by Howard Belkamp, July 10, 2013
Ramblin' around this diry old town
Scroungin' for nickels and dimes
Times getting rough I ain't got enough
To buy me a bottle of wine
Bottle of wine, fruit of the vine
When you gonna let me get sober
Leave me alone, let me go home
Let me go back and start over
Little hotel, older than Hell
Cold and as dark as a mine
Blanket so thin, I lie there and grin
Buy me little bottle of wine
Aches in my head, bugs in my bed
Pants so old that they shine
Out on the street, tell the people I meet
Won'cha buy me a bottle of wine
— Tom Paxton
* * *
Have you noticed, we don't have the term “wino” anymore?
It was around 1978 when I had my first and only Northern California “wine-tasting” experience. We were driving north to Willits, to visit Jim Gibbons, the poet, athlete, sportswriter and all-around not-very-nice person who was busy becoming famous for being able to run long distances without dropping dead, and for writing stories offensive enough to get him fired from certain positions in the local education establishment.
We got as far as northern Sonoma or southern Mendocino, I can’t remember which, when, having recently switched from amphetamine addiction to alcoholism, I realized it was time for a drink. No bars or liquor stores were in sight, but just around the next curve a winery appeared. The sign said, “Tasting Room.” My wife rolled her eyeballs when I said, “Let’s drop in for a taste,” but she didn’t hesitate to join me. In the parking lot, I combed my hair and straightened my clothes in hopes of creating the illusion that I was a sophisticated, classy sort of person, the kind who discriminates carefully in matters such as wine selection.
The winery itself was an impressive building — very large and very clean, and occupying some very expensive real estate — obviously designed for the sophisticated, classy sort of person. No doubt about it, our car, a beat-up ‘65 Valiant, was the crummiest one there and looked cheap indeed next to the shiny new Winnebagos and luxury sedans.
The Tasting Room looked more like a bar than I’d expected, but a classy bar, lined with well-dressed people from the shiny cars. Nervously, thinking someone would spot me for a freeloading drunk, I eased up to the bar and in a discriminating manner read the labels on the bottles available for “tasting.” The bored-looking bartender walked over, looked at me and said nothing.
I now noticed that of all the available wines, none had a date, a vintage, or a recognizable wine-snob name. Picking one at random, I said, “I’d like to try this one, please,” as if really caring about anything but a free drink. The bartender produced a very small glass and poured my selection. I took a sip. It was junk, barely better than Thunderbird, Annie G-Strings or Night Train Express. Now there’s a powerful potion. My friend Buck drank a bottle of Night Train once and proceeded to get a can of gasoline and set his mattress on fire. At least he got it out of the house first.
Finishing the small glass of swill quickly, I scanned the other bottles and realized they were all equally low-grade material, but if I “tasted” all of them I might get a decent buzz on. The bartender did his duty as I moved down the line. Eventually I began to see the other “tasters” more clearly. Their new clothes and shiny vehicles were one thing, but their faces were a whole other story. They were a bunch of sots — wheezy, watery-eyed inebriates — here for the exact same reason as I was, a free dose of their drug of choice, and despite their expensive possessions, closer in mind and spirit to skid-row bums than wine connoisseurs.
I laughed out loud, realizing that unlike upper-class wine tasting sessions, there was really not much pretense going on here at all. This was all about nothing but drinking for free.
After sampling every bottle, we hit the road again. My wife drove, having imbibed only moderately. Leaving our tourist friends inside to repeat their samplings again and again, we knew we’d never view a retired couple in an RV or a northern California Wine Tasting room in quite the same light again.
During my two years of involvement on internet dating sites, I was shocked at the number of women who named wine tasting as one of their favorite activities. One of my acquaintances in Portland drank a lot of wine and “loves” wine tastings. Her alcohol addiction was covered with a fine veneer of what she regarded as sophistication, as though drinking wine wasn't really drinking; rather, it was an expression of refined taste. A divorced woman, she also played around with dating sites but remarked that the “caliber” of men available in these venues was not up to her standards. I was such a man, thank goodness, and suspect this woman would be almost deliriously at home anywhere on the 101 corridor from Santa Rosa to Ukiah, where there are enough wine tasting rooms to drink oneself into oblivion while navigating to the next sophisticated gourmet experience.