I live in Sonoma County, so when I wanted to buy a present for my aunt, who was turning 70, the obvious thing to buy was wine.
I don’t know anything about wine. I became an adult in the ’90s and during this time brought Pacific Echo sparkling wine to birthday parties because somebody had told me it was good and also I liked it and then one of my friends said, when someone showed up with actual Champagne, from France, “Thank God, no more of this fake shit.” I never really forgave her for it.
When I buy wine, I buy it based on the label design and price, and by price I mean in a bad way. I like to buy a bottle that costs more than it should, it comforts me, and these principles are obviously no good for getting my aunt a present on a major birthday. The problem of my knowing nothing about wine was easily solved, though, because I just went to my friend Karen. When I want to take somebody out to dinner or buy them something to eat and drink in a way that will be impressive, Karen is the person I go to.
There is a danger in going to Karen. Karen is not a person to whom the phrase “good enough” has a lot of meaning, and I am somebody who feels bad about her tendency to let things slide. One year I wanted to get my husband an ice cream cake for his birthday, and I immediately started to think “BASKIN ROBBINS,” so I asked Karen if she knew where to get an ice cream cake around here. She suggested (a) driving one back from San Francisco in a cooler full of dry ice and (b) making one myself, both of which I rejected out of hand as too complicated but which lingered in my mind as the sorts of things I could do if I were a better person. She did eventually think of a place that sometimes had ice cream cake, but it turned out it only sold it by the slice, for on-premises consumption. In the end, I bought my husband the 6″ round Celebration Party Cake from Baskin Robbins with vanilla cake and Very Berry Strawberry ice cream and a customized message. I thought about getting him the turkey-leg-shaped cake, but then I found out his mother was going to be there.
I know Karen because when I was looking for jobs up here, when I still lived in Bakersfield, at the opposite pole of California metrics from Sonoma County, my boss at the time put me in touch with her. My boss was one of the smartest people I had ever known and suffered fools not at all, and so I knew that if Karen was his friend she would be smart and honest and on the side of the angels in all things. The thing that startled me the first time I met her was that she was also stylish. My boss could only be construed as stylish by someone who worked at IBM in the sixties. Karen had a precise haircut and bright-red flats, and that was disorienting considering who introduced me to her, but Karen is so kind that her stylishness actually recedes into the background of her and is subordinated to her virtue until I need to get somebody a present.
I asked her what winery I should get wine for my aunt from, and she told me that Radio-Coteau was one of her favorite winemakers and offered to bring me a bottle of their wine to try before I ordered it for my aunt, and I said that wouldn’t be necessary because I didn’t have a palate and also it didn’t matter really if I liked the wine or not, what mattered was whether or not it was good, and worthy of my aunt’s birthday. After I talked to Karen I went back to my office and ordered some bottles of wine online from Radio-Coteau and received a series of emails from them about how they needed to ship the wine at a certain time to preserve the temperature conditions. The emails were earnest and meant to be helpful, but reading them made me tired.
The next day Karen brought me the bottle of wine. When I sat down to write this I could not remember what kind of wine it was. I knew it was a red wine; I thought it was a
syrah. I emailed Karen, who told me that it was a 2014 Las Colinas Syrah. She brought me this lovely bottle of wine that she had bought shortly after the Sonoma County fires burned down her home, and I tried to explain to her that she did not need to do that, that I had already purchased the wine for my aunt, and, as I had already said, did not have a palate anyway. But I wanted the wine even as I knew I did not deserve it. Karen has brought me bottles of wine before, one of which I left in my office too near the electric kettle until eventually it was undrinkable, and also a bottle of
beautifully pale pink fizzy wine as an engagement present, the taste of which has blurred into the general strangeness of getting married, but which I remember as delicious in the way that any wine that looks pink should be delicious. That wine was the Fairy Tale Wedding Cuvée from Iron Horse; I only know that because I texted Karen again when I was writing this to ask.
This most recent bottle, this 2014 syrah, I was determined to drink properly even though she should not have given it to me and I was embarrassed to have it. I had not really been drinking that month, because I had been depressed and my psychiatrist suggested that I not drink. I followed that advice and felt way better for a week and then just as depressed the next week, but I continued not drinking because it seemed like something to do, and then I stopped being depressed and returned to being anxious, which is more normal for me, and also a state of mind in which a glass or two of wine when I get home in the evening is the best possible way to tell myself that the difficulty of being out in the world is over with.
On the Friday after Karen brought me the bottle of wine, I went home early and I sat in the sun on my back patio. There are a lot of things that are easy to make fun of about living in Sonoma County, but it is also often exceptionally pleasant—that is one of the main things to make fun of. I opened the bottle of wine and poured myself a glass. I wasn’t sure that I liked it at first. It tasted a little thin and harsh on my tongue. I didn’t know what I thought about it. I drank some more. I was comfortable in the knowledge that if Karen thought it was good, she was right. I continued drinking it over the rest of the weekend. “I’m not sure I like this,” I said to my husband, who does not drink. “Actually, I quite like this,” I said later, or maybe another day.
On Monday I went in to work. “Thank you for the wine,” I said to Karen. “It was delicious.”
“How would you know?” she said. “I thought you didn’t have a palate.”
Karen looked very well put together that day, but also exhausted. Our job is draining, and she’s still dealing with insurance, now more than a year after the fire. She was wearing a neat white button-down shirt, but her hair was a little messy. I do not have a palate, but I know that there is the kind of safety that comes from having a glass of wine away from the dangerous outside world, and there is the kind of safety that comes from having a friend whose way of being in the world makes me question whether I could do better, try harder, and then sometimes those two kinds of safety come together nicely into one experience.