Pity that poor woman standing off by herself, gazing into her wineglass. She's not shy; neither is she looking for gnats. She's checking out the meniscus – the curve of the wine's surface where color, or lack of it, at the rim that can indicate intensity and age. Now she tilts the glass while people around her look the other way and rattle their ice cubes. Meniscus-gazing has become a kind of vinous tic with her, as is the swirl-and-sniff routine.
She’s just wine-struck, a common condition not limited by gender or profession. This has no known cure other than penury and is on the rise with so much good wine around. By wine-struck I don't mean people who consume too much good wine, although that is often a concomitant exercise. I mean those for whom the evaluation of wine informs all experience - and sometimes drives friends and observers away.
The wine-struck spend their vacations touring wineries with other wine-strucks, separated from wet concrete floors by the waffled soles of running shoes once used to keep their owners trim. They keep wine under their beds, or in space once reserved for the cat. Every few weeks they lock themselves away with the new issue of The Wine Advocate or The Wine Spectator. On Saturday, instead of going to the hardware store like other civilized people, they peruse the shelves of wine shops and sample cabernet, zinfandel, and pinot grigio out of plastic thimbles.
The wine-struck and cigarette smokers often speak the same body language, although they're on opposite sides of the olfactory divide. When a smoker enters a strange house he no longer looks around for an ash tray because there won’t be one, but he does look around for a way to discreetly get outside for a quickie with a filter at one end. The wine-struck immediately looks for a bottle with narrow shoulders and a punt that may indicate a "decent” red, or the gleam of a good chardonnay without a tell-tale yellowish hue indicating either too much oak, or oxidation.
Not finding either, he accepts a glass of perfectly acceptable if not great wine and subjects it to the rigors of an oenophiliac, behavior that gets worse if he happens upon another wine-struck. At least smokers don't spend a lot of time comparing cigarettes and reading the small print on the packages.
The wine-struck person's social predicament is further complicated if the wine offered as an aperitif happens to be good. That means that the wines to follow may be even better, even great. Does he forgo a pre-dinner second glass in the interest of a clear head and palate later on, when the good stuff’s uncorked? Or does he take a heavy hit of the first because it may be gone by the time dinner’s served? Does he discreetly work his way toward the dining room, hoping for a glimpse of bottles on the sideboard, maybe even a quick perusal of a label?
Some people become wine-struck after long exposure to expense account lunches, but more often they finance their own introductions. Sometimes the experience is downright Wordsworthian in its mystical effect. There's the famous case of the wine critic who drank Coca-Cola in early adulthood, until he tasted riesling in Alsace, I think it was, because it was cheaper than Coke, and was so smitten that he gave up the latter and a career in the law for one pursue the ultimate nose around the world.
And consider the young oilman who was exposed to
bordeaux instead of milk by a young woman serving him dinner, bought a reference book about wine to discover what this miraculous substance was, and because he could afford it bought first-growths to drink with dinner for the rest of the week - Latour on Monday, Lafite on Tuesday, Haut-Brion on Wednesday, etc. He married the young woman, chucked the oil business, became a wine retailer and collected so much vino that the floor of their apartment threatened to collapse while his income declined.
Consider the wine widows and widowers who sit home nights their spouses attend wine tastings. Consider the reformed enophile I know one who was wild for wine at a time when his contemporaries favored chemical substances and politics. Now that the first of those subjects has fallen out of style, he has rejected wine as bourgeois, and drinks Coke, presumably to be different. A sip of cabernet still does for him what the madeleine did for Proust, except that his remembrance is still full of '60s rhetoric and a longing for peace marches.
Here’s some advice for the wine-struck: Lighten up. If your friend wants to see a movie, forgo the vertical Barolo tasting; if the party wine’s an unclassed Bordeaux, drink it anyway. And if you run into one of your own, try to help him or her with the problem. Talk about something other than wine.
Victims of the wine-struck can help by listening to at least some of what they have to say. Because you can learn a lot. Wine enthusiasm is contagious once you get beyond the intimidating factors - wine terms and procedures, and the sneaking belief that it's all a bunch of bull. It isn’t, actually, and once you open your mind - and palate – a tanta1izing blend of the intellectual and the sensual could flow in.
So the next time you see a woman staring into her wineglass at a party, and hear her say, "This cabernet is really immature. It has good intensity at the rim, and good depth, but so does jam," remember that’s preferable to hearing, "I have a bug in my glass.”