All of California considers itself a wine culture. Franciscans opened California's first winery in 1783 at San Juan Capistrano [compared with France's history of viticulture dating back to the Greek settlement at Marseille in the 6th century B.C.E.]. Despite their disdain for the French, the SoCal elite [and I need not point out that everyone in SoCal considers himself elite] espouses their worst purported quality - snobbery - especially when wine is at stake...
California's wine rivalry with the French is exactly that of a nouveau riche industrialist with Old World nobility. The whole country may suffer from delusions of merit when it comes to the comparative worth of all things American, but in SoCal, it really is true that if new money can't buy a thing, it has no value.
And SoCal purchases a helluva lot of wine from itself - it's the nation's largest wine consumer; 60,000 wine labels are registered in California. It also purchases Argentinean Malbecs, Chilean Cabernets, Spanish Riojas, and even a few German Reislings. But the only French wine a SoCalian would be caught dead drinking is a Sauternes - and that just for novelty, since dessert wines are definitely de trop [O the calories! Horrors!].
Try to find a Spanish jerez or orujo, a Kirsch, or an unassuming, hearty Chianti. You'll be disappointed. You'll be mocked. No deviations from the strict tastes of the fashionable are allowed. Gods forbid you prefer Scotch. Despite its significantly lower calorie count, even the most diet-conscious SoCalian, concerned as he is with his own image, regards it with a mixture of suspicion and contempt. A society wino who throws back a bottle of wine an hour will whisper of the person who nurses one excellent single-malt all night, "Alcoholic. "
I fled his dungeon-like estate once I realized he'd only been charming to me until he convinced me to move in, a move I later discovered was predicated on my replacing his housekeeper, pool boy, and gardener at no cost. The bastard even asked me to take over for his preggo secretary without pay! [Have I mentioned SoCal men are cheaper and meaner than six-fingered Scots with loan sharks to pay?].
This man - I'll call him Chuck [because it's my fondest dream to see him ground] - chose his friends using only one criterion: Could they advance and/or legitimize his social standing? If the answer was yes, he treated them like gods. If the answer was no, they ceased to exist, unless and until they had something he needed, like discounted construction work [Jeremiah the contractor] or free cigarettes with no chance of his La Jolla friends discovering his habit [Mike the Chaldean liquor store owner].
Chuck had a pair of friends with a fantastic wine closet. They were a seventy year-old former business mogul down on his luck ["we almost had to sell the Ferrari"] and his forty year-old former Miss Illinois wife, the Oberlins. The wine closet was a room roughly the size of my studio in Chicago [but with higher ceilings] and had huge wooden doors that had been salvaged from a church in Provence and imported via private carrier to SoCal. Their home had a music salon complete with grand piano, harp, and cello, none of which any of its residents knew or cared how to play.
Oberlin, truly a gentleman and a scholar, wore the very worst wig I have ever seen, including Austin Powers' chest wig. He must have been completely bald underneath, because that ragged gray mop covered every inch, hung down to his collar, and framed his face in the most unappealing manner possible, making him look a little like a shaggy opossum.
The Oberlins had a pair of friends they regularly included in our evenings together, the Pitts. The Pitts consisted of a nervous, anorexic wife who often fell asleep during dinner, and her swarthy, overbearing husband who told stories of running heroin in the 80's and always tried to get me alone in a dark corner ["Hey Red, whatcha doin' with Chuck anyway? Try yourself a real man"]. They were both in their fifties. The money had been her family's, and was dwindling faster than the Colorado River in July.
Mrs. Pitts had opened a swank La Jolla restaurant with her brother five years before, and when it failed - utterly and quickly - the entire high-end wine stock had been transported in an unrefrigerated truck to a storage locker, where all 5,000 bottles still reside, the subject of a never-ending inter-sibling lawsuit. The Pitts spoke longingly of this wine, without fail, every time we got together. The Oberlins, upon hearing once more of the El Dorado-like storage locker, urged the Pitts to break in and steal as much of the prize stuff as they could carry. It was a running joke. Until it actually happened.
Pitt beamed, his eyes gleaming, at our next unbearably tedious outdoor dinner party poolside at the Oberlins'. He heaved a large wooden crate onto the dinner table, rattling the carefully informal place settings. "Turn off the patio heaters. This is important wine," he bellowed. Chuck and Oberlin rubbed their hands together with criminal glee while Mrs. Oberlin and I regarded each other with studied nonchalance and Mrs. Pitt stared at something only she could see, which was apparently zigging and zagging through the air over the border of potted dwarf orange trees surrounding us. The Pitts knew nothing about wine.
Under cover of night, they had used a locksmith's saw to get into the storage locker which held the disputed stock. They had grabbed bottles indiscriminately. I can see them - he drunk, she on old-school amphetamines, dancing in their stunted Bacchanal before running off like rats into the shadows. We opened every bottle that night. None of it was of any value, and some of it had "turned," rendering it undrinkable even by the most tasteless of people [in other words, not even Chuck could get it down].
The last bottle was taken from the crate. Oberlin trembled. "Gimme that bottle," he barked, showing off the social graces he'd earned with his G. E. D. "My fucking God," he said. "This is a 1964 Chateau Latour. "And so it was. A stunner of a bottle from the legendary vineyard America first discovered in 1787 through its then-ambassador to France, Thomas Jefferson [who, by the way, liked the French].
A classic red from one of the most highly regarded French winemakers of all time. Treasure. Even to a Californian. Oberlin did the honors. He eased the cork from the deep green neck of the 40-plus year-old bottle. The table was quiet except for the snoring of Louis Vuitton the Papillion [his actual name], who had chosen a seat on my lap.
Oberlin poured each of us a glass of the blood-red vintage with as much solemnity as a priest preparing for Communion. We all brought our glasses to our noses to test the bouquet of this once-in-a-lifetime wine. We all inhaled deeply, swirling the balloon goblets. We all cried out some version of "Sweet Mary, Mother of Jehovah, did unwashed ferrets mate inside that bottle?" The stench was unholy. The 1964 Latour had turned.
Chuck and Pitt drank it anyway, because their cheapskate natures couldn't let it go to waste. They spent the next two days with migraines, kneeling over designer porcelain toilet bowls set into travertine floors, puking their SoCal guts out. Score two for the French.
Jen-Marie Merriman is a renegade Midwesterner living in SoCal who writes fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction. She despises children and is saving for a tubal ligation [donations accepted]. She can be reached at her email: [email protected], with PayPal and missives, and her work is also online at http://socaloutsider.blogspot.com