The Comforts of Drinking Alone
I happen to like drinking alone. I discovered this not too many years ago on a rainy Fourth of July in Stockholm. For nearly two weeks I’d been stalking a reclusive mathematician in St. Petersburg for a magazine story; now I was realizing that the relative of his I’d come to Sweden to interview wasn’t going to cooperate, either. I didn’t know a soul and was beginning to wax homesick when I looked out the hotel-room window at a particularly pretty stretch of the harbor and remembered that for another day and a half I’d have the keys to the magazine’s expense account. (It’s the little things that make you happy, my mother says.) Later that night I jogged through the drizzle to a restaurant known for its wine list to claim my table for one. Sturehof turned out to be a crowded, brightly-lit hangar with a house track throbbing discreetly over the loud conversation. I found a place in a dim corner near the bar and buried my nose in the list.
The waiter returned with a plate of lightly-cured salmon, a bowl of new potatoes, and the bottle I’d ordered. It was a Chinon from Charles Joguet; the grapes had come from a vineyard named after a huge oak that had grown there centuries ago, Clos du Chêne Vert. I can’t recall the vintage, only that at the time my convictions about drinking were floundering. For years I’d been a fan of dense, oaky reds from California and Australia—the kind of wines Robert Parker Jr. liked to praise for being “thick enough to drink with a spoon”—but I was discovering that more and more often I couldn’t tell them apart. Regardless of their provenance, most of these reds tasted like vanilla and blackberry jam. The Joguet was my first French cabernet franc and I wasn’t sure what to expect when the waiter poured the light purplish stuff into my glass.
I took a taste and looked around me. The Swedes are among the only people who conceive of fashion magazines literally; the room teemed with large, complicated watches, hair spackled into ornate fins, belt buckles that formed the letters D&G. Entire tables look styled. In my rumpled blazer and scuffed shoes I was beginning to feel like a vagrant; that I was here on assignment for an American men’s magazine gave me a small, bitter satisfaction. The wine smelled of violets and damp soil and moss. The sweet fruit I’d been used to was missing; in its place was a hint of cranberries wound tightly in something that tasted of green branches and leaves. I wasn’t at all sure I liked it, but the Chinon was odd and intricate and interesting to think about. After a while I had to admit that the wine was bracing and sapid; to my surprise it complemented the food.
For the next two hours I tasted the Chinon a sip at a time, registering the changes, and watched the room. As Hemingway writes in The Sun Also Rises, “It was pleasant to be drinking slowly and to be tasting the wine and to be drinking alone. A bottle of wine is good company.” This one didn’t have the lush, easily likable personality of chardonnay or pinot noir. Angular and tart, the cabernet franc was all about humility and a yearning to transcend itself, a good match for my self-conscious dinner for one. I’d never before had a chance to spend so much time with a single wine or to think about it so intensely. Before the bottle was gone, I knew I couldn’t go back to the big, sweet shirazes. Whether brambly and elegant like Joguet’s Chinons or exuberant like the Borgueils of Pierre and Catherine Breton, cabernet franc from the Loire is still the red I keep coming back to most often; it’s not the greatest wine but possibly the most soulful.
Drinking alone is a gift to yourself. It’s an opportunity to listen to what a wine has to say rather than merely deciding whether or not you like it. By night’s end my homesickness had abated and I felt like I had made a friend; the hours with the Joguet became my favorite memory of Stockholm. I ambled back to the hotel in the pelting rain, happy as Gene Kelly under my umbrella and a good deal drunker.
photo by vinotrip
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