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My father was a lousy driver and a two-finger typist, but he could open a wine bottle as deftly as any swain ever undressed his lover. Nearly every evening of my childhood, I watched him cut the capsule—the foil sleeve that sheathes the bottleneck—with a sharp knife. Then he plunged the bore of a butterfly corkscrew into the exact center of the cork, twirled the handle, and, after the brass levers rose like two supplicant arms, pushed them down and gently twisted out the cork. Its pop was satisfying but restrained, not the fustian whoop of a champagne cork but a well-bred thwick. He once said that the cork was one of three inventions that had proved unequivocally beneficial to the human race. (The others were the wheel and Kleenex.)
If the wine was old, he poured it into a crystal decanter, slowing at the finish to make sure the sediment stayed in the bottle. If it was young, he set the bottle in a napkin-swathed silver cradle to “breathe”: one of several words, along with “nose” and “legs” and “full-bodied,” that made wine sound more like a person than a thing. Our food was served—looking back, I can hardly believe I once accepted this as a matter of course—by a uniformed cook who ate alone in the kitchen and was summoned by an electric bell screwed to the underside of the dinner table just above my mother’s right knee. But my father always poured the wine himself. The glasses were clear and thin-stemmed, their bowls round and generous for reds, narrow and upright for whites. (Had he lived long enough to see Sideways, he would immediately have recognized that the wine-snob hero was seriously depressed: only thoughts of suicide could drive someone to drink a Cheval Blanc ’61 from a Styrofoam cup.) He swirled the wine, sniffed it, sipped it, swished it, and, ecstatically narrowing his eyes, swallowed it—a swallow that, as he put it, led “a triple life: one in the mouth, another in the course of slipping down the gullet, still another, a beautiful ghost, the moment afterward.”
My father, Clifton Fadiman, was a writer, and that erotically charged description is from a 1957 essay called “Brief History of a Love Affair.” When I was ten or so, I spotted the title in the table of contents in one of his books, eagerly flipped to page 133, and was grievously disappointed to discover, in the fourth paragraph, that the lover in question was not a woman but a liquid.
That essay contained a number of words (including “sybaritic,” “connubial,” and “consummation”) whose meanings I didn’t know but that I enjoyed attempting to puzzle out. Ours was a word-oriented family. My father once wrote a children’s book, based on bedtime stories he’d told my brother and me, about Wally the Wordworm, a small, hungry, bibliophilic invertebrate in a red baseball cap who, unsatisfied by the “short, flat, bare, dull, poor, thin” words he found in picture books, blissfully ate his way through a dictionary from “abracadabra” to “zymurgy.” Along with Wally, my brother and I were fed a steady diet of polysyllables, of which wine provided some of the best-tasting. For instance: Rehoboam, Methuselah, Balthazar, and Nebuchadnezzar (giant wine bottles with, respectively, six, eight, sixteen, and twenty times the standard capacity) and Auslese, Beerenauslese, and Trockenbeerenauslese (three incrementally recherché German dessert wines made from ripe, very ripe, and very very ripe grapes). By the sixth grade, I would have recognized the names of all four Premier Cru Bordeaux—Château Latour, Château Margaux, Château Haut-Brion, and Château Lafite Rothschild—plus Château Mouton Rothschild, which wouldn’t be elevated from second- to first-growth status until I was twenty. Plus some of the Grand Cru Burgundies: Chambertin, Montrachet, La Tâche, Grands Échézeaux, Romanée-Conti. Plus twenty or thirty other oenological terms, including Madeira, Marsala, Riesling, Rhône, Sauternes, sherry, port, claret, vermouth, aperitif, bouquet, phylloxera, pourriture noble, vin ordinaire, doux, sec, demi-sec, and pétillant. Some were murky but recognizable, like unmet second cousins whose names I’d overheard at the dinner table. Others were so familiar that I felt I’d always known them, just as I’d always known that white wines were really yellow and red wines were really maroon (though I couldn’t have told you the first thing about rosés, which my father considered sissyish and never served). I knew that the great years—rather, the Great Years, since the phrase sounded so magnificent that I mentally capitalized it—were mostly odd numbers. I could have recited several: ’29, ’45, ’49, ’59.
My father wasn’t exactly Jack Hemingway, who drank Château Margaux with his wife on the night his daughter Margot was conceived (she changed her name to Margaux after she heard the story), or Robert Lescher, my first literary agent, who once dipped his finger in a glass of Château d’Yquem ’29, a Great Year from the greatest of all Sauternes, and placed a drop on the tongue of his six-week-old daughter (she smiled). However, starting when my brother and I were about ten, he regularly offered us watered wine, or, rather, wined water. I hated it but assumed that puberty would grant me a taste for Châteauneuf-du-Pape, along with a taste for French kissing and all the other things that ten-year-olds found disgusting but adults reportedly enjoyed. It was a foregone conclusion that I would love wine some day. I wouldn’t be my father’s daughter if I didn’t.
Copyright © 2017 by Anne Fadiman