It wasn’t always this way. During my 20s, I was able to drink socially without making a complete ass of myself. Sure, I made the occasional alcohol-related mistake. There was at least one college mishap involving a bottle of generic rum and projectile vomiting across a crowded dorm room. But like it does for everybody, mindless intoxication lost its charm as I got older and learned how to recognize my limits. I became a responsible drinker, able to walk that fine line between “comfortably numb” and “passing out on a stranger’s lawn while spooning a garden gnome.”
Everything changed, however, when I moved to Sonoma, a quaint small town in Northern California in an area better known as The Wine Country. Along with Napa, Sonoma produces some of the best wines in the country, and the locals fiercely proud of that fact. They’re so proud of their wine that it’s literally available anywhere, at any time of day, in any quantity. I’ve personally witnessed wine being served at gas stations, libraries, and even high schools. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the water fountains in Sonoma’s public parks are filled with pinot noir.
Since moving here, I’ve tried to assimilate myself to their culture – when in Rome, after all – but I just don’t have the immune system for constant wine consumption. There’ve been days when I’ve wondered if I might be an alcoholic. It’s impossible to know with any certainty anymore. I’ve lost all frame of reference. It’s like being the village idiot in a village of idiots. There’s nothing to set you apart anymore. It’s not enough to have a slanty forehead and vacant stare. You have to do cartwheels through the streets with a pumpkin on your head and a suit made entirely of old newspapers. When the bar has been raised this high, you have to do something extra special to get noticed.
Sonoma locals are not, as far as I can tell, drunks. They drink more than most people, but you’d never know it from talking to them. Even after consuming enough wine to kill a small herd of buffalo, they’re still able to speak normally and even maintain their equilibrium. They don’t display any of the usual signs of intoxication, like slurring their words or clinging to the nearest stranger while muttering “I fucking love you, man.” Only a fool would attempt to keep up with them and match their wine intake glass for glass. It simply can’t be done. Trust me, I’ve tried.
The problem with wine is that it seems deceptively classy. If you were to, say, pass around a bottle of Jack Daniels with your friends, you’d be well aware that you’re doing something dirty and wrong. Not so with wine. Wine has the appearance of sophistication. You don’t just pound it down. You sip on it. You swirl the glass and breathe in the aroma and make pithy comments like, “This is very fruit-forward.” I don’t know what the hell that means either, but you’d never hear a drunk saying something like that about his strawberry daiquiri.
The aforementioned wine party was actually a blind tasting. The guests weren’t just enjoying their wine, but encouraged to determine exactly what vintages we were drinking. Every bottle was concealed in a brown paper bag, so we had only our palates to guide us. Now a reasonable person might say, “Uh, you’re drinking booze out of a paper bag? Let me see, where have I seen that before? Oh yeah, that’s right. A wino passed out in front of a Qwik-Mart.” Au contraire! Would a wino be able to prattle off useless minutiae about his beverage? Does a wino bother to amass a wealth of arcane knowledge about what is essentially just crushed grapes mixed with alcohol? I should say not!
Winos do, however, drink until they’re no longer able to feel their extremities. And that’s exactly what happened to me.
If I was smart, I would’ve kept my trap shut after finishing my third bottle. I would have just nodded thoughtfully, crinkling my nose as if carefully pondering the wine’s essence. If I felt compelled to speak, I should have repeated what the other more knowledgeable (and less obviously blasted) people were saying. “Yes, yes, I agree. This wine is very young. It still has too many tannins.” But no, that would’ve been too easy. I just had to bring up hobo balls.
In my defense, the wine did taste a little of scrotum. I may have been exaggerating slightly to suggest that it had a hearty hobo flavor, but there was definitely something testicley about it.
Here are a few other things that, as I soon discovered, it isn’t appropriate to say during a wine tasting:
“This wine tastes so good, I’d drink it through the ass crack of a dead hooker.”
“You know how I figured out that this wine isn’t from France? It hasn’t surrendered to the Nazis.”
“Does all wine contain the Blood of Christ or just certain varietals?”
“You know what’d go well with this wine? A microwave burrito and a fistful of Pop Tarts.”
“I fucking love you, man.”
I woke up the next morning amazed that I was still alive, and even more amazed that I’d somehow managed to get home without committing any number of felonies. It felt like Tito Puente was pounding out a vicious mambo beat directly onto my cerebral cortex. A million tiny midgets in clogs were dancing across my cranium.
I guess I’m pretty much done here, I thought. Time to leave before an angry mob chases me out of town. There’s no way I can show my face again after that humiliating public spectacle.
But y’know, the more I think about it, maybe it wasn’t so bad after all. Maybe every wine party needs a guy like me. I wasn’t the only one who drank a little too much. The guests left a mountain of empty bottles that would require several garbage trucks to haul away. We all had reasons to feel embarrassed. I knew that somewhere, at least a few people were waking up and trying to piece together the events of last night.
And then, just as the drunkard’s lament seemed certain to take hold, their bloodshot eyes would light up.
“Well,” they’d say with a sigh of relief, “at least I never mentioned hobo balls.” That’s right! And don’t you ever forget it, Drunky McDrinksalot. You owe me.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in Fray Magazine.)