WORDS BY LAURA JANE FAULDS
ILLUSTRATION BY JEN MAY
I wanted to get a gold nameplate necklace spelling out the name of a wine grape, but I couldn’t decide which one. My two favourites, Cabernet Franc and Chenin Blanc, are each two words long, which posed a problem: I would have to jarringly interrupt the flow of the pendant’s perfect cursive to introduce a capital letter mid-word, CabernetFranc or CheninBlanc, which are both horrible-looking and remind me of names of mid-nineties tech start-ups: HydraSonic, IntraTek, UniCorp. Alternately, I could buy two necklaces (say: one Chenin and one Blanc), with one chain slightly longer, but then the chains would get tangled up in each other, and I’d have to wear two necklaces.
I (truly) spent years mulling over which one-word wine grape I’d most like to champion: Chardonnay was too on-the-nose, and somehow the physicality of the word itself connotes a trash-glam aesthetic I don’t really relate to. Nebbiolo would be too loopy-looking: same goes for Tempranillo. Lord knows I love a single-varietal Carignan, but nobody’s ever heard of it, and I didn’t feel like explaining it to people all the time. Malbec? Sangiovese? Regal, yes, but not in my wheelhouse, non-options. Mourvèdre I adore, but like Carignan, it’s too niche. Syrah looks like Mynah bird and I don’t even love it; Shiraz I don’t acknowledge as being a real thing. When people talk to me about Shiraz, I assholeishly repeat it as “Syrah” back to them.
Viognier, Grenache, Riesling, Dolcetto. These were my last grapes standing.
Late last spring, I co-hosted a staff wine tasting with my ex-wine boss, who was visiting from LA. We tasted a dry, weirdly-minerally Riesling from Piemonte, and he told us the story of the time he’d met an Austrian Riesling producer with a tattoo on his inner forearm of the word “RIESLING” in a garish, fifties-horror-movie style font, surrounded by images of skulls, demons, lightning bolts and the flames of hell.
The staff were delighted, and I asked “Can I date him?” to make them laugh. In my head, I thought, “If someone believes in Riesling enough to ink it onto their body for the entire rest of their life, the least I can do is write it on a necklace,” and the next day I finally purchased my wine-grape-nameplate, off a poorly-designed website called MyNameNecklace.com.
Once it arrived, I never took it of. I wore it every single day for the next eight months— “Is that your name?” people sometimes asked, and I would say “I wish!”
Even more frequently, and expectedly, “Is Riesling your favourite?” people would ask, to which I always replied:
“It’s not my favourite wine grape, but it’s certainly the noblest.”
One night in January, I was locked in my ex-boyfriend’s bathroom, crying, mid-fight. I went to take my sweater off, and the chain of the necklace attached itself to a thread, snapping the Riesling nameplate clean in half. It fell off my neck and landed on the floor. Looking down at it, I earnestly, helplessly thought of the episode of Sex and the City when Carrie loses her Carrie necklace right before she travels to Paris with the slippery Russian artist, or perhaps she’s already in Paris, I can’t remember, it doesn’t matter: the metaphor remains in tact.
It was a ham-fisted way to communicate that she had lost a piece of herself. But then, so had I.
I dug deep into the dregs of my energy reserve, and struck up a conversation with the boss. A certain amount of blah-blah words that didn’t mean anything tumbled out of my mouth, and my mouth was dry, and my eyes were dry, but eventually I found my way, and then we were talking about Germany, their recent trip to Berlin, and I said some alright things about my own Berlin-opinions, and I meant them, and I thought, “This is good, Laura, this is good— you are saying words you mean.”
I said I’d never been to Berlin, and that I didn’t feel any huge need to go there. I said I didn’t respond to it aesthetically the way I respond to the European cities I do respond to aesthetically, and listened to myself using words I like to use: “baroque,” “sweeping,” “ornate.”
The two men picked up what I was putting down, and agreed that Berlin was drab.
I asked them: “Did you get to drink a lot of nice Rieslings, at least?”
The one said, “Nah, we’re not really into Rieslings, they’re just a bit too… ehhhh…” He mimed his hands in such a way that I could easily imagine a rich glass of Trockenbeerenauslese sitting heavily and unpleasantly in one’s gut— “I can drink a glass, and then— I’m done.”
I was now fully, and happily, “in my zone.” Gazing thoughtfully upward, I said: “A Riesling’s, like, a person at a party with a really big personality who’s, like, kind of drunk and wearing a crazy outfit, and you meet them and you’re like ‘I love this person! They’re hilarious!’ and then you talk to them for a few minutes and you’re like, ‘Oh my God. I have to get away from this person’: They’re too much.”
The two men laughed, and I understood that what I’d said had been resonant, which of course it was, since it had been perfectly engineered to underscore the point they were already making. But, in my heart, I disagreed with myself:
I don’t think Riesling’s like that at all.
Riesling’s not my favourite wine grape, but it’s certainly the most complicated. Hardy and contrastive, it can be anything, so it’s everything— rich candy syrup, melted-down beeswax, ginger chew (Germany), spritzy pale green sunlight, laserbeam acidity (Washington State), fuzzy sweater, barrel of apples at the apple farm, throwing an apple at a wall (Alsace), tinned apple juice in a carpeted basement in 1988 (anywhere, if it's bad), sucking on a peach pit, melted pineapple popsicle (Australia), smashing open a bottle of perfume outside a gas station (Germany again).
Riesling is the most interesting person at the party. You get sucked into a conversation with Riesling at the beginning of the night and then it's suddenly seven hours later and you’re like, “Oh shit I’ve been sitting on a couch for seven hours and desperately have to pee but haven’t yet because every time I’ve thought to myself, ‘Okay, stand up, it’s time to stand up and pee now,’ Riesling has brought some brilliant new topic of conversation to the table and I can’t help myself, I have to keep listening—”
But the Riesling I’m so infatuated with is the exact same Riesling so many wine-drinkers are put off by; irritatingly, they reject it for the same reasons they embrace their beloved California Cabs, SuperTuscans, Amarones, etc: big, rich, alcoholic reds, wines that identifiably taste like something. And wine is hard, and weird, a total understanding of the subject unattainable even to those who devote their entire lives to it, and those wines are simple, but bold, and they spell it out for you: “I am something,” they scream, and, yes, yes, of course: something is always better than nothing.
But why must that Something only be this one thing?
Likely because wine has historically been a rich white man's game, and if there's one thing I know about rich white men, it's that they'll arbitrarily assign a traditional gender role to literally fucking anything. So why not apply this absurd mentality to wine too? The belief that “white wine is for women, and red wine is for men” has no doubt been propagated by some of history’s grossest wine drinkers, but by 2018 has been ingested and is upheld by the less-gross (and sometimes even non-gross!) as well. Like any object, enterprise or art form associated with femininity, white wine is necessarily regarded as an inferior: cheap, uncomplicated, and certainly not meant to be taken seriously.
To all those who have spent the bulk of their wine-drinking years misperceiving whites as being Real Housewives-y swill that gives you acid reflux, eager to brag to your somm or Tinder date that you “only drink red,” I’m not here to berate you, I’m just here to tell you that you’re wrong, and that you're sort of a tool of the patriarchy, and literally no sommelier in the world agrees with you.
And I want more for you than that.
**My aim is not to diminish the relationship between white wine & woman-ness (however impure its origins may be), but rather to celebrate it. One of the most gratifying moments of my career came about late last spring, when I was running the aforementioned weirdly-minerally Piemontese Riesling by the glass at my old restaurant. It was something like three-thirty in the afternoon, and two middle-aged women sat at the bar, knocking back half-litre after half-litre, either too proud or too ashamed to commit to an entire bottle, in the classic style of people who have not yet come to terms with the fact that they’re about to get day-drunk.
Three half-litres deep, or so, “You’re So Vain” by Carly Simon starting playing, and, “Oh my God, it’s Carly, it’s Carly,” one of the Riesling-drunks began to slur. I vaguely remember her kind of banging her fist on the table to emphasize the significance of Carly’s presence, but I could be embellishing: “Get me another Riesling, it’s Carly. It’s Carly, it’s Carly. I need another Riesling.”
Never again will I think of either Carly Simon or Riesling without thinking of that woman, that day; what’s more, I will forever associate one with the other, and they seem such a perfect fit that I’m surprised “Carly Simon & Riesling” wasn’t a “thing” (as they, and I, say) before that day. I can’t imagine how delighted I would be if I happened upon a wine bar serving a weirdly-minerally Piemontese Riesling and playing Carly Simon at the same time, and it meant a great deal to me that I was able to curate and provide that experience for another woman. As a sommelier, I deal in frivolity— “This isn’t the fucking United Nations," I try to remind myself, anytime I'm ever stressed at work. The gift I give the world is as useless as it is luxurious: empowering anyone who crosses my path to get drunk as elegantly and memorably as possible. “Carly & Riesling”-woman is my finest work to date.
Naïve and untrained, that soundbite put a pang in my heart, and I felt a great longing, like being trapped inside of something. Terribly as I knew I needed to taste that plastic-tasting wine, I was more than anything terrified that, if I did, I might not be good enough to identify what “plastic pool toy” smelled or tasted like. I might never be good enough.
Once I started studying, it didn’t take too long for me to establish myself as a technically competent taster; what I hadn’t anticipated was how that skill would collide with my pre-existing writery impulse to describe. Yes, my first Clare Valley Riesing tasted of plastic pool toy— I picture a lavender whale floatie, with girlishly long eyelashes— but, more than that, it smelled of jelly sandal, speckled with flakes of glitter suspended in the plastic like the stars in the sky, and of a particular stuffed kitten, pink and muppet-furred and soft everywhere except its Riesling-scented plastic face, which was sewn into its plush head like a freaky mask, some horrible skin graft. My father bought me that kitten at a shopping mall in Florida when I was five, and it came with a baby bottle full of— not milk, but— orange juice, which I rammed uselessly into its useless mouth in the back of a rental car, which smelled Rieslingishly of rental car.
First month I lived in London, I went to a wine fair at the Winemaker’s Club, an impossible-to-find brick-walled vault located underneath a bridge on Farringdon Road. I had registered to attend through the wine bar I worked at, and was given a sticker with my name on it to paste to the front of my shirt, which made me feel like I’d really made something of myself in London.
I met up with two of my co-workers, neither of whom I would remain friends with— two men I’d simply deemed “good enough,” good enough to help get me through the terrifying first leg of being friendless in a foreign country.
The three of us ambled around the cave, sipping on things, pretending we knew what we were talking about, and impressing no one: not even each other. We grew garishly drunk, and my friends began to argue. I felt embarrassed for myself: I hated, and still hate, the competitiveness of being a wine person: “I think it tastes like this”— “Well, I don’t think it tastes like that at all.” It’s such a strange accusation: “Your mouth is wrong.”
If I can, I always prefer to taste wine alone before I taste with someone else. I like to taste in quiet, in a dream; sometimes it works better with earphones in, listening to music with no words. In every glass of wine there is one untouchable and unbendable truth, which is my own. Wonderful as it can be to have that truth altered and expanded by another person’s assessment, it’s irritating when the possibility of finding it is precluded by someone opening their mouth before you’ve even had a chance. (Just the other day, I was nosing a 2010 1er Cru Santenay, my snout stuck so deep in the glass it nearly skimmed the surface of the wine— to be honest, I fucking suck at Burgundy— and a very skilled technical taster sauntered up, took an easy swig from a different glass, shrugged “Blood orange,” then walked off, and I never got to find out what I thought it tasted like. All I could taste was fucking blood orange!)
I wandered away from my non-friends and found myself at a table run by an affable couple of dudes who only imported Riesling and Pinot Noir. I said a bland joke-ish “Why bother with anything else??”-y thing, either sort of or barely agreeing with myself, and they said, “Yes, well that’s what we think!” and I thought, “Yes, of course that’s what you think,” because it was true.
I smiled weakly. I wanted them to help me be better.
One of them asked me if I was more of a Riesling Girl or a Pinot Noir Girl and I said I was a Riesling Girl. He smiled: it was the right answer. (The other man, who I suppose preferred a Pinot Noir Girl, walked away.)
He walked me through a progression of German, Alsatian, Austrian Rieslings— he told me where the grapes were grown— on mountains, on slopes— and what the sun was like, how the sun hit them, and he told me the names of all the soils, and the place names, and he asked me if I’d learned the German wine classifications yet, and I said “Sort of,” and tried to recite them from memory:
“Kabinett, Spatlese, Auslese… and then a bunch of hard ones I can’t say."
And he said “Beerenau…”
And I said “Beerenauslese!” and then remembered, “Eiswein!” and he repeated “Eiswein!” and I said, “That’s where I’m from!”— because I’m from Canada, where we make ice wine.
I tasted all the wines in my head, and didn’t talk about it. I imagined that I closed my eyes, then sniffed, slurped, opened them, nodded, and smiled. I felt so peaceful, all alone inside myself. Nobody was going to scream at me “Lemon!” when I just said “Lime.” I remember asking him, “Wait, what is the name of this soil?” and he said “Loess,” and I asked, “How do you spell that?” and some person tasting wines next to me asked “What does it matter?” and the man, so wonderfully, said, “That’s how she learns.”
He spelled it out, L-O-E-S-S, and I thought, “This is the taste of L-O-E-S-S, remember it forever or you’re dead to me forever,” and such is the story of how I learned the taste of loess soil. (What does loess taste like? Well. It tastes like that. And dust, a little bit.)
The final Riesling we tasted was an old guy, between twelve and twenty-five years old— sometimes I look up charts on wine websites about all the different German vintages, and how they’re drinking, desperately trying to suss out what year that wine was born in, so depressing, like a Craigslist missed connection— all I know for sure is where it was from: Pfalz, which I always remember, because, “That’s the same as my last name!” I exclaimed. The man chuckled, “Ha ha, oh really,” and I said “Sort of,” and didn’t follow up. (I like to pretend in my head that ‘Pfalz’ is ‘Faulds’ in German, but I’ve never looked it up, since I don’t want to know if I am wrong.)
“Aged Rieslings tend to take on a bit of a petrol character,” said the man, and I said I knew because I knew; I’d already heard about all that at wine school. I felt grateful that I didn’t have to ask him, “What is petrol?”— my boyfriend had already told me. It was British-English for “gasoline.”
As soon as somebody told me old Rieslings taste like gasoline, I was here for them: as a child, I was semi-problematically obsessed with the smell of gasoline, begging my mother not to fill up her car unless I was there with her. I needed to be around it, I needed to be close to it, inside of it. “Please promise me you’ll never sniff gasoline up close,” she once asked me, and I imagined myself holding the gun-shaped nozzle up to one nostril, and it sounded so good, and I thought, “How could I ever promise her that?”
Because one day you’ll grow up, and once you’re old there will be Rieslings, and they’ll smell like that smell you couldn’t smell because it killed you, and you’ll get to have it then: that’s how you’ll have it. And, fantastically, it, it—this magic liquid!— will also taste vaguely of honey garlic sauce, remember— honey garlic sauce??? From chicken wings? From dipping your pizza crust in the chicken wing sauce? From how sticky your fingers were? From smearing it all down the front of your t-shirt?
The episode of Sesame Street where they rendered down gold to make one-dollar coins out of and the hot wet gold swirled like batter in a black skillet. It tasted like the very idea of sunlight, a sunset, captured in a photograph and then distilled into a drink: and so what would a sunset taste like?
Like honey, the texture of a melted gemstone, a thick syrup to dip a lobster tail into, something only kings and queens would drink. “I should not be drinking this, I should not be here drinking this,” out of an ISO tasting glass I’d already drunk a thousand other wines out of, stained with a lip-print of lip balm round the rim. I thought of a dead bug, frozen in amber. This wine should be drunk from a silver goblet, or chalice, whatever a goblet or chalice is. Who cares. I’d drink this shit out of a snow-globe.
Now, right now, it makes me think now of a warmth washing over and down the tops of my arms, a hot fragment of burnt September light. A crack in the windowpane, waking me up from a nap I hadn’t known I’d taken. I think of that wine every day, and I wish I could trap it, like sunlight, a firefly, in a tiny vial, and rub it all over my face, my shoulders. Melted candlewax, Citronella. I can see it there, a flame at night, burning in the dark.
“It tastes like something that, like, should be drunk by, like, a king from a long time ago,” I told the man. He laughed. I went outside to smoke a roll-up with a stranger, and later on, someone asked me what was my favourite wine I’d tasted that day. I lied. I made up a lie about a Cataratto, and kept the Riesling as a secret, for myself: a gold nameplate tucked under my skin, invisible to everyone, and unloseable.