On a Monday night, the baby is dozing in her swing and we are cooking dinner together after what hopefully is the last snow of the year. We are very, very hopeful. Chicken, preserved plum sauce, endive and beet salad, and couscous with walnuts, the kitchen is thick with salt and spice and heat.
“What would you like to drink?” my husband asks. He always asks me. I always answer the same.
“Oh, I don’t know. Whatever you feel like.” I always say this and then I always hope he doesn’t pick a Burgundy, because I almost never feel like Burgundy, though I’ve been doing this long enough to know that the times he does pick a Burgundy, it’s the right choice most of the time so I hold my tongue. I’m a fickle drinker, a wino with arbitrary and habitual tendencies who needs somebody to mix it up for me every now and again.
“The sauce is a little sweet,” I say.
“What about a really rich, over the top white?”
“Sure, haven’t had one of those in forever.” This is because the winter is unrelentingly cruel, sending two days of almost spring only to plummet forty degrees in twelve hours and summon more snow from the sky. It’s tough to muster the will to drink a white, even a rich white, when your toes haven’t been outside of socks in four months.
“Look what happens to be sitting right here?” He pulls out a 2010 California Chardonnay, massive in style, I know this producer. A rare and difficult acquisition makes this a treat.
“That’s awfully fancy for a Monday night. St. Patrick’s Day wine?” I say.
“Sure. What’s wine for but drinking?” Smart man.
I try open the bottle as the baby wakes, struggling with the cork, finally splashing a little into a Montrachet glass, a wider bowl like a teacup atop a tall stem, and tossing it into my mouth. It feels a little like a flamethrower of roasted apple, nutmeg, and vanilla. “Whew,” I say.
We sit down to eat, taking turns making repetitive plosive sounds for the baby’s benefit and taking bites of food. He sniffs his wine.
“Was the cork okay when you opened this?”
“Yeah, just stuck pretty good.”
“You know what? I think this is corked, just a little. Taste it.”
So embarrassing. I’m usually pretty good about corked wine, I can often detect that flaw from just one whiff. How did I miss it?
“Yeah, it is. I get it. You can tell right after it hits your tongue. A little musty. Shoot, I’m sorry.”
“No, there’s just so much alcohol and fruit it’s hard to tell with these wines. I wouldn’t have expected this one to be anyway. A lot of the time, when the cork is tough to get out like that, the wine will have a little flaw in it.”
“Well, that’s disappointing anyway. I’m sorry, love.”
“Nah, it’s alright. Definitely one of the rarest, most expensive corked wines I’ve ever had, though. I’ll go find something in the cellar.”
I putter around with the baby, picking at dinner and dancing her around at her request. Are you eating? She seems to ask. Great, because I’d like to take all your focus and occupy all of your hands. She’s so cute though, it’s hard to be angry.
“Same tune, different performer. Another California Chardonnay.” He uncorks it and pours a little into a clean Montrachet glass, takes a sip. “Yup. Wow.” He pours me some, too. I take a sip.
“Feels more balanced than the last one. Acid is higher?”
“Yeah, the fruit feels more balanced.”
“It’s still 15.2 percent alcohol! That’s insane!” The average white probably hovers closer to 13 percent, even 14 and some change, but 15.2 seems like it’s trying to be an overtly extracted hefty red wine from Australia. 15.2! Most of the wine stays in my glass.
Later that night, after dinner is cleaned up and I’ve gone upstairs to continue my routine of plosive sounds, kissy noises, and snuggles, my husband walks down the hall with a narrow glass of luminously yellow wine and a slice of almond ricotta cake.
“The cake was going to go bad,” he said. “I had to.”
“And the wine? What’d you open?”
“It’s that Chardonnay. You know what, I think I like it better in the Sauvignon glass.” Sauvignons are the shape and size of a tulip, those foreign hopefully soon-to-return garden beauties. My heart cramps thinking of the warmth they imply. I take a sip.
“Yeah, whoa. Definitely. The alcohol is less exaggerated in here. You can actually taste the wine itself.”
“It’s almost not fair of producers to make this kind of wine, you know? It’s not a beverage when it’s this heavy, this rich. It’s a sauce.”
“It is! It’s a sauce for this cake, no dry white wine should be able to stand up to a cake as ridiculous and rich as this, but it does. Because it’s a sauce.”
I agree. It’s heavy, full, opaque, keeps you at arms length with its barricade of oak and spice and ripe fruit and alcohol. There’s nothing inviting. It’s like looking through a window into a very fancy party: warm, clearly a lot going on, but you’ll never get past the glass.
Even later, as the plosives give way to hush sounds and songs, stories and rocking, I look at my husband.
“Can I just have a glass of red wine?” That’s all I wanted.
“I’ll get it.” He leaves and comes back a few minutes later, that same Montrachet glass full of a crystalline red.
“What’d you bring?” I ask.
“You’ll know it.”
It’s a Nebbiolo, a young, fresh, unpretentious wine with bright clean red fruit and sweet savory herbs like tarragon lacing the background. This one is more like a backyard party in the summer, open air, dark and cooling, everybody welcome.
“That’s exactly what I wanted.”
“I know. No more Chardonnay sauce.” Not tonight, anyway.
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