Tasting poison

NOTE: I wrote this piece some time in February, while I was living in Durham. I’ve since moved back to New York. I don’t remember exactly why I didn’t post this. I probably felt a little embarrassed. But I am posting it now.


The memories taste like poison. Let me tell you why.  

Whenever I’m about to embark on a trip back to North Carolina, I pack three or four bottles of wine from my favorite shop. I drive 492 miles, speeding down the New Jersey Turnpike, crossing over bridges, passing the Pentagon. Those bottles travel from my Queens apartment to my house in Durham, and I wait until the weekend to screw off the tops and pour myself a glass. 

Ruby, maroon, bronze, or goldenrod, the color of the wine is no different than it would be in New York. The flavors elicit in my mind the same strings of adjectives, words I pinpoint and rearrange in the order of a metaphor. A fistful of tannins in the mouth feels sticky and prickly no matter where you are.

But what overrides the wine’s taste and smell are the flashbacks, the mental photographs of moments I wouldn’t think about without some kind of prompt, forcing me into a state of reflection. 

The moments I remember are ordinary and as brief as a single second. I’m leaning against the bar in my old restaurant job, sniffing a cork I had just pulled out of a bottle. I’m sitting across from my partner on the green sofa, swishing a mouthful of Sangiovese. I’m giddy and tipsy, seated at a round table crowded next to my friends, lifting a glass to my mouth.

Every gulp has a bite: the burn of the alcohol, the poison washing down my throat. 

I’ve tried to write for this blog a few times since moving. I don’t get very far on a piece because I usually start thinking about my past life in New York, my new job in Durham, and I get too distracted to finish. I have tried to replicate the process I had followed before: tasting a wine, opening my laptop, typing what comes to mind. Motivation to continue beyond the first paragraph eluded me every time. In the past, I had tried the wines I would later write about with my partner, who I could talk to about the flavors and the smells. He’s not here with me.

Last night, however, he and I drank wine together on a Zoom call. I had a bottle of rosato from Sardinia, an island off the coast of Italy. The grape variety was Cannonau, basically the same as Grenache. It was my first time trying the winemaker, Meigamma. No idea who they are.

I tasted a blend of raspberries, lemon juice and clay. The wine label was a graphic of a pink lawn-chair on what looked like an expanse of yellow sand, bordering the blue sea.

I felt the sand on my tongue. I remembered something: sun-bathing naked on the beach with my partner, who is lying beside me. Our blue and white umbrella shaded our bags, which were full of wine bottles and containers of crackers and cheese. Our butts baked in the heat. We sweated under the sun and sipped on red wine. It was the summer before the pandemic.

Poison washed down my throat. It was the taste of nostalgia. I savored every drop.

Where I am now

In August, I moved away from natural wine. Bringing a few suitcases stuffed with clothes, books, and a laptop, I relocated to a southern city for a year-long journalism fellowship. In this North Carolina town, natural wine is craft beer. Instead of kooky bottle shops loaded with wines of different sizes like a dusty, old bookstore, this town has breweries, taprooms, and “Beer Labs.” One establishment downtown offers “cages for axe throwing,” where one pays $30 to drunkenly chuck hand-axes at a target 10 feet away.

I still buy natural wine where I can find it. But it has barely penetrated the market here. A few shops carry some winemakers whose bottles may qualify, to some, as vin méthode nature, but few shopkeepers label it as such on the shelves. I’ve seen organic, biodynamic, no-additive, low sulfites, dry farmed, unfiltered, but I haven’t seen a shop display a wine with the word “natural,” the catch-all designation often used, and over-used, in New York shops and bars. It’s not a trend in North Carolina.

A lot of the stuff is just not here. The French winemakers I associate closely with the movement are nowhere to be found. I’ve seen five or six out of the dozens of Italian winemakers I could find in New York, but the shops stock the popular brands in scant amounts. I saw Cantina Indigeno once and Lammidia once. There is nothing from Georgia, though a few shops stock bottles from Slovenia and Czech Republic. A few buzzy brands from Spain and Portugal are here, as well. But the majority of natural wine is from California and Oregon. And it’s expensive. Apparently everything in North Carolina is cheaper except for natural wine. I once gasped after spotting a Matassa on the top shelf in the wine aisle of a grocery store. It is the only French natural winemaker I’ve seen in the state, and it cost $10 more than what it would cost in Brooklyn. 

Why? Is it because of the tariffs on European imported wine? Are New York and California wine importers hogging all the bottles to themselves? Or is craft beer culture so big, natural wine doesn’t stand a chance? I think the answer for why the trend hasn’t reached N.C. is a combination of all three…

I am lucky craft beer is delicious.

A Glass of Wine That Changed My Mind

It was rotting grape juice. It tasted like unripe limes squeezed into seltzer water and left outside in the heat for weeks. The acidity dominated my tongue like ants on an apple slice. I grimaced, dumped the remainder of my glass, and thought about the nature of wine. Wine is fermented grapes. It is juice, left in a vessel until it changes into a poison you can drink. It hit me like an epiphany, though nothing could be more obvious.

I had tried a skin-contact white wine from Liten Buffel, a natural winemaker in upstate New York by Niagara Falls. It wasn’t my first glass of weird wine, but it was the first time I sipped a wine, understood plainly what it was, and didn’t like it. The fact of wine and its historical longevity suddenly struck me as absurd. So many people for so many years have been crazy over rotting fruit?

Knowing what you’re consuming can snuff out the joy of many delectable treats. Kraft macaroni and cheese lost its magic once I read the box. I bought the cheapest eggs at the grocery store until I realized why they were cheap, and felt bad for the chickens. In America, the bulk of our food is made in industrialized settings, filled with multi-syllabic ingredients we’ve never heard of (unless you’re a chemist), and we don’t like to think too much about how it’s all made.

A week later, someone told me Liten Buffel are one of the few no-sulfur, no-additive winemakers based in New York. They were special. I tried the Liten Buffel again, my mind refreshed by context, and found it didn’t taste so bad. The electricity of the acid still shocked me, but the banana and melon rind fruit held it in check. While the taste still lingered on my tongue longer than most wines, I picked up on a unique trajectory within the way the flavors registered on my palette. Thankfully, with another sip I enjoyed it even more. And like so many of the unfiltered Georgian orange wines I loved so much, the journey to the end of the bottle resembled a plot with a beginning, climax, and end. I even liked the sediment coating the bottom of my glass after the last pour.

While thinking too much about a food or drink can taint your ability to enjoy it, knowledge can also serve as a pair of reading glasses, magnifying and clarifying your experience of consuming whatever it is you have on the dinner table.

A bottle of unfiltered, no-additive wine forces you to think about how wine is made. It tastes exactly like what it is. It’s up to you to like it or not.

My experience drinking Liten Buffel’s “Seneca Lake” Riesling was a turning point on my newfound journey with wine. Now, several months after that first sip, I think more about how what I consume is made.

I want my wine to scream its origins through a mega-phone. I want it to confront me, test me, question me. I want to drink wine that makes me think and changes my mind.