Delighted Life Wine: Revolution and La Misión

Let’s call it the closest I have ever come to Prohibition, and let’s also call it bullshit, shenanigans and downright greedy.

If you’re related to me, you know something most of my friends don’t know, and that is, at my core, I am deeply committed to rule-following. It’s something I hate about myself but also something I have to work hard to escape. A lot of life is embracing yourself as you are, but in other cases, you realize there are things that just need to be changed. This is where it lands for me.

It started with arriving in tropical splendor (Isla Mujeres), and all of the problems that brings with it, i.e. you find yourself staying at this so-called rad hostel that presents you with a list of rules, #7 of 10 being that alcohol from outside of the hostel is PROHIBITED. Naturally my eyes caught the bold letters and I had to ask if they really meant that or if it were simply on the sheet in bold letters as a test of everyone’s good humor. Nope this was the real effing deal.

I felt defeated. Which was a state to which I had already been traveling following 7.5 hours on a Mexican second class bus (never again). Here I was in what was supposed to be paradise and I’m being told, “No juice”? No way. And I soon find it is just one of many injustices I will be made to endure during my four night stay here in “paradise.” All this fun comes at a price, you know. And if you aren’t paying for it in green, they’ll get you some other way. There really is no free lunch.

But just when I felt my little rule-following, straight-shooter, buttoned-up, second-grader self starting to cower a little, I found myself matched up with a real no-nonsense-F-that-S kind of broad that changed my tune. She was a flight attendant and let me tell you, those girls know all the tricks.

“You drinkin’ somethin’?” she asked (Southern accent and all).

“They don’t allow you to bring in wine,” I whined.

“What? That’s crap. I saw some other guys bringing their own beer to the beach.”

“I think you can bring it to the beach, just not to the hostel.”

“Yeah, well, um, do you have a backpack or a bag or something that can carry something else?”


“So get out there and get yourself a bottle. Go. Now. You’ve had a long day and you deserve it.”

“I don’t have a corkscrew,” I mewed, ashamed that I had three shades of lipstick with me, none of which have I have ever thought to apply, but I left the house without my most important tool.

“I do,” she said. “Never leave home without it. I’ll set it out for you because I might go to bed.”

I loved this woman.

I went out walking, but by that late hour of 10:30pm everything on this one-horse island was shut down. But Sharon had strengthened my resolve. Why should I be pushed around by a hostel that simply wanted to put more money in their pockets by selling their own swill and not allowing the populace to democratically select their own adult beverage of choice? Nonsense! This is tyranny!

So the next day, I set off on a two or so mile walk to the island’s main grocery store, which I was delighted to find had a respectable selection of wines from all over the world. But in the spirit of revolution, I chose a Mexican wine—Misión 11. I bought that wine. I bought a wedge of cheese. And I bought a bottle of some interesting-looking, hippie-ish black tea drink.

Why the black tea drink? Well, because it was housed in glass (the only proper receptacle out of which wine should be drunk, though ceramic will pass in a very, very desperate and tight pinch) and because it is naturally dark in color, which seemed like it might make a good disguise for the vino, because at this time I am being whisked straight back to my early college days and still worried about being caught.

I hid both in my beach bag under my towel. Yes, it takes a little planning to be a rampant-badass-evil-doer-rule-breaker. I figure, what’s the worst they can do to me? Kick me off the island? At their baddest, they can make me leave the hostel without my $10 deposit. I’d be pissed about it, but it wouldn’t break me. And it would have been worth it because I had the choice opportunity to give the middle finger to the Establishment—hipster and wannabe-chill as it was.

I have to hand it to this crap hostel, however, there is live music every night and I think with each year of my life I am coming into a greater love and appreciation of such sweet and simple pleasures. Especially bands playing Buena Vista Social Club as this one is now. “Chan Chan” in the Caribbean with the winds blowing off the water? Really? And with a glass-drink-bottle of reasonably priced Mexican wine? Ah, yes, now we’re getting there. Now this is the business.

Let’s talk about this wine, because cheap and seemingly forgettable as it is, it’s actually worth a talk about. Santo Tomas, a Mexican producer in Baja California, produces it and it is, coincidentally, their least expensive label but, I dare say, one of their better. “Better” because I haven’t tried their high-end stuff, but surely superior to their mid-priced wines which went the way of the drain some weeks ago when I found it not just “not great,” but actually undrinkable, which before this trip was such a unicorn, but on this trip has been all too sadly common, causing me to entitle this current adventure “Two Months of Very Bad Wine.” One would have thought, by this time, I would have given up and pledged my loyalties to tequila.

It’s not perfect. Like the land from which it’s born, it’s a little wild west and twisted, each sip unpredictable and angular. There are rough edges, abrasion, and the sense that at any moment this is going to totally collapse; this wine is with you for the moment, but you suspect it’s soon on its way out. It will not make it 24 hours. It isn’t easy to drink, it isn’t even smooth, but it is not without it’s charms, and it’s charms go beyond the simple fact that it is wine and I am drinking it.

Not that anyone cares about tasting notes, but somewhere in there is oak, cardamom and pretty bitter chocolate with an acidity that gives it a pleasing levity. The wine has life, it’s just something of an animal we’re not used to–like a Gila monster. This is part of what I like about the Mexican wines, but also what makes buying them such a crap shoot. However, this wasn’t entirely a shot in the dark, I’d had this wine a few weeks ago, and at somewhere around $6 per bottle, it was worth a revisit.

It’s a Carignan-Tempranillo blend, which I think is generally wise. The wine is also low alcohol which, of course, is always wise, weighing in around 13%. Everyone wants the standards like Cab and Merlot, but these wines tend to get too big in Baja, and big, at least in my experience, often tends to mean salty (yes, really) and absolutely heinous. Undrinkable. I would take lighter, lower ABV and less saline, any day. Not that easy to come by if you are committed to a broad sampling of the Mexican fruit of the vine.

Misión 11 is not perfect—don’t think it is. It’s that dysfunctional friend that makes you a little uncomfortable, but that you don’t mind spending the evening with, especially when there is absolutely nothing better to do. And in the end, you find, you enjoyed it all very much.

Delighted Life Wine: Amalaya, Tamales and Other Miracles

I’m not going to go into a lot of introduction here. I’m kicking up this blog again and writing about wine, because actually I have been for a long time, you just didn’t know about it. Read it if wine narrative interests you and you want to know what it means to be delighted.

Some combinations really aren’t the kind of thing you’d ever think of but they sooo work. Think French fries and chocolate ice cream (by which I really mean fries and Frosties from Wendy’s), avocados and Cinnamon Toast Crunch (got that off Buzzfeed, but seemed legit), Torrontés and Riesling. Are you kidding me? Why didn’t anyone think of this sooner? Why haven’t we been drinking this with everything forever? Totally versatile and overwhelmingly delightful? C’mon, that doesn’t come along every day.

Here’s what I like—it has that Torrontes (slightly masculine) strength and fullness that was designed to go with pretty much any food created south of the border, as well as the hint of Riesling acidity and sweetness, which means it just wants to come up and kiss those spicy chiles.

Need I say more? I rest my case.

Because here is the (unfortunate) thing about Mexican food, delicious as it is (and I have now had over a month to consider it on a thrice daily basis): it doesn’t often go hand-in-hand with the juice of the grape. Yes, they can have a sloppy makeout session from time to time, but this isn’t really solid chemistry. Here’s why: Mexican food tends to be either spicy, or acidic, or both, making it a far better match with a no-personality beer, such as Sol or Victoria, or everyone’s favorite neutral spirit, the mighty tequila. Anything with nixtamalized corn (i.e. tortillas, so everything), delicious as it is, brings acidity. So even if it’s filled with carne asada, a red wine makes you cringe a little.

To begin with, whites are better, and sorry, Chardonnay, not you. The wine I am talking about here is the Amalaya Torrontés Riesling blend. Think resinous, acidic, and floral with a ting on the end. It starts out like it’s going to be good old Torrontés, floral and thick, which reminds me a bit of Semillon because it has that same full, waxy quality with backbone to boot, but then you throw in the Riesling which is the sassy spring in the step that walks right up to that spice and says, “Do me.” And it does. It all just does.

The tagline reads: “Esperanza por un milagro” or, “Hope for a miracle.” In my opinion, however, they don’t have to hope too hard, because they’re already knocking it out of the park. Now when it comes to the food pairing, this was no accidental miracle. Sometimes it is—unchoreographed, unpremeditated wondrousness, but in this case, I confess, I planned it out. Because, quite honestly, with food and wine, sometimes I stumble upon random magic, but I’m more likely to hedge my bets with intentional spells. So since I am down here with time on my hands, I kind of put this together on purpose. I didn’t know what the wine would exactly taste like, but I had a good enough idea. And shit, they had it at Costco, so I had faith.

Last Saturday I was at a local farmer’s market, which means that the American expats have really taken over because now we’ve got flaxseed crackers and gluten free carrot cake in Mexico. But I’m not complaining as both were tasty enough. Ok, the rice flour carrot cake was a dream, but the flax seed crackers would probably need a pretty generous slice of brie to help usher them into the realm of “appealing.” Anyhow, there were some normal foods too, and after a really bizarre and unpleasant interaction with some aged American expats whom I now bear ill, I finally got close enough to the Tamale Man to try his generous samples. I sampled, I bought, I ate.

He invited me to the midweek health market in the Itzimná neighborhood, and by Wednesday I was thinking, yeah, I could do for some more of those bangin’ tamales. (Who couldn’t?) So why not walk all over tarnation in the midday heat trying to find some random casa in a city of streets that have no traditional, chronological, numerical order? Look, even though I thought of giving up a few times (or at the least hailing a cab), I was really keen to get some more of those tamales. I pressed on.

Now that first market was last Saturday and in between then and now (Wednesday, second market), I was thinking it was time to land upon some white wine because really, I don’t eat enough red meat for the quantity of Malbec they hurl at you down here. So I’m at Costco (yes, there is Mexican Costco!) and there’s this interesting number that would have been a touch pricey if we were getting ten pesos to the dollar like we used to, except we’re not. So I did the proper 14 to 1 calculation and found this tempting vino was an even better bargain than I thought. Best of all, it was going to go perfectly with every food ever produced in the nation of Mexico, namely the tamales I saw in my not so distant future.

First of all, guys, a) tamales are the everlasting shit, but b) this guy makes them with all sorts of gringo-phernalia such as spinach, goat cheese, mushrooms, bleu cheese, and some concoction of nuts which is a contender for awesomest tamale ever, but don’t tell my doña in the San Cristobal market because, as far as she knows, her chipilín mess of delishery is my favorite ever, especially if I can get some of that sweet coffee someone is selling from a basket off her head.

Now, said New Tamale Man is ever so slightly on the pricey side at 20 pesos per, but I forgive it because his tamales are actually filled with a respectable amount of fillings rather than the traditional slab of corn masa merely punctuated with the occasional exclamation point of chicken, beef or pork. These tamales are completely stacked and he does the local thing of providing the complimentary baggie o’ tomato sauce which makes no sense to me whatsoever, but when in Mérida…

I bought three, with which I plan to compose a trinity of successive dinners, but the first, which was the seminal pairing with the new wine, was a spicy pulled beef. Tamale Man was always really concerned to alert me to which were spicy, and I was like, yah, the gringa likes to blow her mouth off, don’t worry about it, this ain’t my first rodeo. So I got the spicy beef, the jalapeño, because again, I wanted to confront this wine with serious Scovilles, and that nut-bleu-cheese-thing which is just too much and I don’t care if it goes with this wine, except that it completely will.

I cracked the wine which was, conveniently, a screw cap so I didn’t have to go pandering after the front desk worker as I do every other night begging him for the corkscrew (wine lover tip: bring your own!). I did the ritual sniff and swirl from a glass tumbler (some hostels are better equipped than others), and thought, yeah, that’s the stuff. That is the Mexican business, (produced, however, in Argentina).

I sautéed some peppers and onions to crown the spicy beef tamale, and I ate and drank in nearly complete pleasantness with a really cool couple from Morelia. The situation could only have been improved by the absence of an irritating, fast-talking, Spain-lisping man sitting at our table who wouldn’t shut up, slow down or spontaneously decombust. Other than that, there was culinary ambrosia and I give Amalaya the two thumbs up.

Where do you get it? Great question…Costco in Mérida? I don’t know. My point is, a Torrontes Riesling blend is informed and insightful, and second, either grape is a righteous pair with Mexican cuisine. I hesitate to suggest it, but lacking a proper blend, should we try buying a bottle of each and doing a little home mixy mix?? In the spirit of adventure, I say, worth a try. Because science. Because wine.

Delighted Life Wine: Walden and Other Natural Things

I was recently reading an article on millennials and how they’re not much into the whole food-wine-pairing mumbo jumbo. They generally prefer to drink their wine away from their food, or aren’t too concerned with how they go (or don’t go) together. I think the author, a millennial herself, is on to something and I can say I have seen this philosophy lived out in the lives of many close to me.

I’m not going to rush to call this error (though I lean in that direction). I will instead illustrate with an analogy that I thought up a few hours after having enjoyed a most congenial food-wine combination on a Sunday afternoon.

Ladies, think of a man of 6-7 ranking on a ten-point scale of physical attractiveness. Have someone in mind? Now you will admit that he is nice enough, but surely no one is thinking about tearing any clothes off on account of him. Skip to a new scene. Now you are at the wedding of a mutual friend and that same semi-handsome gentleman is a tuxedoed groomsman standing at the front of the church. There is a new sparkle about him and suddenly your thoughts are wandering to a less than ‘churchly’ place.

There is an undeniable synergy here. Ask yourself: What do you really want? Just men? Or, men in tuxedos? Or worse, men dressed in neon orange pants, Zach Morris high tops, and their grandpa’s sweater? Wine, wine paired well, or disaster?

Many wines, especially those coming from cultures in which wine and food are nearly an inseparable match (think France and Italy), are designed to go with food. They are made that way. Unless you enjoy the sensation of cottonmouth, who could stand to drink too much of an inexpensive Chianti on its own? But throw it with that spicy sausage lasagna and now we have easy Tuesday night magic.

I don’t always like it, but I insist on maintaining a populist view on wine. Though I choose to follow some rules, I don’t believe in a central board of wine snob dictators. You want a red wine to pair with your sushi? Internally I am going to judge you, but I am also going to try to help you get what you want in a wine. But cleanse your palate of that thought and I am going to talk about a pairing that actually works.

The wine is called Walden and it is an inexpensive red blend of Grenache and Carignan (happens to be one of my fave grapes) from Roussillon. I was looking specifically for a medium-to-full-bodied French red to pair with a beef roast seasoned with herbs de Provence and served with a mélange of root vegetables. If I could grab those herby notes from the roast, especially the lavender, all the better. Walden promised a good pairing.

As I was finishing the roast, I poured a sip of the wine to taste. From the first sniff, Walden was energetic and eager to please. A sip gave me dark fruit, spice, nice velvety texture, and a smile-producing finish. This wine and my roast were going to be BFFs for sure.

When a wine and a food are a proper match you can do the following (excuse the graphic detail): put a bite of food in your mouth and chew it up just a bit. Then take a sip of wine and let them cohabitate the space of your mouth. Suddenly you cannot help but marvel that two are better than one. You swallow and the delightful oneness stays with you. There is no competition, no offensive bitterness, no having to alternate back and forth between bite, chew, swallow, sip water, sip wine, sip water, take bite, ad infinitum.

Wine pairing is as much an art as a skill and it isn’t easy to master (I certainly haven’t). But let’s not throw it out all together as bourgeois and irrelevant. Practice, play with it, learn about it—only delight awaits, and that is reason enough.

Delighted Life Wine: Homeless French

As my coworker and I meandered through the aisles of French wine, we recited the regions as we passed them—that shelf, Rhône, that stretch of bottles, white Burgundy, and then, I said, there is this. I stopped in front of a section where no small number of bottles were assembled, standing up proud, if awkwardly. He finished my thought as he turned and placed his hand on the neck of a bottle.

“The misfits.”

These were the French wines with no big name to sell themselves nor prestigious appellation that would provide the protection of belonging. These were the loners, independents, and sole representatives. Among their mismatched group were the besmirched varietals and the underappreciated (or maybe just under-marketed) regions. Malbec from Cahors, Tannat from Madiran, and Cab Franc-heavy blends. Who cares about the little 100% Carignan Corbieres when there’s Napa Cab to be cocktailed? Why the herby, awkward, hard-to-get-to-know Languedoc when we’ve got juicy, boozy, tongue-down-your-throat Zin?

Quite honestly I don’t bring many customers here because the general population of wine buyers are looking for ‘friends’ they already know and like—not new foreigners that will take some initial patience, tolerance, and a little getting used to.

I am enchanted by these wines. While they may not be the tastiest, juiciest party wines in the shop, they are excellent representations of the lands from which they hail. They are wines of high quality, though initially you might not find them the best tasting wines.

But don’t great quality and great taste naturally go together?

The answer to that question lets you in on a little secret about wine: not necessarily. As American consumers we learned early that if we were going to shell out the bills, we were going to get it our way. Wine, especially Old World wine, doesn’t obey the Burger King rule.

Getting one’s head around this notion becomes a lot easier when we think about wine’s first purpose and commitment. You might be surprised by this, but the primary function of wine is not to get you drunk, nor to delight your individual palate. These may be side benefits, but the goal and function of wine is to express the land in which it is grown—its terroir (if you want the fancy technical term).

I think we often make similar ‘me-centered’ mistakes in judging fine art. Everything gets the ‘mantle test,’ as I will call it. “Sure, this may be a million dollar Picasso, but I don’t think I’d want it in my living room.” This may be hard to believe, but Picasso wasn’t painting for your living room any more than a wine maker with integrity is producing a wine for your palate (though many do because, after all, tasty wine sells). Picasso produced art that expressed himself, the time period in which he painted, and the various art movements operating during his career. Your taste and your living room were of little concern.

And so it is with some of these wines. Their purpose is to express their little corner of the world. For example, the Ermitage du Pic St. Loup from southernmost France that I brought home was a surprising mix of green peppercorns and herbes de Provence (maybe minus the lavender). Odd, right? Not the flavors you want swirling around in your wineglass? I can’t blame you. But while this wine was not immediately the epitome of delishery, I couldn’t help being intrigued by it. As I drank a bit more of it and paired it with some food, I actually came to appreciate and even like it very much.

Kind of like that foreign exchange student that ended up becoming one of your best friends. Sure they dressed a little funny and spoke with an accent and needed special explanation on idioms and jokes, but it wasn’t long and you realized that this sojourner was really a special individual. Suddenly everyone who was just like you and represented all the things you knew and liked weren’t quite as exciting anymore.

There are a lot of these semi-obscure ‘homeless’ wines that are affordable, food friendly, unsung gems. Don’t be afraid to try funky wines you’ve never heard of. Choose a varietal or a region that is totally unknown to you and then work on getting to know it. Do a little research, make a dish that will pair well, and then sit down and get to know a new friend.

My Own.

Fill in this blank: “I love the way I ­­­______.” Don’t worry; no one else will hear you. What is the thing you think you do quite well? Try some of these on for size:

I love the way I cook.

I love the way I play the piano.

I love the way I can raise a garden full of vegetables.

I love the way I paint, sing in the shower, tell jokes…whatever.

There should be something, ideally several things, that you really get a kick out of doing and for which you really get a kick out of the result as well.  If not, you either need to get better at the things you are sort of good at now, or quit being such a niggling perfectionist. There is scant delight to be had in a life that’s “never good enough.” Thinking ourselves modest, we are really just killing a lot of fun and enjoyment that might have been had if we’d acknowledged that sub-perfect can still be pretty amazing if we’ll allow it.

I’m going to stick in a disclaimer right here. We all know some people (I am thinking of one now) who truly believe that any effort, even the paltriest, is deserving of a great deal of pomp and circumstance and maybe a cash bonus as well. To them this post does not apply. But these are typically adults with personality disorders and illusions of grandeur, or millennials. Neither which comprise my readership I assume.

The other pseudo-modest side of the coin is to claim we do whatever it is we do for the sheer enjoyment of the act itself with no thought to the final product. Like it doesn’t matter if everything I bake turns out shit, I just so love rolling out those pie crusts or mixing up those brownies. Really?

That’s child’s play. Children do mindless, inane things with no thought to the result because they have this very special gift of living right in the very moment (not necessarily a bad thing) and also the inability to properly link cause and effect. They could be mixing up mud pies in the garden and out of the oven come chocolate chip cookies and for them there may be no great disconnect at all.

But for the adult mind there is a necessary connect. We associate good doing with good results. So I would wager that those who say they just delight in the doing also get a secret charge out of the done. And there is nothing wrong with this at all.

For example, I love the way I cook. There is almost no one else’s cooking I would rather eat than my own (‘cept Mom’s, of course). I literally astound myself in the kitchen and as a result I eat my creations with a lot of satisfaction (maybe too much satisfaction?) and delight. Does everything come out Thomas Keller-quality? Not necessarily, but I am happy in the act and usually happy in the result so when I cook something that’s a flop, I am reminded that most of the time I am knocking them out of the park.

I am also a writer, evidenced by what you are now reading, and I find I like the way I write. This wasn’t always the case, but it is more and more now. Is everything I pen Pulitzer-worthy? Obviously not, but because I write what pleases me or is humorous to me, I am equally amused by reading it.

Am I an egomaniac? Depends on whom you ask, I suppose, but in my estimation I am simply honest about the fact that I find enjoyment in the results of my labors as well the labors. And I think this is how it should be and we should be free to admit it without being thought grandiose. So here’s the takeaway: like what you do…a lot. It’s far more delightful that way.

Delighted Life Wine

I think it was inevitable. I blog about the things that delight me. It follows that wine would soon find a permanent spot in that mix. So this is the new turn this blog is going to take: in addition to the various delights of life I report, each week will also feature a wine that knocked my socks off. These won’t be the high-enders, necessarily. In fact, considering my budget, they almost certainly won’t be. They will, instead, be the wines that make an impression, that create an experience, that surprise me with their winning charm, and that help to make life just a little more special. These are not reviews and rankings; these are the wine stories—reportage on the intersection of wine and life, interesting tidbits, sensory observations. I invite you to come, to drink, and to be delighted with me.

Most of us ask and try to answer the wrong questions about wine. For a long time I felt guilty about my inability to distinguish by smell or taste graphite from menthol, or blackberry from black cherry. Tasting wine with a former manager once, he claimed to be picking up “smoked Meyer lemon” after one swirl and sniff. You’ve got to be kidding me.

We want to know, or we think we want to know, what does this wine taste like? But I would say that this isn’t the information we’re seeking at all. Allow me to describe using an analogy I am sure we can all relate to. A friend says, “I know this person who would be perfect for you. I should set you up.” You nod and she continues giving you the information she thinks you want to hear: “He’s about 6 feet tall, dark hair, wears these sexy, thick black glasses, dark brown eyes…whatever.” Sounds good, but you could pull twenty-five people matching that exact description and they would essentially bear no other resemblance to one another. This information, while true, is not all that helpful.

What you really want to know is how am I going to like this man? How am I going to connect with him? And, I would say, these are the same questions we want to explore when it comes to wine. However, we’ve been so trained to ask about exact varietals and flavor profiles that we aren’t really questioning and identifying the character of the wine, nor are we identifying what we’re really looking for based on our own personality and preferences.

Dating professionals and the like recommend that singles looking for a match get very specific about who they are and what they’re looking for. I don’t know if this is to activate some law of attraction process or if it is because once you are very clear about what you are looking for, you will be quite certain when you find it.

Case in point, there is a very popular wine at the wine store at which I work. I am floored by how many bottles of this juice sail out the door daily, but I had yet to try it. So when it was time to bring a bottle to a party, I thought it would be a prime opportunity to give this one a shot—it’s evidently a crowd-pleaser judging by the numbers.

So what did it taste like? I could tell you it tasted like deep black fruits or this or that spice, but what you need to know is: What was this wine like? What was the personality? To which I would respond: fat, lazy, and stupid. This is a wine that would have trouble getting out of bed in the morning. It is lethargic and unmotivated.

I recently tasted through a grouping of chardonnays at the lower end of the price spectrum (I hesitate to use the word cheap). What I encountered in the five was: 1) fat and happy with a big, though slightly off-color personality; 2) tropical and high strung; 3) solid, but not terribly exciting; 4) weak personality riding the coattails of a well-known name (all hat and no cattle, if you will); 5) refined, elegant, and charming. And guess what they all tasted like…Chardonnay. Toast, butter, pineapple, mango, oak, and all of the other traditional California chardonnay descriptors.

The flavors and the aromas are important, but I’m more interested in how they perform and how I find the experience of drinking them. As I now recommend these wines to customers, I want to convey the experience of the wine rather than the exact flavor profile. Which is more helpful and informative to you?

Delighted Life Wine is thus committed to the story of the wine, the personality, the background and the history. Again, do you want to know that guy’s driver’s license statistics or might it be more revealing to hear that he was the son of Italian immigrants, owns his own business, and can have a room full of people rolling with his charming sense of humor? People are more than what they look like and wines are more than what they taste like. Come, let’s get to know some wines.


I ride the city bus regularly and thus I can attest that not all of the smells one encounters whilst riding are those I would consider pleasant. Aside from the uplifting whiff of diesel penetrating the morning winter air (which I do truly enjoy), it’s usually a multi-national mélange of B.O.

Today, however, nose deep in a book as I rode downtown, I was caught off guard. I sniffed the air. I smelled a man. Naturally there were several men on this crowded bus—I wasn’t smelling all of them. I was catching the scent of what a man is supposed to smell like. I looked up as a middle-aged African American gentleman took his seat in front of me. I took a deeper whiff–cologne in the morning with a light overlay of cigarette smoke. I was in heaven.

The aromas that scented my childhood and adolescence were Calvin Klein Obsession for Men (dad) and Channel No. 5 (mom). In our family we believed that good people smelled good. It was simply a matter of proper breeding. Yet it appears there has been a shift in the cultural mindset. Today, evidently, we prefer people who don’t introduce themselves with their scent, no matter how delicious it may be. I wonder how the fragrance industry is making out these days. Are middle-aged black gents keeping the biz afloat?

Several years ago I worked as a barista at Starbucks and as my manager had not one ounce of compassion in her, I was frequently scheduled the early morning shift days on end. I never liked the thought of the 5:00am arrival, but once the customers started to emerge from the dark, begging the brew that would get them through the early hours, the chill morning was forgotten and I became excited to watch my regulars pour though the door. I loved three things especially: their suits, their deep, raspy baritone voices still unaccustomed to the day, and their just-showered morning man-smell mixing with freshly ground coffee. Aftershave, cologne, shampoo, pomade—these business-ready men were an olfactory delight. Sandalwood, pine, cedar, spices, leather, and evidently iced mango according to Ralph Lauren. Yes, this is what men are supposed to smell like.

But the man on the bus caught my notice because he was something of a rarity. It’s not so often (and certainly not often enough) that I encounter men who, for lack of a better way of stating it, catch my nose. So here is the question I have: When did everyone stop trying to smell good? When did neutrality of scent become the goal?

I would love to hear from my male readership in the comments section: Guys, what happened to the aftershave?


I love the New Year, but I have a real hate/hate relationship with New Year’s Eve. I have yet in my adult life to participate in an evening that was worth bragging about the next day. I’ve learned to keep my expectations abysmally low.

As a child, NYE was a family affair. We’d make a spread of hors d’oeuvres, lay out a carpet picnic and watch movies all night. I have good memories of that. There was nary a thought of what to wear, nor where to go, nor whom to kiss at the end of the night. Miss those days a bit…

Once I turned 18, the bar was the place to be—crammed in with every other living creature in Minneapolis. It became an event of overpriced drinks, inflated cover charges, and skittering around downtown dressed in something that didn’t provide much more warmth or coverage than a Kleenex.

I am trying to think very hard about what I did last year, but I have no memory of it whatsoever. I make a point not to mentally record too many details. This year I enjoyed dinner at a neighborhood restaurant with some other semi-singles and can say, as a bonus, I was quite pleased with the wines I chose. Nothing earth shaking, but a very fine evening with friends and family.

But as much as I loathe NYE,  the start of the New Year enchants me—the new beginning, the opportunity to turn a corner. Naturally I make a whole pile of resolutions and I am suspicious of people who don’t. Nothing to change? No need to be better? No thought to how one might improve his or her character or contribute greater value to the world? Am I judging? Yes. Add that to the list of personal improvements to make.

This month, for book/wine club, we’re reading The Elegance of The Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. These quotes struck me as I thought about the year to come and the contribution I wanted to make in the space of it. Both are reflections from the journal of Paloma Joss, the twelve-year-old prodigy.

“…I was ripe for despair. Then I remembered I had decided to build and not destroy…We have to live with the certainty that we’ll get old and that it won’t look nice or be good or feel happy. And tell ourselves that it’s now that matters: to build something, now, at any price, using all our strength. Always remember that there’s a retirement home waiting for us somewhere and so we have to surpass ourselves every day, make every day undying. Climb our own personal Everest and do it in such a way that every step is a little bit of eternity. That’s what the future is for: to build the present, with real plans, made by living people” (127, 128-129).

Here’s to a year of building and seeking to contribute something positive to the world.

“So here is my profound thought for the day: this is the first time I have met someone who seeks out other people and who sees beyond. That may seem trivial but I think it is profound all the same. We never look beyond our assumptions and, what’s worse, we have given up trying to meet others; we just meet ourselves. We don’t recognize each other because other people have become our permanent mirrors. If we actually realized this, if we were to become aware of the fact that we are only ever looking at ourselves in the other person, that we are alone in the wilderness, we would go crazy…As for me, I implore fate to give me the chance to see beyond myself and truly meet someone” (144-145).

A staggering revelation. No more meeting myself in others. What a delightful experience to try to meet others in themselves rather than me. I have quite enough of me.

And lastly, a word from the late Christopher Hitchens. When asked, not long before dying, what he wished he’d done more of?


Sounds like a plan.

Safe Haven.

I have had a few experiences recently that have caused me to consider seriously my own personal safety and quite honestly, that of others, especially women. Don’t worry, nothing dangerous, just some red flags, one of which was a dream.

I believe in reading very little into dreams as a whole. No symbols, no signs, no deep, life-guiding messages. But the subconscious is infinite so who knows what might bubble to the surface from time to time. In this particular nightmare I was about to be killed by a few members of a particular ethnic group that I will not name. As my current perspectives and future plans could one day put me on the outs, if you will, with said group, the dream was realistic enough. I could see, feel, and believe it all happening and it wasn’t pretty.

I awoke the moment before I was about to crash my car into a side of a building whilst trying to escape being shot. Upon waking it took me quite a few minutes to reorient myself with my apartment, my room, and my safety. After a quick trip to the bathroom I got back into bed, knowing intellectually that I was indeed free from danger. But my mind and my nerves weren’t yet completely acclimated. There was a click. Wtf. The heater coming on? The cock of a gun? Did I hear a scuffle in the entry?

I was tempted to get up and investigate but I knew it was unnecessary. My door, as well as that which accessed the building, were locked. There had been no shatter of glass. I was alone—in the good way. I reminded myself that I lived in a pretty safe neighborhood and I had nothing yet to fear. I fell back asleep in relative peace.

There is a gentleman who works at a store I frequent. I don’t know him other than to know the mere sight of him frightens me. He looks like a prison escapee with an ongoing drug problem and I thought to myself, how odd that he looks so like a criminal. It was the shape of his gaunt face, sunken eyes, and patchy hair. As I stood in line I wondered if the very sight of him made others uncomfortable and I questioned how it was that I, not knowing this man, came to the assumption that he is someone I might not like to meet alone at night. Did others feel the same way as he bagged their items?

As we’d have it, later that night as I was waiting for the bus, who should show up but the ex-con look-a-like. I was not uncomfortable yet as we were in a well-lit spot. I assured myself that I had no cause to believe this man unsavory. We boarded the bus with another young couple that I have seen at this stop before and we were on our way.

I get off at a stop where not many others live evidently so I usually disembark alone. But as I walked quickly down the hill from the bus just nearing 10:00 pm, I heard the sound of footsteps behind me. Odd. I thought back: when I had risen for my stop and made my way to the front of the bus, no one else had stood. Did someone get off at the last minute? The young couple? I’ve ridden the bus with those two before. They don’t live near me. I quickened my pace, letting my boots click hard on the pavement. (Confidence, ladies. Never let it waver. Also, wear boots that are comfortable and stable enough to walk quickly, yet sharp enough to do some damage, if you know what I mean. I recommend all women invest in a pair of Frye’s.)

For my own peace of mind, perhaps more than anything else, I reached into my handbag for my keys. Fumbling in the frigid cold, I laced the keys between my fingers, placing the sharpest and most angular (for my u-lock) between my index and middle finger. I rehearsed in my mind the action of an upper cut or a right hook. That u-lock key to the side of the head, primarily the ear, could not help but do some real damage.

I heard the sound of two young people and I gave a quick turn around. Not the couple from the bus, but I wasn’t taking any chances. I kept the keys at the ready. They soon turned off. No matter. Better to be safe than sorry. Next I approached the convenience store. Two men were approaching me. I gave a glance and kept walking noticing the black SUV idling to my left. In other environments, that’s not a good sign,  but in my neighborhood it was probably some rich guy stopping for a pack of cigs. Two blocks later and I arrived home.

I like my neighborhood and on the whole I feel quite safe here, as I reflected after waking up from the nearly fatal nightmare. As urban neighborhoods go, it is generally quiet and non-dramatic, though my father did alert me when I moved in that some young couple had been killed nearby some years ago.

I stand by this quote by Helen Keller: “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”

From these essentially uneventful events I did have to ask myself how ready I would be to face danger should it befall me. How ready are most women, or even men, that I know? I take my little safe haven for granted, but as Keller reminds me, there is nowhere that is truly safe. Rapes and murders don’t just happen in the inner city.

Christmas Day happened to feature some of my choicest flicks one of which was Out of Sight with George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. It’s a pretty violent show but there are some steamy scenes that help to balance the scales between blood and sex. The point is, in the movie Jennifer Lopez plays an FBI agent and the girl handles her weapons like.a.boss. From the semi-automatic pistol to the collapsible tactical metal baton, no one messes with this woman and I can’t help admiring that. Am I a weapons hound? No. But I also don’t dig on the idea of being assaulted. Not sure I’m ready for the gun but I do like that baton.

So where is all the delight in this? I like the idea that life, no matter where you live it, is a daring adventure and that is how it’s supposed to be. I like and appreciate the relative safety in which I live and I am delighted by the idea of being more ready to handle life’s adventures in the coming year…perhaps with some advanced defense training and a tactical baton.

The Story.

This is what I like: I like the moment when the wine gets you to the point where you are no longer afraid to tell the story. But, I should add, still coherent enough to tell it. It’s the story you walk around in every day and try not to think about until there is a woman sitting across the table saying, please, please, just tell me more.

Suddenly I’m not afraid to ask and you’re not afraid to tell. Out come the details that could land you in jail, or at least on the wrong side of polite society. Here is where we are real.

I live for these instances—the moment after the pause, when the person sitting next to you decides this is a safe zone and it’s okay to finally be honest. Is wine required for this type of authentic sharing? It isn’t, but I find that others have a hard time getting there without the help of a light intoxication. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing

I had waited months for this story. And now we sat there. He’d had the beer, I’d had the wine. There was nowhere else to be.

I said to him, “Tell me the story.”

“There are volumes and volumes that could be told.”

“Then start at the beginning.”

I strained to hear the soft pitch of his voice through the Beatles playing in the background. He told his story— his childhood in Mexico, his harsh father and his compensating mother, the dreams of being a pilot or a soccer player, the story of crossing the border, the coyote and how much he paid, getting caught by immigration, waiting in jail, being sent back, the three days and four nights of spanning the entire country of Mexico on foot, finally making it to Philadelphia.

As we sat and talked, the lights grew dim as the sun disappeared until we were sitting in complete darkness. He said there were things that didn’t need to be mentioned, sadnesses that didn’t need to be spoken of. I let him keep some of his secrets.

After these nights you both walk away somehow more human because you are known in a way few other people have known you. You are exposed, yet still safe. There is another soul who knows the truth of who you are and they love you not less but more. You are given permission to hold your head just an inch or two higher.

Listen to someone’s story. Sit with them in the darkness, pour them the last of the bottle and ask them the hard question. Let them give the hard answer. You may be the only ear that ever asks the privilege of hearing the response.