Any first timer to the Orange County Falltacular Friday night bottle share should be cautioned. And caution my first timing guest I did. Chris was my last minute invite to the Dana Point Friday night “dinner”, since a seasoned wine friend had to bow out at the last minute. I told Chris, who was a distributor rep for the winery I worked for, that it wasn’t a work event, and that it was a lot of fun with some great wine people. His new wife was a nurse on night shift up in Huntington Beach, and she was kind enough to tell him to leave his car and Uber home afterward if he needed to.
I got settled into my San Clemente Airbnb apartment and around 4:30 pm got a text of concern from him that read “Do you like hash bro?” In a way, I could end this sad but amusing story here. He had already arrived at Pizza Port across the street from me, suspiciously in advance of our meet up and depart time of 5:30. “I’m here already,” he texted again.
I called him to give him overnight parking instructions, but he’d already found a spot and was ordering his second pint of stout. I put two wine bottles in my shoulder bag and met him in the lower bar, with many a’ bro hiding from the rare Southern California rain event. He wore a full black trench coat, purple scarf around his neck, beret for effect, and the kind of prescription glasses that can dim. He was around 35 years old, clean cut, struggling to keep his job for a wine distributor all the time, one of the least effective reps for the specific winery I work for actually, yet there was something innocent and likable about him, at least to me. He reminded me a little of a guy I worked at a gas station with years back who had since gone AWOL and automatically armed in Arizona, but without the whole guns part.
Chris was excited to see me and slurring a little already, thanking me so much for offering to take him to this wine event. “Usually it’s all work dude,” he said. “When people invite me to anything, I have to work it or do something.”
“Just enjoy it. But definitely pace yourself.” I kept pushing the educational aspect of such a bottle share event with so many wine collectors and aficionados. The first year I went to Falltacular, after reading about it on a wine message board for years, I thought it was the coolest wine thing I’d ever been to, and tasted some of the world’s most famous wines. As I was relaying this to him, he drained his new beer in three drinks.
He ordered me a Swami’s and himself another Imperial Stout. “Cheers!” he said and we clinked our pints. “Thanks again man for thinking of me!”
At 5:45 I arranged an UBER to take us to the restaurant venue in Dana Point. Outside I offered him a puff off a vaporizer pen. “I still like buds, dude,” he said, passing on it. “Do you have a lighter?”
“I’m good with just this for now. There’s going to be a lot of wines at this thing.” We arrived at Luciana’s Ristorante at 6:10 and there was already heavy Wineberserker activity going down. The year before, the event occurred during an odd winter heat wave, but this time flash flood warnings and heavy winds had the 50 or so attendees packed into a tight room. Bottles were everywhere, at first mostly guarded by their bearers. Chris had brought a couple wines and two massive Stonestreet etched Riedel glasses for us to drink out of. Right away I saw my friend Paul and his buddy Rob from Michigan. Paul pointed to where he was going to sit with a look that suggested parking it there too. I met a few new people and got Chris started on a glass from a magnum of 2012 Dönnhoff Riesling and introduced him. I talked to Frank the organizer and shared a splash of my own Bassi Vineyard Syrah I’d made from the 2014 harvest. The night went on in the loud, slightly claustrophobic space. An arugula salad got served family style on each table, but nobody was seated nor thinking about food quite yet. Too many great bottles were open in the room.
Bowls of pasta came out next. Chris was drinking fast and getting comfortable with people. I urged him to sit and eat a little which he instantly declined. His lenses were growing dim. “We should go outside and blaze!” he said, smiling a set of wide purple teeth at me.
“I’m going to hang in here.” I handed him my vape pen which he waved off.
“I’ll go get a lighter. That’s too light for me.”
I tasted an Aubert 2007 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay that Robin brought, Paul’s ’96 Barbaresco, and then found a seat in the back with three older guys. One of them had a 2007 Mount Eden Pinot Noir that was firing on all cylinders. The meatball course was served as Chris returned, and he randomly posed with two of the guys at the table for a photo. He sat and actually ate a lot of meatballs. A woman who was proudly proclaiming her Italian heritage made some digs at me then asked me to guess her age. “I’m too much of a gentleman to answer a question like that,” I joked. “Fine,” she said. “I’d say you are 38. Now where’s the marijuana?”
Chris had stunk up the table with the pipe in his pocket.
“Talk to this guy,” I said to her with a thumb in his direction, excusing myself from the table as they headed outside.
I found Nancy standing by a table on her phone, whom I’d met the previous year at Falltacular. I tried the wine she’d brought and shared mine. We saw Chris return with his stubbly face stretched out in a smile.
“Your friend is wasted,” she said.
“He’s a distributor rep. Never been to anything like this. And he keeps going outside and smoking straight hash.”
“You can smell it from here,” she said.
“I warned him to take it easy. This thing’s overwhelming I guess.”
At this point most attendees were riding high and you could roam around and pour whatever bottle you saw. Nancy and I sat at a table with a Waylon Jennings look alike who wore a silver chain that Waylon would’ve actually worn. There was a bottle of my employer’s top wine on the table before him.
“Did you bring that?” I asked him. “I work for these guys.”
“Try it. Tell me what you think.” Chris appeared behind me and saw the familiar label as I poured it.
“Haha! What is this doing here?” he said. “Oh ho! You brought this, didn’t ya?” He elbowed me and was the happiest I’d ever seen him, eyes squinted beneath his lenses. I poured him a small splash. The concentration of the 2011 Panoplie was intense. The fruit was restrained beneath a wall of tannin.
“It’s way too young,” I said to the guy.
“No no no,” Chris disagreed. “It’s awesome.”
“Really?” the guy said to him, standing up and revealing his burly frame. “Really? You think this wine is awesome? Don’t say that just because he’s sitting right here. Tell me what you think of this.” It was a little over the top. Was a Wineberserker brawl about to break out in here over a bottle of Tablas?
Chris looked down, swirling the wine, and suddenly got quiet and serious. The guy was glaring at him, a touch on the mean side, then Chris went into WSET-Sommelier Exam mode, muttering his impressions. “Primary fruit. Blackberries, maybe some white pepper.” He tasted it. “Medium to full body. Present tannin. Present oak.”
The guy grew tired of the test. “I like your scarf,” he ultimately said to Chris and moved on with his wife.
Some familiar attendees named Brian and Jennifer started packing up half full bottles and announced, “Room 122! Afterparty!”
“Afterparty?” Chris asked me with a grin.
“They always have one at the Best Western.”
“122!” Chris shouted, then whistled. “We’ll be there!”
I tried a couple more wines, then we got up and shared winemaker Ryan Zepaltas’s Uber towards the Best Western. Ryan passed on joining us, saying he’d see me tomorrow at the actual fundraiser event.
As we got out in the hotel parking garage, the rain was hammering loudly on the roof. Chris had his wine bag with the stemware slung around his shoulder. As we passed the stairwell toward the lobby, I noticed a trio of homeless looking kids under there with an acoustic guitar. We passed by them first, but I foolishly said, “wait, let’s hear these guys play.”
“What’s up guys? You playing?” Chris asked.
The long haired guy with the guitar froze up and said “A little, not really.” A girl sat at his feet next to presumably her boyfriend. Chris broke out his pipe and lit it up.
“Can you guys play?” the guy with the guitar asked.
“This guy can,” Chris said proudly. “Come on Darren!”
I took the guitar and tuned the rusty strings up. “What are you into?”
“Psychedelic stuff,” the guy said. The seated couple were drawing into notebooks then started taking rips off Chris’s pipe. “Can you play Jimi?” he asked me with hope.
“I wish,” I said. “Do you guys live here? In Orange County.”
“Yeah,” they muttered.
“You into Social Distortion?” I asked.
“I love Social D!” Chris shrieked.
“Yeah I know Social D,” the girl said.
“They’re from Huntington,” I said. “Here.” I went right into “Prison Bound” and played it all the way through. The pipe went out in Chris’s hand as he stared at me in awe. Then he repacked it excitedly and smoked more, tapping his wing tip shoe.
“What about Johnny Cash?” I asked next.
“Yeah man,” the three kids said in unison.
I raged into “Folsom Prison Blues”, did a drawn out stage ending, then handed the guitar back to the guy and bowed.
Chris and I found Room 122 with its door ajar and the sound of its own concert going on inside. We were greeted warmly by the dozen or so people in there, drinking from an array of magnums, some Cayuse, Epoch, and other gems from the dinner. Paul was on his way out with Rob. Nancy left too. There was a jacuzzi tub in the bedroom which some people were sitting in, unfilled. Chris got his wine glasses out and I poured him the Cayuse Armada Vineyard Syrah, prefacing the talent of French winemaker Christophe Baron and backstorying the grand galets of Walla Walla. He took the wine graciously, scanned the room, and the big Waylon Jennings guy was laying on the bed and saw him, then toasted Chris with his stem. “The guy with the scarf! I like that scarf!”
Chris rasped out a laugh and started coughing. He sat on a desk chair that was at the foot of the bed. I sat on a corner of the bed and started talking to Dana and Mike. A minute later I looked over and Chris’s chin was buried in his chest. Out cold.
“Oh no,” I said, motioning to Dana. “Time to get him in an Uber home.”
“He’s not staying here?”
“He lives in Huntington. He’s never been to something like this before.”
I got up and touched his arm. “Chris? Hey it’s time to get going. To get you home.”
“Chris!” I said louder, grabbing his arm a little. “Let’s get you up now.”
He felt dead. He was a little heavier than me, but otherwise the same size. Carrying him wasn’t going to be easy.
“Here I’m gonna open up the door all the way, then I’ll get him out.”
Everyone was watching now as I failed to kick the door jam down into the carpet.
“Oh no no no man!” The Waylon dude shouted. “Don’t do that! Oh no no no!”
I looked over and Chris was sitting there, still out cold, just puking all over himself. Puking right down his scarf, front of his jacket, all over his lap, and down onto the floor. Meatballs and sauce, right back at ya.
“Chris,” I yelled paternally. “Come on man!” I grabbed his arm and hefted him up, getting streaked with vomit. “We gotta get you into the bathroom!”
“The bathroom?” somebody said. “Get him outta here!”
“Come on Berserkers!” I snapped, almost falling over with him. “It’s his first time to Falltacular. To something like this. Help!” I had his arm around my shoulders and maneuvered him in front of the toilet. He stood there, swaying, so I held him upright from the back as he coughed his puke onto the seat and on the floor. I tried to lean him down closer but he wasn’t responsive.
“I’m so sorry,” he finally wheezed between gasps.
“It’s all right. Get it all out though.”
“It’s those meatballs dude,” he said.
“It’s way more than that man,” I said.
I used all the hotel towels to clean up the puke on the toilet and on the floor. I bundled them up to take out of the room with me. “Just stay in here,” I said to him. He sat on the toilet and passed out again.
Back out in the bedroom, most of the party had fled. I was officially the second least popular guy at Falltacular. Jennifer and Brian stared hard at me, since this was their room.
“Guys, I’m sorry. He’s never been to something like this before. He’s not driving. I’m gonna get him out of here now.”
I opened up the bathroom door and Chris was still sitting on the toilet as I’d left him.
“All right man, let’s go.”
I put an arm around him and led him out into the hallway. I had the towels grossly bundled in my arm and left them on the side counter at the front desk, before getting him outside onto the steps leading down to PCH. It was still raining. He couldn’t set one foot in front of the other, so I helped him down each one like a baby. “All right man, we have to call Uber.”
“I’m so sorry Darren,” he said, then started crying.
“Hey the night got away from ya.”
He had his phone out but couldn’t even hold it up.
“Here I’ll do it,” I said.
“No I’ve got it,” he insisted, holding it upside down, fumbling until he clicked on the Uber app.
I opened up Uber on my own phone and said, “Chris, what’s your address?”
He relayed it. I did a check to see how much the ride would be, and it came back as $108. I decided my kindness would end short of there. He was still clicking away on his phone, stalled by his password which he couldn’t even type in, let alone remember. Then he clicked his phone and wailed “Siri! Get me a taxi!”
A local service popped up and I took the phone and called it, making arrangements for the trip. Chris laid down on the wet stairs, looking overwhelmingly drunk. I helped hide him from street view and said, “I’ll be right back. Stay here. Don’t go anywhere.”
I jammed in to the front desk and there was an unamused older woman working the counter next to a younger guy. I smelled of Chris’s puke. “Hi there, can we move the couple in room 122 to a different room?”
“We might not have another room available,” the guy said, then started clicking on his computer.
“Why?” the woman asked with a scowl. After all, she had seen us staggering out of there like a zombie apocalypse, and was likely the recipient of the meatball and bile stained towels I’d dropped off along the way. “Why do they need to move?”
“A guest in there got sick. Unfortunately.”
“Oh no,” she said, shaking her head.
“I’ll pay for an upgrade or anything you can do.”
They charged me and made keys to room 130. “I’m really sorry,” I said.
“You wanna give them the keys?” she asked. “Happily.”
I ran down the hall, opened the door to the reek of room 122, and said, “Time to make a move to room 130. I got you guys a different room!”
Jennifer took the key and smiled. “Thank you,” Brian struggled to say.
“It’s the fucking least I can do,” I said, running out of there.
Chris was still outside, passed out on a stairstep, getting rinsed off by the sky. I heard a honk and saw a taxi van creeping out of the hotel parking garage to the right. A tentative driver looked over at us, slightly horrified.
“Chris! Your ride’s here. Let’s get you up.”
I helped him to his feet and he started throwing up again on his shoes. He gagged a little. I figured his taxi would split on him for sure, but the guy stayed. I walked him over and opened up the sliding door. “Hello!” I said, my mock cheer on show. I wedged him into the seat as the driver looked back at him in fear. I told him the exact address and the driver punched it in.
“I need him to pay in advance,” the driver said. “Also, I charge a hundred for cleanup, in the event of.”
“That’s all fine. Chris, give him your credit card.” Miraculously he was able to do that, and the charge went through. The smell in there was already foul.
“Last thing man, give me your wife’s number so I can let her know you’re on your way.”
He waved off the idea. “I’m fine.”
I slammed the van door shut and off the taxi sputtered up PCH. I exhaled and crossed the highway for the bright lights of Del Taco to practically shower in a bathroom sink, then grab a bite as somebody else’s problem flew away into the night.