Now, I don’t think wine lists should have descriptions of the wines at all, especially not cutesy or clever ones. It’s pointless: there’s nothing any writer could do to stop the names of the wines from being the most beautiful words on the page. Just try and write a sentence that looks as good as, for instance, Méo-Camuzet Vosne-Romanée Premier— no— 1er Cru, or even just ‘1er Cru,’ when you write it like that, with the 1. Imagine opening up a pretty old book to any page and seeing those beautiful words written down in the middle of it. Your eye would be drawn to them. See how ugly the sentence "Your eye would be drawn to them" looks comparatively?
So that’s the first thing I want to say about the imaginary wine list I'm writing about: it doesn’t have descriptions. And it would be shaped like a book, and bound. It’s alright when wine lists are just one long piece of paper but I hate when they’re something so precious, a clipboard or a duo-tang or whatever. Some “fresh new take” on a wine list being a wine list. Give me a break.
The wine list I'm writing about doesn't exist because, if it did, I would have to write it, it would have to belong to my wine bar, and I don't want to have a wine bar. I’m too lazy, not rich enough, and also, I don’t really like wine bars. I go to them because I have to, because I’m a person who lives in a city in North America and likes to drink good wine— but I also think that no wine can be enjoyed to its fullest at a WINE BAR in a CITY in NORTH AMERICA. Wine tastes first-best on the vineyard where it’s made, second-best in a bar/restaurant close to where it’s made (which would probably never be called a “wine bar,” unless you’re in California), third-best in a person’s home close to where it’s made, a hundredth-best in some drippy wine bar in Cleveland or Vancouver or whatever. Whenever a new wine bar opens up in Toronto and a person tells me it’s “good,” I take it with a grain of salt. You have to assume that every wine bar in your city is necessarily an abomination, and then grade it on a curve.
If I were ever rich enough to open up a wine bar, I’d also have to be bored. Like, the richest, boredest person you could imagine. If I were just regular rich and bored, I’d want to go work on a vineyard and do physical labour for the love of the game; if I were very rich and bored, I'd get a job working as a food runner at a restaurant. Food runner is my favourite job— it’s so easy, and you never have to talk to a person. So, in this fake scenario, I would already have had to carry out those two phases of rich person boredom for long enough that I’d have reached a point of no longer being satisfied by my food-running gig, which seems impossible, but, you know. Stranger things have happened, I guess.
So that’s the back-story. I’d quit my job as a fifty-five year old food runner, move back to Toronto, and open up a wine bar. I’d call it John F. Kennedy International Airport— no, John F. Kennedy Int’l Airport, Int’l, with the apostrophe. Not for any real reason: I just think it’s a solid name. And I hate when wine bar names are so transparent about the wine bar being a wine bar. Like, calm down. If your wine bar is a wine bar, we’ll figure out that it’s a wine bar. You don’t have to name it “Tannin.”
At John F. Kennedy Int’l Airport, the wine by the glass list would be a small slip of paper paper-clipped to the front of the wine-book wine-list. It would be written in inky black Micron pen in my cutesy loopy penmanship, then photocopied using an inky-smelling Xerox machine from twenty-five years ago (or, fifty years ago, since my wine bar is set twenty-five years in the future), and the belly of the machine would overheat, and you could warm your hands on it, and when the paper printed out it would feel hot too.
The classic somm blunder of a self-indulgent wine list, swarming with oddities and driven by personal preference, is near-impossible, but not impossible, to avoid. It’s enticing because any wine-list-writer will inevitably end most and/or all of their evenings drinking a glass of whatever-they-want off it; as said wine-list-writer is the number one person in the world guaranteed to engage with her own list most frequently, it’s hard not to stud said list with the wines she'd most like to drink herself.
A good wine list balances wines that will delight fellow wine-nerds with those that will satisfy the other 99%; an excellent wine list features nerd-delighters that have the capacity to blow a non-nerd’s mind, and non-nerd-delighters that that even the snootiest of master sommeliers would be forced to admit are wildly fucking delicious.
My fantasy wine by the glass list (it’s like a fantasy football league, sort of) is composed of: three sparklings (one Champagne, one-non, and one rosé), two still rosés (one weird, and one normal), six reds, and five whites. Today I want to talk about the whites, all of which I’d like to crush a glass of after service, none of which my mother would make a disgusted face at after sipping.
I’m a flighty billionaire with a great ass and a heart of gold. The janky restaurant laptop is open to a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, and I’m drinking a glass of—
1. A VERY SPRITZY LITTLE GAVI
This is the cheapest on the list. You’re not supposed to say “cheap”— you’re supposed to say “inexpensive,” or nothing at all. But now I’m thinking of all the good cheap things— energy drinks, Lipsmackers, sour keys— and am thinking that maybe the cheapest wine on the list isn’t necessarily the least expensive, like when Dolly Parton says “It costs a lot of money to look this cheap.”
But, the very spritzy little Gavi is the cheapest and the cheapest, and it tastes like all the light green things— apples, grass, and kiwis— and all the emojis about light, about stars. Those plastic fluorescent moon and star-shapes you paste to a little kid’s ceiling. A melting lime Popsicle, a mini-can of apple soda with a picture of the little dragon Yoshi on the front.
A flirty swishy little skirt, but you have to call it a jupe, like in France. Okay. It tastes like a skirt in France.
The official name of Gavi is either ‘Cortese di Gavi’ or ‘Gavi di Gavi,’ if it’s from the centre of the Gavi comune— Gavi is the name of the region, Cortese is the name of the grape, and ‘Gavi di Gavi’ are my favourite words to say out loud. Just say them! You'll seem so cute to yourself.
You never hear of Corteses coming from anywhere but Gavi, which is unfortunate, since Cortese is such a nice grape. It’s so friendly, spring-like, bopping its stupid head around, skipping rope. I think more people would like it if they got to know it. They could like it the way they like Pinot Grigio, although it’s so much better. Cortese is like the best case scenario “basic bitch” you could meet, the kind of basic who would unashamedly admit to being a basic and have a really good sense of humour about it. You’d feel so free around the basic. You could say things like “random” and “self-care” and “literally” to mean “figuratively,” and never feel judged.
Every list needs a crushable and unfuckwithably yummy white. Fruity, zippy, light in body and just acidic enough. A white wine that drinks like the most delightful of late May afternoons, sunny and breezy, a weather-day that no one could find fault with. Gavis are the kind of white wine that even a shitty basic who knows nothing about wine, to a point where she refers to Prosecco as Champagne, would notice was somehow “better” than most.
The most perfectly cheap and cheaply perfect Gavi di Gavi would shine brightest on the late May day it makes you long for, afternoon turning to evening at a vaguely Pinterest-y but still delightful and very long pale-wood picnic table set with milk-jugsful of white hydrangea, repurposed oil lamps holding stout white candles, melting, beneath a fairy-lit canopy of lime green leaves.
2. A SCRAPPY SCRATCHY SKIN-CONTACT WHITE THAT TASTES LIKE MARZIPAN
A few years ago, I worked at a natural wine bar in London, England. It was a very Cool place, with a dining room resembling a social media influencer’s loft: spacious, airy, rife with potted plants and comfortably ecru. The wine list itself was nice-looking, a plain slice of white printer paper, the typeface san-serif and pleasantly drab. But the fragile paper could not hold up to the fundamental liquidiness of dinner service, and by the end of every night they were trashed. Wet, dried, reconstituted, covered in unsightly splashes of fermented soy & chilli sauce and red wine, balled up, half-folded, or missing a corner, like a one-eared dog. And the wines themselves were fine: the whites were good and the reds were good, but— herein lies the problem— the list featured something like six or seven orange wines by the glass.
No! Hard no. You shouldn’t— you can’t— do this.
It’s fine for a wine bar to sneak a modest selection of oranges (five bottles max, hard max) into their full by the bottle list, but as far as glass pours go, you can’t offer more than one, although you should offer one. And it should be a very good one.
There’s a lot less orange wine produced than there is white or red, and for every hundred mind-blowing whites in existence, there’s probably one great orange— and even that’s being generous. Yes, I’m too much of a traditionalist to fully buy into the Natural Wine Industrial Complex— more of an AOC than a VdF kinda gal, if you will— but my aim is not to diminish the legitimacy of orange wine as a style. Rather, I’d like to put it in its place, highlighting its excellence, not its limitations. Why clog up a list with a bunch of shitty orange wine that tastes like literal dirt? It’s like pouring someone who’s never tried white wine some garbagey swill made in a garage by a retired insurance salesman in Minnesota and saying “Yes, this is it. This is what it tastes like. It simply does not get any better than this.”
The best orange wine I ever tasted was from Friuli Venezia-Giulia and tasted like peaty Scotch and caramelized bananas, and I wish I could drink a nip of it out of a bevelled sherry glass before retiring to bed every night. But I would never choose to pour such a wine by the glass— it’s too weird, and thus creates too much work for me. A few months at that natural wine bar ruined me for life; there is no aspect of “being a sommelier” I loathe more than “having to explain what an orange wine is” (FUCKING GOOGLE IT), so The White Wine List Of My Dreams would boast an orange wine that “passes” as a white, and I would shove it in the white section, because orange wine is not important enough to deserve its own section.
The orange wine of my dreams would be gooey, like the viscous middle of a Gusher, but a Gusher-flavour that, in real life, doesn’t exist. Apricot, grass, thyme & orange wine-flavoured Gushers, eaten merrily by the fistful, in a hammock, all day long.
What I hate most about bad orange wines is that they taste dead, like a dead thing, some ancient artefact—ornate, bejewelled, but tarnished beyond repair. A cracked-open golden vessel stuffed full of dried herbs that smell stale, and cigarettey.
A good orange wine is awake. Alive not just to mean “not dead,” but also “lively.” It’s aromatic, spicy, perfumed. It should smell like Josephine Baker’s dressing gown, or laundry basket, with only the faintest kiss of oak. There needs to be a little bit of clovey dried orange peel, but mostly lots of apricot; it should taste of all the different ways an apricot can apricot: 1) Fresh and recently fucked by Timothée Chalamet, 2) Overripe, smushy, never-eaten, underneath the tree. Maybe a dog would eat it. 3) The sound of a knife spreading homemade apricot jam across a triangle of exquisitely-burnt toast. Listen! 4) The dried apricot component of a handful of trail mix, accompanied by a shrapnel of raisins, peanuts, hopefully something chocolate, and broken-off shreds of almond skin. 5) And, most importantly, the almond itself, crushed into a paste with sugar and honey and oil, pressed into the shape of an apricot and delightfully-arranged in a golden box with all her little friends, the other cute-fruits, dressed in pleated paper cuplets, standing in a row.
3. THE DRIEST WHITE IN THE WORLD
“I’ll have a glass of your driest white,” someone will say, because that’s what people always say, because— for no reason, I think— people have decided that it’s uncool to like wine that tastes like sugar and fruit. Nothing about this makes any sense to me, since I’m sweet-toothed, and the only thing I love more than sugar and fruit is wine that tastes like sugar and fruit.
“Well, you’re in luck,” I’ll tell them, “The driest white on my list is, if you can believe it, the driest white in the world!”
“But: is it dry?” they’ll ask, because that’s what people always ask. For some reason, a sommelier telling them the name of the driest white on their list in response to their asking for it is never good enough. They require a double-confirmation— for no reason, I think.
“It is!” I’ll say, “Like I said, it’s the driest white wine in the entire world. It tastes like a bone, like water, like air. It tastes like the salt that gets stuck in your hair when you sit by the sea, and is so light in body that you can’t even feel it in your mouth; it’s either vapour or nothing, or a slice of white paper. A scrap of white linen. And skinny as a tree.
Did you ever see the watercolour of a tree? The one by Egon Schiele, I mean, that’s hanging up in my Dad’s apartment. God, it’s such a skinny tree, the kind with lots of branches, but no leaves. A November tree. It’s that kind of tree, and it’s also a slice of white toast, and it’s a cream wool sweater, and a plain white t-shirt. The acidity I would describe as being either ‘tense’ or ‘racy’ or ‘nervy’, since those are the words I like to use to describe acidity, which this wine indeed has, and it’s also ‘bracing’—another good one. It’s like, I guess you could say, it’s sort of like, you know the fish called an X-ray fish? It’s sort of like that. Yeah. Either it’s a fish skeleton, or the filament of a lightbulb.”
“So, it’s not, like, fruity, is it?” asks the person.
“Fruity?” I’ll reply, “Fruity?!? Ha! What a dark and hilarious joke. This wine is so non-fruity, I even forgot what fruit was for a second there. I mean, it’s fruity if you think, like, a fossil is fruity. Do you?”
“Do I what?”
“Think a fossil is fruity?”
“It’s like, imagine this: someone squeezing a wedge of lemon, a thousand miles away. Just those few little droplets of lemon juice, hanging in the air, like a mist. That’s about as fruity as this wine gets. Like a whisper about a lemon in another country.”
“So, it’s, like dry?”
“It’s like sucking on a cotton ball.”
“Okay,” the person will sigh, visibly skeptical: I shouldn’t have said the word ‘lemon.’ “I’ll try it.”
Mid-glass, I’ll pop back over to check on them. “Dry enough for ya?” I’ll ask, pretending to jab them in the ribcage with my elbow.
“It’s fine,” they’ll reply, then take a sip, look away. They want me to leave, and I don’t really want to stay, either. I can tell they’re wishing they could drink a cup of sand instead
4. A ‘BUTTERBOMB’
The other day at work a guy asked me what wine would pair best with his fish. I told him probably the Chardonnay.
The fish is my favourite thing on the menu. It’s from Iceland. It’s white and shiny and it rests, like a prize, a ring in a box, atop a bed of lumpy grassy swiss chard, and is adorned with skinny flutes of samphire, and the whole thing is steamed inside a half-moon of parchment. I cut it at open at the table with gilded golden scissors, creating a flap. I lift up the flap and pour beurre blanc from a small copper pitcher onto the fish and make a joke about how much I like the beurre blanc. I used to say that I wish I could bathe in it but then I stopped saying that because it’s gross to imagine how that would make a person smell and also I didn’t want strangers to picture me doing so. Now I just say it’s my favourite thing in the world, which is funny enough because it’s obvious that favourite thing in the world is probably not the sauce I pour on top of fish at work. I mean, imagine if it was? Imagine if I liked it better than… dogs? Or cats. My mother! The sun.
The Chardonnay is from the Jura, from an AOC called L’Étoile, which is French for ‘The Star.’ It’s called The Star because the region itself is star-shaped and because there are star-shaped fossils in the soil. But it doesn't taste sparkly, or starry-eyed. It's not a very nice wine; it's somber, and vacant, like the feeling of receiving a dud response to the finely-crafted and flirtatious masterpiece you’ve just texted the dude you’re sweet on, a slap in the face of a solemn, emojiless “Ya.” “K.” or “Fine."
“Is it oaked?” asked the man.
“Yes, but very gently,” I replied.
“So it’s not a ‘butterbomb’?”
In my head, I was like: “Whoa.”
Butterbomb? I knew exactly what he meant, but still: “Is that what we’re calling them now?”
“No,” I said, “It’s not a…” I trailed off. I didn’t want to listen to the sound of my own voice saying that “word.”
Last Saturday night, I tried to buy a Butterbomb. I went to the liquor store after work with the intention of spending fifty-plus dollars on the most aggressively-oaked California Chardonnay I could find, but failed myself. Why? Well… I bought the bottle with the nicest— or should I say, least offensively-ugly— label. Oh, Laura. What were you thinking?
After opening the bottle, I realized I’d purchased the most sensibly-oaked California Chard I ever drank, a dead-ringer for a village-level white Burgundy: it was all that lovely label’s fault! A Butterbomb would never have a nice label! A Butterbomb is, by nature, deeply unstylish, a hangover from the mid-eighties SoCal of Wolfgang Puck and LA Story, of aerobics and smoked salmon pizza, a photograph of a young Kris Jenner in a statement hat, flanked by her Laura Ashley-ed daughters on Throwback Thursday.
I am not rich enough to bother with buying another bottle, and so I will describe the Butterbomb of my Dreams from whatever is the opposite of memory, imagining I’m remembering a wine I haven’t yet drank but one day might, and I’m hoping that by writing this I will will it into existence. I am thinking of one particular particle of popcorn at the bottom of a popcorn bag— movie theatre popcorn, I feel like this should go without saying. It’s not a fully, perfectly-popped kernel, it’s one of those half-popped guys, three-quarters popped, a little bit burnt, and blooming. And it is soaked, or drenched, in thick salty butter-syrup, and it’s so close to being genuinely, inedibly, revolting, but— somehow— it’s the highlight of the bag.
A scrap of deep-fried coconut chip deep-fried in coconut oil, the sandalwood oil my kindergarten teacher wore as perfume, and all of those long ago school-smells: pencil shavings, somebody else's lunchbox, opening up a small blue carton of white milk.
Fast-food fried chicken and the crème brulée crust of a now-stale, once honey-dunked biscuit. A vanilla bath bead, from the eighties again, the kind of thing your mother would have received as a gift from a clueless acquaintance, a colour-wheel of bath beads in a squidgy plastic cylinder, adorned with a mesh-like jewel-toned bow: I would beg my mom to throw a handful into the bath with me, then spend all of bathtime riddled with fear, incomprehensibly convinced that one would find its way down my trachea, choking me to death.
5. A DEMI-SEC VOUVRAY
Last November, I went to France. It wasn’t the first time I’d been to France, but it was the only time I’ve been to France. If you know what I mean.
I spent the better part of a week in a small city in the Central Loire called Angers, which is, in my very subjective opinion, the greatest city in the world. The day I left, I cried.
I woke up, cried, and then I ran, and I cried while I ran. I ate lunch at the same brasserie I’d eaten lunch at every day since I’d arrived, which I understood was rather middling in the greater context of French cuisine, but to me, it was, and is, the greatest restaurant in the world. I’m not going to say the name of it, because I don’t want you to Google it, and think a negative thought about it. If I ever found out you were thinking negative thoughts about it, I'd die.
At that restaurant, I learned how to crack open a crab leg with a crab-cracker, and how to reach into the skinny hollows of its shell and scrape out its guts with a small metal stick. A waiter taught me. The next afternoon, he brought me a glass of Anjou Rouge and another of St. Nicolas de Bourgeouil, and I drank them both. He asked me which I liked better, and I struggled to respond in French. Instead of exasperatedly shifting the conversation into English like a person in Paris would do, he patiently coached me through my long and painful reply. And then I knew how to say it:
I liked them both the same.
That final afternoon, I had a“petit”-size croque monsieur, two glasses of Savennières, a 750 mL bottle of sparkling water, and the monstrous île flottante I’d had my eye on all week. When I ordered, my waiter laughed sweetly at my gluttony, then patted me chidingly on the shoulder once I was defeated by my psychotic dessert less than halfway through.
At the train station, a young woman sat at one of those free pianos they have at all the train stations in Europe, and sang a sad Adele song beautifully. I drank a rose-flavoured mini-bottle of Evian, cried, and took a train to Tours.
I hated Tours. I stayed at an Airbnb run by a family with several small children, upwards of ten of them it seemed, sounded like, and all eighty-five of them lived in the bedroom next to mine, and screamed. The house when I walked in smelled like a fresh-baked chocolate cake, and later I saw it out resting on the kitchen table, and when I got home from a depressing night out I noticed that they’d eaten some of it, and the next morning, a little bit more. Nobody ever offered me a slice of it, which was horrible of them. I hate Tours!
Making matters worse— just as I was (finally) about to leave, I accidentally boarded the wrong train to Paris— I took the train the other way, back toward Angers. “It’s a sign!” I thought, and made the decision to follow my heart, return to Angers, and start a new life there. And I did! I did that! Here I am, writing this sentence in Angers!
Just kidding— I didn’t do that; I didn’t even come close. What I did do:
Got off the wrong train at a station I forget the name of, snuck onto a Tours-bound train without bothering to buy a new ticket, game to blame my ineptitude on my foreign-ness if the situation came to blows. Arrived back in garbage Tours, and made the just-as-dumb decision to not bother trying to refund my initial ticket to Paris, just bought myself a new one: first-class, full price. “Fuck it!” I thought. I didn’t want to talk to a person.
My suitcase was very heavy, full of wine bottles, and my shoulder hurt from all the dragging it around I’d been doing. I had three hours to kill and wanted to get very drunk but didn’t want to walk too far, so I went to a shitty-seeming restaurant called “Brasserie l’Univers,” which was pretty much the French equivalent of an Applebee’s. (Depressingly, the French equivalent of an Applebee’s is still cooler and better than like 98% of all North American restaurants. I’m currently writing this in what is perceived to be a Very Good wine bar in Toronto, and I’m quietly laughing to myself, thinking about how hard this place sucks compared to Le fucking Univers.) At this point, myself and the entire population of Tours had reached a mutual understanding that neither party was obliged to be polite or respectful to the other. The L’Univers-waiter rolled his eyes at my suitcase, and I shrugged to say, “What the fuck do you want me to do? This is me right now. I have this.” Begrudgingly, he rolled it over to a narrow walkway adjacent to his waiter’s station and miserably jammed it into a corner it didn’t fit into, where every employee and customer who walked by proceeded to trip over it and smash their shins up. I thought, “They deserve it.”
Classic fucking Tours. I hated it so much that I was almost disappointed to discover that the L’Univers wine list was fucking phenomenol, a veritable explosion of all the different Vouvrays: Sec! Demi-Sec! Moelleux! Doux! Liquoreux! Pétillant! (Seeing the word “Sec” in print made me nostalgic for when I had navigated my way through buying eyedrops at a pharmacist in Angers the previous day: “Les…” I mimed myself squeezing eyedrops into my eyes, then said the word “Drops” in a French accent.
“Pour les yeux…” I understood that, somewhere inside of me, the word “dry” in French existed. I knew I knew it. I knew I had it somewhere— And then, it dawned on me: “Sec! It’s Sec! Like Sec! From wine!”)
They are everything about the word soft. The fattest pillow, a lower lip. A peak of meringue on a whisk. There is something about a demi-sec Vouvray that makes you want to close your eyes, smile beatifically, and exhale lightly through your nose— it’s pure pleasure, a dog sleeping in a patch of sunshine. There is something transcendent about taking a sip of a great glass of wine, and there are so few ways to transcend in this life. Some people like to meditate, I like to run, or you could play a piece of music, it seems like that could work. I am always jealous of people who have music as their art; writing, I think, is the opposite of transcendence. Writing is noticing everything, digging your heels even deeper into life.
Wine is fun and funny. Sometimes it’s stupid-nothing, a sweetish liquid that you can drink carelessly, to make you feel drunk. I like it when it’s like that; drinking like that, that’s what the spritzy little Gavi is for.
This is the opposite end of the spectrum. A demi-sec Vouvray is for the worst bad day, an embrace from the Universe in the middle of Le Univers. It is for the person who shows up to the wine bar hopeless, dirty, rain-soaked and red-eyed. It is a dog, a cat, your mother, the sun. It is: “Just what the doctor ordered!” you could say, and it would be true.
A good night’s sleep will never solve the problem, and time doesn’t heal all wounds. But this, this— this will fix you.