by Clare Tooley MW


The ‘what’ can take a thought or two, the how, where, with whom, barely a moment. But the ‘when’, ah the ‘when’, there’s the rub.

I don’t have a favorite wine. I can’t afford to. Not for the obvious reason that my tastes might run too rich, but because a favorite would mean having to feel the same way, every time I open a bottle. In my whimsical world, the perfect world that lies beyond my wine education, the answer to ‘When should I open this bottle?’ is not calibrated by the vintage or by the quality, but by the visceral. However, ‘When you feel like it’ may be considered flippant especially if it’s that bottle you’ve been hoarding, eyeing up, and anticipating. Nobody really wants to be told such unknown treasure should be opened merely on a heartbeat. But I’ve moved within countries and continents and watched, in some anguish, as prized bottles are left behind unopened. I’ve thought ‘why didn’t we open that? what were we waiting for?’.

“Tell me,
what is it you plan to do
with your one
wild and precious life?” – Mary Oliver

I have comforted myself with the knowledge there will be others and after all, it’s just wine. It is, just wine. Sure, let it breathe, decant it carefully, pour it mindfully into selected stemware if you will. Treat it as a guest at your table, let it flirt with your companion and make their eyes bright, let it dance with what’s around you, always. Allow it to host your celebrations, your little victories. Let it meet your loss, your need. It will do so with grace, greet and then fade away into the background, turning merely to alcohol amidst the candles, flowers and silverware.

But what about that perfect glass? That one glass that sets your night alive, your world to rights, your mind to rest. How did it know to do that?

Have you ever wondered when the wine in the bottle decides to come together, to find its flow and harmonize in such a way as to outdo its poor soil, its struggling roots, its gnarled trunk, its greedy leaves? At what precise moment does it take its smashed berries and broken skin and make a flawless profile? Wine can turn its birth starved of oxygen, scraped with sulphur, its leesy wrap, its tomb of steel, its oak-hard cradle, its glass coffin, into an experience less ordinary, more alive and more colorful than any life we dream of living. When does it take its manhandled history and turn it into a fairytale, or a tribute, or a gift, nourishment far beyond its nature and nurture? When does it know when to do it for you?

Perhaps it happens when we are sleeping, our restoration the start of its revolution. Or when we ignore it and brush past the rack or unopened case, its manifestation a response to our rejection. Perhaps it waits until the last minute, reacting to our energy, our aura of hope, as we open it, that bottle, the one we have kept for that tryst, that party, that room. Can we will the wine to sing or to speak, or was the epiphany completed when the tree fell in the forest when no one was there? Was the perfection I perceived in Château Palmer 1996, a glass of wine so wordlessly beautiful as to make any tasting note a mockery, merely an echo of my own emotion as I sat in our kitchen, fireside that evening in Bordeaux? We only ever see or feel great wine ineptly, forever bound by our personal imperfect prism, ‘through a glass darkly’. Firefly-like, the perfect is brief, luminous, self-limited. No wonder wine writing is so peculiar, so singular, often so sad.

It does happen though. We have all experienced that glass. Wine pairs with moments more perfectly than it ever does with food. Unexpected, joyful, sometimes profound. Serendipity is found in a sip. Wine offers plenitude at the moment of loss. We opened Champagne that raw, awe-full night my mother died. The wine captured the insistency of shock in its perpetual movement of bubbles, its tearing acidity a match to the shattering. But it also honeyed the grief, just a little, just enough to allow us to raise a shaky, important, toast to the one we loved so very much. Wine offers a sop to absence at the moment of parting. We opened an opulent Napa Cabernet the evening we left our child in his College dorm. The abundant sweetness of currants and vanilla recalled in my mind his childhood of sweet treats and summer puddings. It soothed in that transitional, shredding moment I went from keeper to mere observer. I drank pink bubbles straight from a can on a beach the first time we left lockdown, its simplicity all I could handle in a tiny world suddenly enlarged. It did it for me.

When then? There’s no telling, but the wine will know when you’re ready.

Photo by Mike Lewinski and Unsplash

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