie kind of evening. I wanted Italian because earlier that day, Carolyn and I were attending a wine class featuring Tuscan wines at my favorite shop, Provisions. It only seemed fitting to eat Italian after drinking Italian wines. D’Arcy agreed to pick us up after the class and bring us to dinner.

I hadn’t been to West Springfield in forever, but the last time I was there, I saw a play at The Majestic, a small professional theater on the main street in town away from the nightmare that is Riverdale Road. bNapoli is less than a block away from the theater, so dinner and a show would be a perfect date night.

They do have valet service, by the way, but we saw plenty of street parking nearby, so we just slid into a spot a few steps away from the front door.

I had made reservations for 6:15, but because the wine class let out a little late and D’arcy, too, had been running behind, I called and asked to change them to 6:30. “No problem,” the man on the phone said, but I was afraid we’d end up sitting around while they scrambled to find a place for us, now that we had messed with the schedule. But, no. We arrived and were greeted by Jerry, the owner (though we didn’t know that yet), who immediately crossed us off his list and said, “Follow me.” Jerry is a tall, lean man with classic Italian features, and at the risk of totally objectifying him, as he led us through the already-busy restaurant to our table, D’arcy turned to me and said, “I’d follow that man into a trash can” to which I totally agreed. He was very nice to look at and had a gracious, wide smile. Later, we learned that Jerry had some years ago come to the U.S. from Italy and opened a small pizzeria next door. For several years, he worked and slept in the pizzeria, which had a small apartment in the back. Eventually, he earned enough to buy the space where bNapoli stands now and literally built the interior by himself, at least that’s the story our waiter told us. Seeing Jerry move through the restaurant with that big smile took on new meaning. This place was his baby.

It wasn’t clear exactly how much influence Jerry had on the menu because the chef was a local well-known whose name I have forgotten. Apparently, he’s mentored many local chefs and shows his own skills here. But I am guessing if Jerry isn’t cooking, he is at least advising.

bNapoli is fairly bright with a large front window looking out onto the street. The design has a modern steel and linen look with clean lines. A nice long bar curves around one wall while the rest of the restaurant fills one room with approximately 40 tables. The atmosphere was lively and friendly, definitely not your typical New England affair where you sit quietly and wait to be served. Here you can feel free to laugh loudly and chatter all you want.

Our waiter, Tom, arrived quickly after Jerry left us, offering menus and water. It was an 80-degree day and humid, so we went with a bottle of sparkling and settled in. Tom told us that the bar was known for their cocktails, but since we had been drinking wine, we wanted to stick with it and see if we’d learned anything in the class when looking at their wine list. I’ll just say, I am a sucker for a good cocktail and am always on the look-out for a new place to try one, so I will be back for one of those hopefully soon. The wine list looks good, with way more reds than whites, and Carolyn and I did find a well-priced Chianti that would go with anything, so we went with that. Though, if I had to go back and do it again, I might have chosen a white knowing what we ended up having for dinner.

The menu offered five courses and a gourmet pizza selection. We ordered with this blog post in mind, choosing one thing from the appetizers, the antipasti, the salads, and the pastas, and each of us ordered a main course. We skipped the pizza because it feels like an after-thought on the menu, tucked below the entrées as a nod to Jerry’s humble beginnings perhaps.

First was the Arugula salad with preserved blood oranges, fennel, pomegranate essence, pistachios, and extra virgin olive oil. Ours also came with two bursting slices of bright pink watermelon radish. This salad was delicious, dressed mostly with the lightly sweet pomegranate essence, which had the texture of water, and a tiny bit of the olive oil. NO VINEGAR here, which was lovely. We could taste each of the ingredients in their natural state with the exception of the preserved oranges, which were bites of pure heaven, bright and unassuming against the spicy arugula.

Next came the Crostini with chicken liver mousse and foie gras. The foie gras was silk. Topped on the mousse with pickled mustard grains and a little chive, the bite was yummy. Though, I think I would have preferred it without the crostini, maybe in a small turine with the option of bread. As it was, the bread itself didn’t add much to the flavor or texture and was a bland carrier of a wonderful combination of flavors. I saw this kind of thing in Spain a lot last summer. Tapas dishes can often be spreads on bread where the bread is just in the way, in my opinion. But this was better than that. The chicken liver mousse was light and creamy, and I really enjoyed the crunchiness of the mustard.

My favorite might have been the Poached D’Angou Pear with prosciutto, aged balsamic, hazelnuts, and sweet gorgonzola in the middle of the pear. The pear was poached in port, so the dish is mostly sweet, but coupled with the gorgonzola and the prosciutto, it had a stinky or gamey character that I LOVED but which D’Arcy was not a fan. Carolyn thought the whole thing was just too sweet. I think she was right, but it didn’t bother me. This was an earthy dish attempting refinement, and I liked the push and pull it did between those two hemispheres. The pear itself sat in the middle of the plate surrounded by a blanket of prosciutto as if were the hem of the pear’s dress. It might be the perfect thing to get if you sit at the bar after the theater with a glass of wine or one of those cocktails. Skip the whole rest of the meal and just enjoy that as your after-theater treat.

We almost skipped the pasta, but D’Arcy had a theory that if a restaurant could do a basic dish really well, everything else was worth trying.  So, we agreed to get the most simple pasta on the menu, the Bucatini Pomodoro. Bucatini is a long, hollow pasta that looks like a very thick string of spaghetti. Here, the texture of it was thick and almost doughy, much like homemade pastas served in Italy. I love that! The rest was DOP cherry tomatoes, basil, grana (a hard cheese) and extra virgin olive oil. I liked the flavors, but it felt like there was something missing. D’Arcy thought more basil. I thought possibly salt, of which there was none on the table. It did have a smokiness to it that I really liked, but I was looking for some brightness that wasn’t there. We also thought a nice experiment would be to see how it served as a leftover the next day, so we each just had a few bites and asked Tom to bag it for us.

Before I go on to the main courses, I should talk about Tom. While Jerry (oh my, I just saw that they are Tom and Jerry) may have been exceedingly handsome–when he came by several times to check in on us, we swooned–Tom was the backbone of our evening. I’ll admit, we made a big show of ourselves. We told Tom about the wine class, and as I took notes on each dish, D’Arcy snapped photos, none of which we did stealthily. We were just plain having fun and didn’t care who knew it. In our merriment, we asked all kinds of questions about the food, the wine, the restaurant’s history, and Tom was at the ready with all the answers. He was also at the ready with water, wine, and anything else we needed. Informed, friendly, and equally as interested in our food as we were, Tom was the perfect server. Handsome too, I might add, in a wholly American way.

He also helped when Carolyn informed him of her soy allergy, which led her to order the Atlantic Haddock for her main course. So, back to the food. Carolyn had the Haddock, and D’Arcy had decided on the Cioppino when she read the menu online two days before. That made two fish dishes, so I figured I should get something meaty. I decided on the Short Rib Ragu because whenever D’Arcy mentioned it, her eyes went wide talking about how they cook it with the bone marrow. Perhaps I was dazed by the swirl of activity, but nothing else was exactly striking my fancy, so I went with it.

All the meals were good, but the Atlantic Haddock stole the show. That fish tasted like it just came out of the ocean and jumped willingly into the pan. Placed on a bed of truffled mashed potatoes and lentils and topped with fennel, radish, and capers, the dish was a stunner, one of those where you taste it and everything else falls away. There could have been a man on stilts walking by playing trumpet and I would not have noticed. Carolyn thorough enjoyed it. I could tell because each time she took a bite, she was careful to construct it with all the ingredients, after which she would pop it delicately into her mouth and savor.

D’Arcy’s Cioppino was also good, but I tasted a shrimp from it that was overcooked. The real star of that dish was the tomato saffron broth, which D’Arcy perfectly described as an Italian mole. Dark, earthy, and spicy, it had the consistency of sea water but the color of dark red pepper flake. By the time she was finished with it, a fair amount of broth was the only thing left, which if she hadn’t taken home, I am sure she would have just drank straight from the bowl.

My Ragu was ok. Too heavy to eat much of, I ended up picking through the pasta at the short rib, which was melt-in-your-mouth tender, but which lacked a certain zing that the previous pasta dish had also lacked. Was it salt? My companions said no. They liked it as it was, but I was underwhelmed. The pasta, though, was terrific, a Gragnano Fusilli with a flavor and texture I’d never experienced before. I looked it up and Gragnano is an area in Italy with several important designations. It was the first place to mass produce pasta, but it was also designated by the King of Naples in the 1800’s as the only place in Italy allowed to grow wheat for the rest of the population. It had to do with the soil and the high elevation where the wheat is grown as well as the calcium-poor water of Monti Lattari, which is used in the dough. Today, Gragnano pasta is regulated by the government and must be produced in the designated terrain using the local water and must be dried in the open mountain air. It’s bad for me to know these things because it’ll mean I won’t ever buy pasta unless it is Gragnano again.

It’s unfathomable to me how, but we were not completely stuffed. So, in service of our mission, we decided to have dessert. We let Tom surprise us. He came back with a beautiful tower of chocolate and cream love. It was the Salame di Cioccolato, which translates into chocolate salami, I believe. Here’s why: the tower is built with a layer of mascarpone topped by a chocolate and hazelnut cookie followed by another thick layer of mascarpone another cookie and dark maraschino cherries. The cookie is an Italian version of an icebox cookie where you make the dough, roll it into a thick log, cover it with cellophane, and put it in the refrigerator. When you make cookies, you slice the log like a salami and bake the slices. It was good. I’m not into sweet sweet desserts, which this wasn’t. The mascarpone barely had any sugar, and the cookie itself wasn’t overpoweringly sweet either. The cherries in their sauce were the sugariest thing on the plate, and they were delicious.

And then! A surprise gift from Tom! Three cold little glasses filled with a rich amber cider. I’m not usually a fan of ciders, but this one from Vermont, Eden Ciders’ “Heirloom” Barrel Aged Ice Cider, was sooooo good. It had the heft of a liqueur without all the alcohol and a bright apple finish that popped in your mouth. It was a perfect ending.

Our trip to bNapoli was not only delicious but seriously fun. After the long New England winter, I needed the wining and dining, the laughter, the girl’s night out, and this was the exact right place. I want to go back next weekend, hang out at the bar, and be one of those customers who knows all the wait staff by name. It was like being at a party with insanely good food and drink and bright, intelligent company. You never want to leave!

 

 

Chapter 1 – The Georgians

Note: This post represents the first “chapter” in the wine stories series.

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Two things mattered to Tom: food and people—everything else could fuck off as far as he was concerned. Bringing the people to the food, to the clean air, the water, that was the hard part, he thought. For some reason, human beings insisted on polluting themselves. He shut his laptop with a huff—nothing new there—and opened the leather-bound journal set beside him on the bed. It was dusk, just dark enough to turn the light on, but Tom preferred the quiet graininess of evening. It made him feel like he was moving through a living substance. He flipped to the last entry and squinted. “Georgian Wine Class – 6:30” He had forgotten. What time was it now? 6:00.

Food was easy, he thought as he walked through the hallway of his first-floor apartment. Seed, soil, water, sun, know-how and, most importantly, heart. These were not just the essential ingredients; they were all the ingredients. How hard can that be? People could follow the advice in his book, if it ever got finished. The thesis? A less is more approach to farming and the human capacity for enhanced charisma. Take his trip to Jordan, for example. Tom found the people there had a magnetic energy. Despite the women wearing hijabs—it was necessary in the hot sun—he had been embraced by people who were exuberantly alive, antithetical to the Americans he saw daily. Obviously, it was the food, Tom surmised, raised by hand and cooked by the mammas in the back kitchens using real earthenware.

People—at least the ones he saw everyday—were not as easy. They were invested in something he couldn’t give, approval. Well, that’s not true, he corrected himself. He could give it, but not easily. He’d heard the Georgians made their wines with minimal processing, which created a natural, authentic wine. None of this stuff the Europeans do. He wondered if they could transport him—like a good wine should—to the soil itself, the hills, the music.

At the end of the hallway, where laid an old Persian rug, a hand-me-down from his parents, Tom sat on the small oak bench beside the front door to put on his boots. The rug was soft and solid under his feet, despite its many years. Vibrant reds and blues had faded to shades of muted pink and cornflower. A dancing girl, woven with much care, stared up at him from its edge near the tassels, her arms bent softly at the elbows and her hands gesturing up, the fingers of each achingly expressive. She was the first thing Tom saw when he entered the apartment and the last thing he saw leaving it.

Mostly, he didn’t give the dancer much thought. But if we were to follow the string that leads from his brain through the vascular system into his heart, we would find her placed there, the model by which all others should be judged. As such, she was his companion without his being conscious of it, and each time he left the house, he said goodbye to her from some quiet, unassuming place inside him. Each time he came home, he said hello. But today, because he had no real stake in the Georgians, just a curiosity and the need to be around other people—it was necessary that humans be near other humans—he was free from his usual swirl of thoughts to spend a moment to study her.

At first, he simply noticed her there, but as his breathing slowed, he saw her fully: her half smirk, her low calf, the slight cleavage at the bodice, even the small stitch at her pointed toe. The image of the girl was so well-crafted, so lovingly depicted, he assumed in life she was the weaver’s daughter and the kind of rare being who didn’t know beauty was something one could not have, which made it so easy for her to dance like that into eternity. Could she embody everything he believed–that a human being fully loved and fed by the bounty of nature could live a life of bliss and unending potential? With that thought, something rose in him.

Then, in one fluid and surprisingly swift upward motion, Tom stood. His full six feet arranged itself along his spine. The thought of the girl was gone. It was spring, which meant no jacket or hat, the latter of which in winter flattened the tuft of light brown hair that insisted on standing upon his head, making him resemble a large, silly bird. He knew it, and now that it was warm, he’d have to embrace it. Silly bird with charm, he told himself. He grabbed his leather satchel and threw it over his shoulders, in case he bought a bottle ot two.

The class was in the basement of Provisions, the only consciously-stocked wine shop in a hundred-mile radius. Tom approved of the décor, a mixture of high-end moves with authentic every-man class. Most shop designers forgot the every-man and fell deeply into a spiraling hole of fad-like sensibilities. Had the class been in one of those shops, he would not have gone, the urge to explain the flaw directly to some poor sales girl too great.

As it was, Tom entered the shop right behind a petite brunette, her hair pulled back in a messy, yet sophisticated bun. She appeared to be his age, and as they walked into the shop, appeared also to be headed in the direction of the basement. When she glanced over her shoulder at him, he smiled and asked, “Are you going to the wine class?”

The broad and quick smile she returned pulled at something inside him. “I am,” she said. “I think it’s this way.”

With a nod, he followed.

The basement was set so that tables and chairs formed a semi-circle in the small room. Tom and the brunette sat side by side after a brief pause in which Tom surveyed the energy of the room, something he’d done since he was a child. Here was like most places–a flow of disparate energies with a smidge of tension, like a mix of oranges and milk. Pleasant enough, but slightly acrid.

After a moment, the brunette invited him to sit beside her. The other seats were soon filled with fifteen bodies, everyone chatting with their companions. He and the brunette, it seemed, were the only two on their own, and though he wanted to strike up a conversation, he could not think of one thing to say. This happened occasionally, but he usually got over it. A momentary hurdle, he figured, in what could evolve into a lingering evening. People, he said to himself, people are important.

Each setting consisted of two glasses labeled A and B, a water glass, and a thin cheese board, on which sat two styles of cheese and several slices of dried meat. Tom tried them all and found them sufficient. A large bowl filled with sliced baguette sat directly in front of him for all to share. Lucky, he thought, realizing now that he hadn’t eaten. At the front of the class, two young men readied their presentation. Tom turned his thoughts to Georgia. Mostly, he was curious to hear how the wine was made, about the soil varieties and the clay casks specific to the region, and if, as he had imagined before, he could be transported by the natural elements infused in the wine to an energetic state that resembled the vigor he’d witnessed on his many travels abroad. People here had no idea how unhealthy they were, how robbed of their own life they were just by the mere fact of lack of nutrition, of capitalism…well, no need to rant about it, he thought. It was what it was.

Thus, he plunged his hands between his knees and waited, the brunette sitting quietly beside him. In the waiting, he could feel her energy, which almost had the smell of herbs. It was electrifying. From most people emanated a dustiness; fear, he felt, was a black grain that had mixed itself into the very air. But the brunette, her energy was more open than anything he’d come across in a long while. With that thought, he shifted, stood halfway up and reached for the bread bowl. Taking two pieces for himself, he turned to the girl. “Bread?”

Again, that smile. “Thanks,” she beamed.

Ah, someone who was not afraid to take bread, he mused.

The two presenters quieted the group by offering to pour a starter wine to prepare their palettes. This was standard and nice. He liked wine folks. They were not afraid to let go a little, to spill wine to bring joy. He was happy he had come.

The main presentation was by a young Georgian distributor, and as the whites were poured, he went through his Powerpoint presentation, which showed the Georgian countryside, the clay qvevris, the ancient wineries, and the roughly hewn faces of the men making the wine. Tom’s A and B glasses were close to the brunette’s, which made it easier for him to continue to exchange silent energies.

The first white was light and acidic, good, what one would expect in a first pour. Georgia, he was learning, was known for their highly acidic wines. But the second, wow! The brunette made a slight gasp once she tasted it.

“Does it make sense to say this tastes a little like apple moonshine?” she asked looking in his direction.

“Exactly,” he volleyed with a gusto not even he was clear was in him. “It is moonshine in a way. The Georgians plant the grape and let nature take its course. It’s a highly rustic wine that hasn’t been fiddled with.” He was talking straight at her now as she pushed her nose into the glass to get another whiff.

“Hmm,” she mused, not at all taken aback by his exuberance.

Tom looked out over the room to find many of the tasters wrinkling their noses and shaking their heads. It was too much for them. See? You can’t bring people to the essential ingredients without them turning up their noses. This wine had a pungency to it and a dry, syrupy feel. They preferred something doctored, something uniform. God forbid a certain wildness might appear in their midst.

“I like it,” he heard the brunette say as she finished the last swig.

“Me too!”

At the third pour, there was a little mishap. Nothing serious. It was just that Tom and the brunette had gotten to talking, and he was already halfway through his manifesto about the power of nutrients when they were pouring the third wine a second time. Or was that the fourth wine? Did he not try the third wine, the orange? The brunette seemed confused too. She checked her notes.

“No. This is the fourth,” she said. “Maybe you didn’t get it. Maybe…am I drinking from your glass?” The two burst out laughing, which was near-ecstasy to Tom. It didn’t matter about the wine—well, it did a little. Tom wanted to try all the wines—but he would catch up the next round. What mattered now was the release of cellular tension he was feeling, within his own body and hers, which he often described in his book but which did not happen to him on a daily basis. In fact, it was this release that was at the very center of his ideas.

They checked the glasses. She was on B and he was on A. “We were distracted,” he beamed at her as if they shared a secret joke, after which she lightly touched his arm.

Tom’s cheeks felt hot now and his head like it was suddenly filling. Something was happening. A kind of bubbling heat sped through his body and sat at the edge of every nerve, a sensation he could only call an awakening, which caused him to want to jump on the table and beat his chest. Of course, this wasn’t the right place to let everything rise out of him. The others might not understand. With a concerted effort, he tamped the unbridled feeling and tried to direct it into simple happiness.

Everyone else nibbled their cheeses and swirled their glasses. Tom swirled his too and stuck his nose in. But there it was again, a scent that felt like music. Was it possible? Could he imagine being in Georgia? Those cobblestone streets, the craggy hills? Yes, he could! Truly! He thought he could smell the earth, a gracious sun, and the rain; yes, he was there walking the street, the sound of his boots on the stones, and the music!

Instinctually, he made to grab the brunette’s hand but found only the table. She had gotten up to take a phone call. The presenter poured Tom the orange wine he had missed—absolutely delicious: full-bodied, dry, and the color of a late sun. His mind unfolded. It was like a bright light had been turned on inside of him and threatened to burst out every seam. He closed his eyes and rode it.

After some time—he couldn’t be sure how long he sat with his eyes closed—he opened them to what felt like a different room. A woman in the corner with blond hair laughed when earlier he noticed her furtively glancing the room. A group of linguists who lined the other wall and had sat, pursed-lipped, were finally letting their shoulders down. It was all such a relief to Tom. The Georgians had done their job correctly.

He grabbed a pen from his leather satchel and wrote his name and email address on the brunette’s napkin. When she returned, he would invite her to get some food after the tasting. He sighed deeply and leaned back in his chair again, a little more in control of his body.

Upon return, the brunette gathered her things to leave. Tom peeked a bit of cleavage as she bent down to pick up her bag. She smiled again.

“I have to go,” she said, “but it was so nice meeting you.” She touched him once more, this time on the shoulder.

He thought maybe he could charm her into staying. He leaned back in his chair and looked directly into her eyes. “But we’ve just started. You should stay a little longer.”

“I wish I could,” she demurred, catching his intentions and tilting her head to the left.

“Well,” he sat straight up again, swooping the air with him, “here’s my information. Call me.”

She took the napkin and then one last swig of the orange wine. “So good,” she elongated the words as if to savor them and the wine together.

Tom felt her absence immediately. The air beside him had a thinner texture now. He ate a few more pieces of bread in a desperate hunger. He took another gulp of the last Georgian white as if he was throwing back the whole cosmos, and before he knew it, he was off again, running through the streets of Tbilisi! He wanted to follow her but, how could he? They hadn’t even started the reds.

 

*Wines:
Iveriuli Tvishi, Tsolikauri – 2016
Tibilvino, Kisi – 2015